"There was an agreement signed in 1997; I know because I signed it as mayor."
-- former Mayor Russ Martin
Christmas came early for the beleaguered merchants of the Grove Arcade. The owners of many of the struggling market's shops and restaurants packed the chamber for the Asheville City Council's Dec. 14 formal session, pleading with Council to authorize funding for a new parking garage adjacent to the arcade.
After nearly five hours of public comment and Council deliberations, the yeas outnumbered the nays 5-2, and the city moved one step closer to breaking ground on what promises be downtown's largest parking garage -- 650 spaces spread over five decks covering nearly an entire city block behind the Battery Park Apartments and next to the Basilica of St. Lawrence. The nearby Civic Center parking deck has 555 spaces.
The monster project comes with an equally hefty $20.8 million price tag -- nearly double the $11.8 million city staff had estimated when the idea was first proposed five years ago.
If you build it, they will come
In presenting the latest cost estimate to Council, City Engineer Cathy Ball acknowledged the elephant in the living room, noting, "This is a very large increase." Construction costs, Ball explained, have skyrocketed as the high price of oil has impacted the steel industry.
But Ball was quick to point out that the $9 million increase could be offset by eventually selling some of the land originally acquired for the project to a private developer. She displayed an architect's drawing depicting a proposed multi-use structure to be built by a private developer adjacent to the garage. Because the city would already have graded the site, it would be construction-ready, which should make it easier to sell, said Ball. And to further sweeten the deal, the city plans to earmark 200 parking spaces in the new deck for tenants of the new building and their customers. With the "parking spaces and land, you could get $4 [million] to $5 million" for the roughly one-acre property, asserted Ball.
In the meantime, however, the city would still have to pony up the extra money. And Finance Director Bill Schaefer was on hand to answer Council members' questions about how the city would finance the project. All told, the city would need to borrow $16.3 million, said Schaefer. The city has already spent roughly $3.7 million on property acquisition and engineering plans, he said.
Schaefer's plan calls for funneling all of the city's annual profit from parking services -- including parking decks, meters and parking tickets -- into debt payments. And his report to the Council revealed a little-known fact: After paying Parking Services staff and other expenses, the city nets a cool $920,000 annually from parking.
The bottom line, said Schaefer, is that the annual deficit for debt service would come out to only $78,000 -- which could be covered by increasing monthly parking rates at all the city decks by $10.
The plan seemed to ease some of the concerns raised at the Dec 7 work session. But Council member Brownie Newman still had a problem with the plan, saying, "I question the wisdom of the policy where we put all of our money from parking decks into building more parking decks." Schaefer responded, "Parking decks are the economic engine that makes downtown vibrant."
At that point, City Manager Jim Westbrook jumped in, pointing out that increased demand for parking is a good problem for a city to have. But he conceded that the plan does depend upon the success of downtown. "Ten years ago," said Westbrook, "it was fragile -- that's not the case anymore."
Newman, however, stuck to his guns, saying: "My perspective is we could use money from Parking Services for whatever we want. It could be used for police officers, greenways, community transportation. ...If we spend 100 percent of it for just parking garages, I worry about what our downtown will look like in 10 or 20 years."
Is there a mayor in the house?
When it was time for the public hearing, it was standing-room-only in the chamber. But most of those who spoke supported the project, and the hearing was decidedly lacking in the Sturm und Drang that has characterized other development-related issues.
First up was former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, who introduced himself as chairman of the Grove Arcade Public Market's board of directors. "We're concerned about the deck," he began, adding, "Parking has always been a crucial part of the Grove Arcade; we have serious parking needs." Endorsing Schaefer's financing plan, Bissette urged Council to approve the funding, noting that he and his Council colleagues had incurred debt to build the Wall Street and Rankin Avenue decks. The debt on those decks will be paid off in the next couple of years, said Bissette, and in the meantime, they've contributed to the growth of downtown.
After Bissette came another former mayor, Russ Martin, who also serves on the Grove Arcade's board of directors. The complex agreement governing the purchase and redevelopment of the arcade, he noted, stipulates that the city will build a parking deck. "There was an agreement signed in 1997; I know because I signed it as mayor," said Martin. He described the mix of public funds and private investment that helped launch the Grove Arcade, which had included financial assistance from Progress Energy in return for tax credits. "I don't know if they would have entered into the agreement without the promise of a parking deck," argued Martin.
He also reminded Council members that a private developer had recently sold a group of buildings on Pack Square for more than $15 million -- having purchased the property five years ago for a little more than $5 million. Part of the value of those buildings, said Martin, is that they have a dedicated parking garage. And he, too, maintained that the parking deck would be an "engine for economic development."
The new director of the Grove Arcade, Jerome Jones, also emphasized that the city had promised a parking deck, saying, "It's what you agreed to seven years ago." He went on to remind Council that the city owns the Grove Arcade.
Progress Energy spokesperson Nancy Thompson sounded a similar tune. "Progress Energy believes in public/private partnerships," she declared, adding: "Our decision was based on the city's commitment to building a deck. But every partner must honor their commitments."
And Byron Greimer, co-owner of Anntony's Caribbean Cafe in the Grove Arcade, said his decision to open the restaurant had been founded, in part, on the city's promise to build a deck within two years of the arcade's opening. "Well, it's been two-and-a-half years, and you haven't even broken ground."
Donna Eagle, who runs the Warren Wilson Store in the arcade, said she hears people say that "downtown is a very walkable place -- but they can't do that if they're constantly looking at their watch and running to pay a meter."
Not everyone who spoke voiced support for the project, however. Among those opposed to it were several members of the city's Transit Commission -- a Council-appointed board that oversees the public-transportation system and makes recommendations on transportation policy. Board member Karen Austin pointed out that the 1998 parking study that had recommended building a deck near the Grove Arcade had also called on the city improve its public-transit system. "Five years later, one aspect of that parking study is being talked about, and the other aspect -- improving public transportation -- is falling through the cracks. Choosing to build a garage is a vote to continue business as usual." In closing, Austin remarked pointedly that City Council needs to "respect the opinions of the Asheville citizens who can't be [at the meeting] because city buses stop running at 6 o'clock."
Another Transit Commission member, Andrew Goldberg, criticized the scale of the deck, which he said "doesn't strike the right balance for downtown." And if the city continues focusing solely on parking decks, downtown will end up "with a lot of parking and a bunch of condominiums for rich people," predicted Goldberg.
Many eggs, one basket
After the close of the public hearing, Brownie Newman once again questioned the wisdom of spending the city's Parking Services profits solely on more parking decks. "It concerns me, " he noted, "that the only way to grow downtown is to build these enormously big parking decks -- there are other transportation policies."
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, who'd expressed doubt about the project during the Dec. 7 work session, seemed to be warming up to the idea. But despite calling Schaefer's plan impressive, Mumpower wasn't completely sold on it. He asked Ball about the scale of the total project and why the city had acquired more property than was needed for the deck.
The reason, Ball explained, was the need to reconfigure streets, move infrastructure and have a staging area for construction vehicles. The staging area, she noted, is what would subsequently be sold to a developer.
Council member Joe Dunn, said he'd "been on the fence" before the meeting, said, "This is something we have to do -- you have to invest money to make money." And Council member Jan Davis agreed, arguing, "There's too much committed here; we have to do this."
Newman, however, suggested that Council direct city staff to meet with the engineers to see if the deck could be scaled back or if there are other ways to cut costs. His suggestion found a receptive ear with Council member Holly Jones, who seemed uncomfortable with the size of both the garage and its price tag. "This is about it doubling in price," noted Jones. "We'd be foolish not to regroup and ask harder questions."
Council member Terry Bellamy concurred. But both Mumpower and Mayor Charles Worley emphasized that a previous Council had promised a deck.
Even after so much discussion, it wasn't clear how the vote would go. In the end, however, the funding was approved on a 5-2 vote, with Newman and Jones opposed. Council also voted unanimously to approve a contract with an outside consulting firm Hanscomb, Faithful and Gould, which will oversee construction and monitor costs.