"The devil's in the details, and we're just starting to see them -- but the public isn't."
-- Asheville resident Mike McCurry
For three straight weeks, Asheville City Council meetings have been dominated by discussion of the potential (and some say impending) sale of public land to the Grove Park Inn as a site for a new downtown high-rise.
Members of the public have weighed in on both sides of the issue, and the Aug. 19 session ended with Council voting to adopt design guidelines recommended by the Pack Square Conservancy, a nonprofit charged with guiding the redesign of the city's central public space. The guidelines (which must also be approved by the county in order to take effect -- see "I like it - what's it look like?" elsewhere in this issue) define the "box" in which the new building would fit.
At Council's Sept. 2 work session, however, that box appeared to have gotten larger as city staffers struggled to set maximum size limits for a structure that hasn't even been designed yet. And those increases didn't sit well with some in the audience, who thought the changes were pushing too far into an already tight and controversial site.
Sometimes, information lights the way through confusion. And in response to spreading rumors and the public outcry for more facts, the city has posted a link on its Web site answering some of the more frequently asked questions about the controversial project. Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said the new link has gotten a lot of attention, but for the benefit of those without Internet access, he reviewed the facts during the Council session (carried on the city's cable channel).
Shuford defended the proposed increases in the maximum size of the building, saying they would provide absolute limits to the project's scope. (If the county approves the Pack Square Conservancy guidelines, the nonprofit will have the power to grant variances to its own rules.)
The city restrictions would be part of a larger agreement, still being spelled out, that would grant the Grove Park Inn an option to purchase the property, giving the developer the green light to move forward with drawing up actual plans for the site. (Council is slated to consider that agreement on Sept. 16.)
Several speakers, however, expressed concern about the dimensions reccomended by city staff. The 60-foot maximum depth, for example, is fully 9 feet larger than what the conservancy's guidelines specify -- allowing the new building to protrude beyond the facade of the adjacent Biltmore Building, rather than lining up with it. Shuford said the 60-foot figure -- the result of talks between city staff and Grove Park Inn officials -- reflects standard architectural practice.
But several speakers worried that the adjustment would interfere with the line of sight between the Vance Monument and the Buncombe County Courthouse.
The push to the south also concerned Council member Brian Peterson and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, who worried that awnings or balconies on the GPI building might then extend still farther into the "view corridor."
Meanwhile, new information also emerged about the high-rise's maximum allowable height. According to the conservancy guidelines, a new building on the site cannot be higher than the base of the Jackson Building's red roof. After a good deal of discussion about just how tall the historic structure (built in the 1920s) actually is -- and even about exactly what constitutes the top of it -- the final word from Shuford was that the relevant height measurement is 128.7 feet. The staff recommendation, however, rounded that figure up to 130 feet. Additionally, the Grove Park Inn would be allowed to top the structure with a yet-to-be-defined "penthouse," which could cover up to 40 percent of the roof and be up to 24 feet tall. That would give the new high-rise a maximum height of 154 feet -- about 20 feet lower than the top of the Jackson Building's bell tower.
Council member Holly Jones expressed alarm that new dimensions were being presented so soon after the guidelines had been approved.
"We just adopted something I thought we were going to take seriously," she said.
But Jones wasn't the only one who seemed concerned about the changes.
"I feel like I've been sandbagged," complained Asheville resident Walter Plaue, a real-estate investor. Plaue told Council that he'd come to Tuesday's meeting intending to support the project, but that what he'd seen there had changed his mind. "I don't like being nickel-and-dimed with exceptions," he griped.
And city resident Julie Brandt, who's helping gather signatures for a petition to block the agreement, said the murky details have left many confused. "This is what erodes the public trust," she scolded. Brandt added that she'd found it impossible to discover whether public comment would be allowed at the meeting and feared that many other concerned citizens might have decided not to attend the meeting for the same reason.
Shuford, however, dismissed the idea that backroom deals are being made.
"Distrust in Asheville has been elevated to a fine art," he declared.
Council member Carl Mumpower agreed, calling on the public to resist the idea that there's a "hand of conspiracy" at work.
Asheville attorney (and former mayor) Lou Bissette, who represents the Grove Park Inn, cautioned against excessive regulation, reminding Council of a time when the city struggled to induce new businesses to locate downtown.
"If you continue to squeeze this thing down, I'm afraid it will get to the point where it is just not economically feasible," he warned.
Color by the numbers?
Over the past month, both the city and the conservancy have displayed many pictures purporting to show what the GPI building might look like. Most, if not all, of those renderings made encore appearances at the Council meeting.
According to Shuford, the drawings represent what the building might look like. At the meeting, however, he once again stressed that such drawings are merely "placeholders" meant to fill the space on a map until a design for the building has been finalized.
Several members of the public, however, charged that these images are deceiving, since none of the drawings on display portrayed the structure's maximum size.
"This is nothing like what I am seeing from staff," said city resident Mike McCurry, pointing to a projection on the wall that showed a structure set back slightly from the facade of the Biltmore Building. "The devil's in the details, and we're just getting to see them -- but the public isn't. I'd like to get this information out there."
Shuford, however, maintained that the staff proposal is intended to create city-mandated maximums to head off any possible variances the Pack Square Conservancy itself might grant. Such exceptions, he later told Xpress, might be "greater than the Council may feel comfortable with." And judging by some Council members' reactions at the meeting, it remains unclear how many of them are comfortable with the proposal as it now stands.
Even apart from the specific numbers, some city residents don't want to see strategic public land, adjacent to Pack Square and City/County Plaza, turned over to the private sector -- period.
"I don't think the city should sell what small parts of green space it has," said Barry Summers, who's also involved with the petition to halt the sale.
Until the Grove Park Inn develops concrete plans for the building, the city is dealing with unknowns. But the inn, Shuford pointed out, won't be willing to spend the considerable sum of money it takes to create such a design until it has an agreement with the city in hand. Once the city gives the GPI an option on the property, the inn can hire an architect to create a design, which would come before Council sometime next year.
Even if an option is adopted, however, both parties will still be free to back out of the deal. If the Grove Park Inn decided not to build, it would forfeit $10,000 in earnest money. If the city backed out, it would have to reimburse the Grove Park Inn for up to $5,000 worth of costs and refund the $10,000.
In the meantime, Council will meet again on Sept. 16. A 3 p.m. work session will be followed by a 5 p.m. formal session at which Council members will hear more public comment and then vote on the option agreement.