- Crowne Plaza Resort to expand despite looming I-26 connector
- Cape and Newman suggest city loans for green upgrades
It may turn out that the Asheville City Council can't stop the Parkside condominium project, but that doesn't mean they have to help it along. At their March 10 meeting, Council members decided to postpone a vote on whether to grant an easement for an access road for Stewart Coleman's controversial development. Council members want to see the outcome of Coleman's appeal of a lower-court decision that has left the project in limbo; meanwhile, Mayor Terry Bellamy repeated her assertion that it's up to the Buncombe County commissioners to "close the loop" created by the county's 2006 sale of a sliver of parkland to Coleman.
"I think we are in an awkward position," said Bellamy, "and they are the ones that put us in this position."
The proposed road would take another piece out of Pack Square Park, cutting in front of the condominium development and connecting with Court Plaza in front of City Hall.
The Parkside project was halted by a lawsuit filed by the heirs of turn-of-the-century philanthropist George Pack, who donated the land to the county. In September, a Superior Court ruled that the sale violated the terms of Pack's gift, but the state Supreme Court has not yet heard Coleman's appeal of that decision.
Meanwhile, the developer has proceeded with other steps needed to make Parkside happen. In December, the Downtown Commission approved the demolition of the adjacent Hayes & Hopson Building, and now he is seeking the easement.
Coleman told Council that the road would provide required access for delivery and emergency vehicles, saying that without the easement, he would have to move the building 15 feet closer to the park so he could widen Marjorie Street (behind the condos). The road widening would have to satisfy the city's technical standards but would not require City Council approval, said Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch.
That, he emphasized, would make the structure intrude even farther into the sightline of City Hall and bring it closer to the performance stage now under construction in the park.
"Moving the building north is an atrocity. It is against everything we have tried," Coleman declared. But he said he would do so if forced to, and he underscored the fact that the land deal with the county was not the issue at hand. "I'm not taking land from the city," he proclaimed. "The city owns its land; I own mine."
But the construction easement requires approval by City Council, the county commissioners and the Pack Square Conservancy, and with the lawsuit still pending, Council said it might as well see how those other scenarios play out before making a decision.
This is the second time Council has postponed a vote on the easement, but the city's exclusion from the initial land deal is still a sore point among Council members, who have repeatedly appealed to Buncombe County to deal with the issue.
"I feel like we're being leveraged with this," said Council member Carl Mumpower "We weren't involved in this, and it's right at our front door. Any intrusion into those park properties represents a mischief I couldn't support."
And Council member Robin Cape recalled the public backlash against the project, saying those sentiments are still strongly felt. "I think we've heard very clearly ... that the sale of public land for [private development] is not something the community likes," she said. "If we approve this road, we are essentially furthering the encroachment into a public area."
Council member Brownie Newman said the city's involvement so far has been limited to choosing the lesser of two evils. "We're being told, 'Take this or we will do something worse to you,'" he said.
The few members of the public who spoke supported the decision to wait. "We fully expect the court in Raleigh to rule in favor of the Pack heirs," said activist Dixie Deerman. "I appreciate you not even making a ruling until it has made it through the courts."
Council voted unanimously to table the issue.
Meanwhile, Newman proposed that city staff investigate options for requiring Council approval of developments bordering city-owned property. That motion was approved 6-1, with Council member Bill Russell opposed.
A house divided
Uncertainty factored into several other topics on the agenda, including a three-phase expansion of the Crowne Plaza Resort, which Council narrowly approved.
The level III conditional-use project will nearly double the resort's square footage, adding new hotel rooms, office space and a sports center. It required Council approval, but some voiced concern about the potential impact of the new Interstate 26 connector. Of the four remaining I-26 scenarios, only alternative 2 would not affect the property, according to the staff report.
City Council has endorsed alternative 4b, which would cut right through the resort, and Cape worried that supporting the expansion would conflict with that position. "Personally, that's of some concern to me," she said. "Are we throwing weight against our own preference?"
Mumpower, who opposed endorsing 4b back in January 2008, said a decision on the connector is expected sometime this year, adding that improving the Crowne Plaza could increase the Department of Transportation's acquisition costs. "I personally feel it would be irresponsible to support your project if it's going to raise the cost of another project," he said.
But Crowne Plaza owner Dennis Hulsing, who bought the resort five years ago, said he's been hearing about an imminent I-26 decision for years and can't afford to sit tight any longer. "Every day I put this on hold, I'm losing money," he told Council. "I think it would be irresponsible of me to stop trying to bring business to Asheville."
That made sense to Council member Kelly Miller, who argued that the construction jobs and increased tourism revenue are needed. Even after the DOT makes a decision, he noted, lawsuits could hold up the project for years to come.
Council approved the conditional-use permit on a 4-3 vote, with Mumpower, Bellamy and Cape opposed.
Folding green for greening?
Can Asheville help residents fund green improvements to their private property? Cape and Newman hope so. Following a March 6 presentation to the city's Finance Committee, the two floated the idea of Asheville's issuing bonds to fund low-interest loans for property owners wanting to install things like solar panels, replacement windows or even weather stripping.
The idea has already taken root in California, said Cape, adding that public opinion, both nationally and locally, favors energy efficiency. But such upgrades can be costly, and the credit crisis has made loans harder to get. "People are ready," she said. "What we're having trouble with is the financing."
To pay back the loans, property owners would agree to a voluntary increase in their property taxes. The whole program would be voluntary, Cape emphasized, noting that the city can't even explore the possibilities without a go-ahead from the state Legislature.
"This is one of the most effective models to unlock the potential in a community," Newman agreed, adding, "This is just the beginning of a conversation."
The two asked Council to petition Raleigh for the right to explore funding options, but the idea didn't sit well with Mumpower, who pointed to the role of lax loan practices in creating the current economic mess. "We just went through this national crisis around what are called 'liar loans,'" he said. "We're basically going to ask the city to be in the collection business."
"We're in the collection business," retorted Cape. "Every month."
Nonetheless, the motion was approved 5-2, with Mumpower and Vice Mayor Jan Davis opposed.