It's as if they've built an urban zoo. A safety fence encloses an entire city block. Behind it, two noble, winged lions stare out from their perches. Strange sounds emanate from within. Curious people stop and peer and wonder.
But the fence isn't in place to keep the winged beasts from escaping. After all, they're made of stone and haven't budged in more than 70 years. No, the fence is for keeping people out of the restoration site that is the historic Grove Arcade Building -- that mammoth neo-Gothic structure in which lie the hopes and dreams of many in Asheville.
Yet, according to Aaron Zaretsky, the director of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, the fence will soon be coming down and the lions will once again stand sentinel at the entrance of a massive public market -- possibly the most complicated development project in the history of Asheville.
In a nutshell, the building is owned by the city; has been leased to a non-profit for 198 years; receives grants and tax breaks from the federal government under the National Monument Act; involves a development plan that includes a partnership among the foundation, CP&L and the city; and will eventually be opened as a mixed-use facility with the public market on the ground floor and offices and apartments on upper floors. With this many players and facets, "complicated" might be an understatement.
Along with that distinction, though, comes close scrutiny. Questions and rumors continue to swirl around a project that has seen its fair share of controversy and hand wringing. Chief among the concerns: When will it open? And is there sufficient parking?
The first question has been answered on several occasions, but given the complexity of the project, postponements are understandable. Moreover, even the untrained eye can see the laborious makeover is nearing completion: Sooner or later, the doors will open.
But in order for the Arcade to be a success, people will have to patronize it, and not all of those folks will stroll in on foot. Thus, the million-dollar question surrounding the renovation: Where will people park?
That question has been swathed in rumor for months; some have gone so far as to speculate that the city will build a deck even if it means playing the eminent domain card -- a move in which a government body obtains seizes private property for a public use. Like a line from a bad gangster movie -- "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse" -- the property owner is faced with a decision to either sell the land to the city or have the property condemned by the government, which then forces the sale. (See sidebar)
Since its opening in 1929, the Grove Arcade Building, much like Asheville itself, has seen halcyon days and hard times.
E.W. Grove, who built his fortune on a cure-all elixir and an Asheville hotel that still bears his name, envisioned a mixed-use building that combined an indoor public market with offices on the upper floors. His populist vision for the building, though, never reached its full scale. After his death in 1928, plans for a multi-storied tower containing residential space were abandoned. Still, the Grove Arcade, with 269,000 square feet covering one city block, opened to much fanfare -- ironically, just in time for the Great Depression.
By most accounts, though, the dire economic times had little effect, and the building and its public market quickly became a vital social and economic anchor in downtown Asheville -- until the federal government stepped in. In 1942, with World War II in full swing and the government expanding at an astonishing rate, Uncle Sam, under the auspices of eminent domain, took over the building. Within a month, the tenants were evicted and the government moved in, covering the building's many street-level windows with yellow brick and transforming the ornate structure into a utilitarian workhorse.
Fast forward to the late '80's: Concerned citizens begin to organize themselves in an effort to reclaim the building and restore it to its original purpose -- and its original beauty. A few years later, the federal government begins construction on its new home in Asheville, and momentum behind the effort to save Grove's building increases. A new non-profit group, the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, is founded in an effort to organize the movement. In 1992, Aaron Zaretsky, whose background includes work with the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle (recognized as one of the country's premiere public markets), is hired as the foundation's director. But despite the high motivation level of all involved, 10 years will pass before signs of an opening appear on the horizon.
The major question that's hounded the Arcade for the past several years -- when will it open? -- seems to have been answered (albeit with another promise). According to the latest information provided by the public market foundation, the public will be able to start shopping at the Arcade by late fall/early winter of this year.
But what about parking? The city, as part of their commitment to the Arcade, guaranteed a new parking deck near the site in which 300 spaces will be allocated for the Grove Arcade. But parking decks don't go up overnight, and ground has yet to be broken for the deck.
Back in January, when Xpress first started tracking this story, City Engineer Kathy Ball told this reporter that the city was still in negotiations with property owners near the site. The goal was to secure the necessary property to construct the deck -- presumably to be built near the Arcade between the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the Battery Park Apartments.
Local real estate developer Chuck Tessier of Tessier and Associates has been contracted by the city to secure the property. In January, he, too, indicated to Xpress that the negotiations were ongoing, but related that nearly all of the land had been secured. He added that he was confident that the needed property would be acquired, and that construction could commence as early as this fall, with an opening by 2003.
When asked by Xpress if the city had a back up plan, in case property owners and the city fail to reach an agreement, Ball replied, "There is no plan. You'll have to contact the city attorney's office to discuss that." Xpress contacted City Attorney Bob Oast, who reiterated that the city is "optimistic" about the outcome, adding, "We anticipated a gap in time [between the opening of the Arcade and the parking deck.]"
Due to the nature of the real estate negotiations, the city has not been forthcoming with details surrounding the properties in question.
But with no plan "B," one wonders if eminent domain could once again rear its head in association with the Grove Arcade.
The optimism expressed by Ball, Oast and Tessier last January has seemingly wilted. As of Aug. 9, the city has yet to acquire all of the targeted property. In a recent interview with Xpress, Ball conceded that the city was still negotiating with two property owners: "[The city] has put our best foot forward. We've gone back and forth on this. We've made a final offer and if we don't hear by next Friday [Aug. 16] we're going to move forward in trying to acquire the property, possibly through condemnation. ... We can't pay an outrageous amount of money. It doesn't serve the taxpayers very well to do so." When asked how the condemnation/eminent domain process would work, Ball noted that the decision would have to be made by City Council, but city staff will probably recommend it."
Ball acknowledged that one of the landowners in negotiations with the city is the Diocese of Charlotte(The Basilica of St. Lawrence, an Asheville Roman Catholic church, falls under the supervision of the Diocese). Ball refused to identify the second property owner. When contacted by Xpress, Joann Keane, a spokesperson for the Diocese, confirmed their role in the matter and noted that "discussions are still going on."
Ball also pointed out that, even if the offer was accepted by the parties, the groundbreaking for the new deck would "be in the spring of next year and will take approximately 18 months to complete."
The parking question, though, doesn't seem to be a major concern for Zaretsky. "There is ample parking available in the city decks around the near the arcade, and I don't think people will mind walking one or two blocks to get here," he told Xpress in January. It's no further than walking from a spot at the outer edge of a mall parking lot."
At press time no agreement has been reached with the property owners. The first merchant, Kamm's Custard, has officially opened his door, and the first customers have started to stream in. By fall other merchants will be testing the waters of a resurrected arcade. The winged lions will once again stand silent sentinel, and if entranced onlookers think they hear a roar, it may be the territorial roar of attorneys.