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Council Approves Sale for Haywood Street Hotel

By Leslee Kulba-

Ashevillle City Council approved selling the dilapidated parking structure across from the US Cellular Center to McKibbon Hotel Group. McKibon had offered the city its selling price of $2,526,000; but one of the conditions of sale is that the city get a second, independent appraisal and sell the land for the higher value.   Other conditions, enumerated by Councilman Gordon Smith, were that the building’s height not exceed 90 feet on the Haywood Street side and 75 feet on Page Avenue. He also wanted to require the hotel tower to be no less than 170 feet from the Basilica St. Lawrence. Marc Hunt pointed out that these conditions, proposed by McKibbon, were included in the recommendation from staff, the acceptance of which was the substance of the motion on the floor.   Smith also asked that the basilica not be shadowed at any time. He did not anticipate that would be a problem, “from what I know about the arc of the sun.” Cecil Bothwell was a bit more concerned, noting the winter solstice came during a significant holiday season for the Catholic Church. The developers had performed calculations for the equinoxes, as instructed, and not for the sun’s northernmost position.   A plaza has been proposed for the new construction, but visual renderings incorporated property outside of the 0.77 acres McKibbon was going to buy. To realize the scene in the pretty pictures, Hunt said the representatives of McKibbon and the basilica would have to cooperate. Smith therefore wished to condition the sale such that the plaza would be accommodated. This, too, was covered by the motion, but Hunt suggested the city go farther and require McKibbon to proact the creation of the open space.   Smith also proposed conditions for the construction work. He asked that the builders control traffic. He spoke with awe of how the Hotel Indigo paced trucks to come on premises every twelve minutes to avoid traffic jams, and said the site in question would be nowhere as difficult to manage. Smith, acknowledging that a civic center and interstate had been constructed by the basilica, then asked that any vibration caused by heavy machinery be kept to a minimum.   An engineer with the firm said those in her practice can never promise anything with 100 percent certainty, but the firm could commit to building shallow foundations and using best practices for mitigating vibration in, for example, choices of technology. She said what the firm would definitely do is monitor vibrations so it could stop any activity before agreed-upon thresholds were approached. Hunt again had his own ideas and asked that Smith’s friendly amendment be modified to require only that McKibbon retain a qualified geotechnical engineer who would commit to follow best practices.   In addition to his request for completing the sale before resetting the price, Hunt asked that McKibbon integrate public input in the design process going forward and, borrowing the words of State Representative Tim Moffitt, “negotiate in good faith.” To date, a specific site plan had not been proposed. McKibbon was following a process spelled out by the city in an attempt to dispose of surplus property. Details would develop as the project underwent additional review processes.   Some members of council were shocked to discover that process did not require the final project to return for their input. Jan Davis mildly asserted that council had adopted the terms and conditions for review when they approved the RFQ/RFP process and the Downtown Master Plan’s restructuring of the development review process. Now it was time to follow the rules.   During public comment, council was reminded of the havoc through which developers had to go in former years, and the bad reputation the city had for yanking the rug out from under developers with last-minute game changers. Even opponents of the Downtown Master Plan have praised its attempt to lay down the rule of law. Davis said he had concerns about, for example, stormwater mitigation. He did not want the city to create a $1 million infrastructure problem. Yet, he trusted the city’s engineers, the processes in place, and the discretion of the experts McKibbon would assign to the project.   Mayor Terry Bellamy was one of two on council to vote against the sale. Although she had recently proclaimed the existing concrete structure to be an “eyesore” in the heart of downtown, she said the process followed had “eroded public trust.” She spoke as if there should be some bending of the rules to accommodate citizens, and members of council, who did not know how the design approval process had been spelled out.   The mayor said she could not support the creation of a park. The city has already removed park benches from that area because vagrants were harassing passersby and camping on the sidewalks. That said, she did not think McKibbon had the right design, either. She asked for more time to “get it right.”   Bothwell, the other “nay” voter, said McKibbon had violated the terms of the agreement. The city had required that projects submitted in the RFP process be implemented “immediately” upon approval. The city began negotiating with McKibbon for the sale of the land in 2008. “The RFP has expired,” said Bothwell, challenging claims about the developer’s “responsibility” and “integrity.”   The crowd applauded as Bothwell mocked the city for saying it didn’t have enough money for parks when what it lacked was the courage to put a bond referendum before the people to ask for another quarter-cent sales tax increase. Bothwell indicated the survey conducted by People Advocating Real Conservancy, as well as a flood of emails, had revealed the will of the people, the representation of which was his purpose in sitting as a council member.   Bothwell pointed out that were it not for the will of the people, the Grove Park Inn would have constructed a highrise downtown, “where we now have restrooms;” and developers would have dozed Lexington Avenue to create a shopping mall. Assessing he was in the minority, he once again got whoops and cheers when asked that “turning down the lights on the Aloft,” which is owned and operated by McKibbon, be a condition for approving the sale.   One condition not written in stone was Smith’s plug for Just Economics, which advocates for social justice in the form of wage controls. The group has established that the living wage for Buncombe County in the current fiscal year is $9.85/hour with insurance perks and $11.35/hour without. In light of this, Smith asked that McKibbon consider upping its estimated average employee wage of $10/hr.   The Public Hearing – Council extended the hour normally allotted for public comment to accommodate the crowd filling the council chamber and two overflow rooms. Most spoke against the project, preferring a counteroffer from the basilica to convert the land into open space lined with shops. Granted, a hotel would increase the city’s tax base, but many argued that municipal revenue should be of secondary concern. The city was accused of negotiating in secret, and one speaker asked if there was any truth to the rumor that McKibbon had given the city a sum of money. The mayor ran the last concern by the city’s financial officer, who said no funds had been donated, and if they had, council would be required to approve them publicly in a budget amendment.   Many said there were too many hotels downtown, and cheers broke when occasional insults were lobbed at the new Aloft’s design. Speaking before council, John McKibbon said the hotel group has been building and operating award-winning hotels in Asheville for years. They would not be proposing the current project if they thought it would harm their other investments.   Allegations were lodged that the city was only looking after tourists and not thinking about the people council is supposed to represent. AB Tech Hospitality Instructor Walter Rapetski had a different opinion. He told how McKibbon works with the college, providing training and intern opportunities. The Aloft’s assistant general manager, he added, is a graduate of the college.   The city’s staff report pertained only to the offer on the table from McKibbon. The absence of equal time for the basilica’s offer, or conservationists’ wishes that the area be turned into a park, was construed by some to be a coverup. 1000 people had signed a petition advocating to turn the land into a park showcasing the basilica. Hunt said he did not like that idea because he did not like sprawl. The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte had offered to purchase the land for $2 million, payable in two installments; but the RFQ/RFP process indicated offers below fair market value were to be rejected. McKibbon was prepared to pay cash in full on the day of closing.   Several argued that what the hotel group proposed would honor the basilica, possibly better than the proposed shops or park. Even people working on projects to celebrate the work of architect Rafael Guastavino advocated for the hotel. Pat Whalen, who has also participated in the city’s RFQ /RFP process, estimated McKibbon had already invested $100,000 in the design process.   Suzanne Hudson, vice president of the Chaddick Foundation, said she was a Catholic who attended the church. She also has made a career of investing in nonprofit projects. She told fellow churchgoers, “We had the opportunity to come up with real live money and a real live plan,” not once, but three times. The church has always fallen short. Amidst accusations from others that McKibbon lacked integrity, she said Catholics, of all people, needed to act with honor and integrity and admit defeat. A prolonged hush followed.

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