A city plan to build a $21 million, five-story parking deck in downtown Asheville's Battle Square has come under fire from residents of the Battery Park Apartments. On Sept. 6, about 50 people gathered in the historic structure's newly renovated rooftop meeting room to formally launch a campaign to block what would be Asheville's largest parking deck.
Construction is slated to begin next spring, and according to an artist's rendering provided by the city Planning Department, the 650-space deck would wrap around two sides of the apartment building, a mere 15 feet away. Rents in the 120-unit residence are partly subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many residents are elderly and low-income.
"Forty-six of our apartments will be without direct sunlight. We must stop this monstrous parking deck!" proclaimed Wilma Martineau, who helped organize the meeting. A residents' group has collected more than 1,300 signatures on a petition to save Battle Square, she said.
Roger Smith, one of the residents behind the petition drive, emphasized that the group is not opposed to building a parking deck downtown but believes that alternative sites -- such as behind the Civic Center or in the nearby BellSouth parking lot -- would have less impact on area residents and would maintain the architectural integrity of Battle Square, he said. The Basilica of St. Lawrence, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also fronts on the square, and the towering Battery Park Apartments building (the former Battery Park Hotel, built in the 1920s) has sheltered such luminaries as Babe Ruth and Thomas Wolfe.
"We need and want the help of every city resident. We are opposed to this terrible plan," said Martineau.
City leaders first floated the idea of a new parking deck there in 1998 after a consultant hired to study downtown's parking needs recommended building a garage near the Grove Arcade. Earlier this month, in response to a growing number of inquiries about the deck, City Engineer Cathy Ball issued a memo responding to frequently asked questions.
"Initially," the memo states, "the city proposed to build the parking garage at the surface parking lot of the BellSouth property at Haywood Street and O'Henry Avenue." But according to Ball, BellSouth refused to sell, forcing the city to look elsewhere. "This [alternative] site also provided a great opportunity to revitalize the area by allowing for additional urban infrastructure such as the street redesign, roundabout, office, retail and residential space," the memo notes.
In 1999, City Council budgeted $11 million for the project. And last year, Council allocated an additional $9.9 million for the project to offset increased construction costs and accommodate additions to the plan. But Ball's memo also points out that the city still hasn't acquired all the needed property. That, Ball writes, is expected to be finalized "in late 2005 to early 2006." Property acquisition has long been a stumbling block for the project.
Council candidates weigh in
City Council members Holly Jones and Brownie Newman, who cast the only two votes against the proposed deck when Council approved the plan as part of the city's 2003-04 budget, also attended the meeting.
"How big will this parking deck be?" Newman asked the crowd. Then, frowning, Newman answered his own question, saying, "One hundred spaces bigger than the Civic Center parking deck." The assembled residents gasped.
Each space, he added, will cost taxpayers $30,000. "Affordable housing is an issue in this city. Affordable-housing groups can build a whole home for what just one parking space in this deck costs. That's outrageous!" Newman said to applause.
Later in the meeting, he acknowledged the need for more parking downtown. But he argued, "It doesn't make any sense to build one next to three other existing decks." Instead, said Newman, the city should build a new deck on the opposite side of downtown, near Biltmore Avenue. "Battle Square is beautiful" he noted, adding, "If we build this deck here, the people of Asheville will regret it."
Jones, meanwhile, raised other concerns. Besides questioning the placement of the deck, she pointed out that the plan also includes an additional structure that would be privately built. The building will be adjacent to the deck and the Civic Center and is expected to house shops, offices and condominiums.
When Council first heard about the deck back in 1998, said Jones, it was promoted, in part, as a way to help the merchants in the Grove Arcade Public Market. Many of those merchants now maintain that a lack of parking has contributed to sluggish sales. "So then why is the city insisting we build another set of shops nearby that will compete with the Grove Arcade?" wondered Jones.
Mayor voices support
Mayor Charles Worley explained later that the mixed-use building is part of the city's plan for financing the deck. "That out-parcel has been proposed, in essence, for private development and subject to a [request for proposals]," the mayor told Xpress on Sept. 9. "A private developer will come in and pay a market value that is assigned to [the land] -- it's part of the overall financing of the plan."
Asked whether that development would undermine the goal of helping the Grove Arcade merchants, Worley replied: "There is a commitment to provide parking for the Grove Arcade, and this is a way of fulfilling that commitment. At the same time, it's a way of continuing to promote all of downtown Asheville. Another set of shops potentially coming in from that private development increases foot traffic -- that really benefits all the merchants."
City Council candidate Robin Cape, however, took a different view. Speaking at the meeting, she called Battery Park residents "the cream of our community," adding, "You are the elders ... and what you think should count." Cape went on to remind her listeners that the parking deck is not a "done deal."
Recounting how she first was elected to public office in 2004, when she won a seat on the Woodfin Water Board as a write-in candidate, Cape said: "The members of that board told us about their plan to log our watershed and said it was a done deal. Fourteen of us organized against it and voted all three members off the board. Democracy works -- the people that voted for this deck should go."
That prompted another Battery Park resident, 88-year-old Wilma Wilson, to speak up from the back of the room, declaring, "I watched this place get built -- why do they want to ruin it?" Wilson later told Xpress that she can't understand why the city wants to take away her fellow retirees' views and sunlight. "For most of us, we can't go anywhere else. Why won't they listen?"