Many citizens have written me recently regarding the future of the City-owned area across from the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. I appreciate and share the concerns being expressed. The Basilica is a historical and architectural treasure we must protect, and the Catholic Church has always been a strong contributor to our community. I want to assure citizens that as a member of City Council, I will be insistent on very high standards for any development that might occur. I have worked very hard to understand the complex situation and come to a stance that I believe represents the best interests of our citizens. I’m also concerned about significant misunderstanding in the community of the City’s path and its options. Let me explain:
· The property has in recent years been made up of substandard surface parking and dilapidated unoccupied structures. In 2007, the City set out to see the property returned to the tax rolls and converted to a much better use - one that would complement surrounding buildings and become a strong positive element for the vitality of downtown. In order to assure the best possible outcome, the City began an open and fair process of soliciting preliminary proposals from qualified potential partners. This carefully-designed RFP process gives the City final approval authority of uses, design, and timeline for development.
· After very active encouragement by the City of a broad range of possible partners (including the Basilica and the Diocese of Charlotte, who chose not to make a proposal then), McKibbon Hotel Group came out in 2008 as being the best-qualified with a design judged to be a reasonable starting point for negotiation. Let me emphasize here that McKibbon’s preliminary suggested design, including its seven-story height (two stories shorter than the Vanderbilt Apts. directly across the street), was to be only a starting point.
· Next steps under the process with McKibbon would be negotiation of a development agreement and final design. The City, at its own choosing, could reject any proposals made by the developer and abandon the negotiation if an acceptable arrangement were not to materialize. Negotiation with McKibbon did not proceed in 2008 due in-part to the disruption of the economic crash that year and the pending adoption of the Downtown Master Plan which would provide further guidance/regulation for development of the site. The process has been slower than hoped-for, but it has not been terminated.
· A few weeks ago, the Diocese of Charlotte transmitted a Letter of intent to the City, a copy of which is attached. Note that this letter is the entirety of the proposal the City has received from the Diocese. Key elements of the proposal include:
o The Diocese would advance $1.0 million to the City for the property upon completion by the City of demolition of the dilapidated buildings and conversion of the property to surface parking, a requirement the City estimates would cost it greater than $500,000. At that stage, the City would have netted less than $500,000 for the sale, and I would assume the Diocese would begin operating the site as surface parking. Because the parking operation on the property might prove financially lucrative for the Diocese, there could be incentive for the Diocese to maintain the site as surface parking for many years to come. I feel very strongly that surface parking is a poor long-term use of the site, and I am not willing to expose the City and downtown to that outcome.
o The Diocese would only advance an additional $1 million if and when development of buildings on the property would occur. It could be many years before the City would realize that final installment of the purchase price. There are some parishioners of the Basilica advocating for near-term sale and development of the property, but again, timing would be uncertain.
o Fiscal outcome in the interest of our citizens is only part of the picture here, but note that under a successful McKibbon proposal, the City would receive well over $2 million at the time of purchase and a steady flow of tens of thousands of dollars in property and sales tax revenue annually for years to come. Under the Diocese proposal, the City would net less than $500,000 at purchase, uncertainty as to if/when additional purchase money might arrive, and little or no tax revenues going forward. Again, this is not about just money for me, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens and am troubled by such a possible trade-off. The Diocese would completely control the shape and character of any development, subject only to the City’s zoning regulations. While I believe that the Diocese would only allow a use and design that would not harm the Basilica, I prefer an approach where the City can assure its citizens that the use and design serves the interest of the entire community (including the Basilica).
o The Diocese has not directly proposed that a park, piazza, fountain, or any certain design of development be installed on the property. A parishioner of the Basilica has suggested that the Diocese might consider such things, but the City has not heard that from the Diocese or its designated representative.
· Importantly, the City does not have the flexibility to abandon the RFP process and negotiate directly with the Diocese. If the City wants to fairly entertain the offer from the Diocese, it would first have to open the process to competitive offers from any and all comers, and it would then have to consider the highest bid regardless of the buyer or the plans for the site. The City could easily lose control of the property’s future in this scenario. Heading down this path of very uncertain outcomes is not one I am willing to support.
· Another suggestion that I have heard much about since yesterday is that the site be retained by the city and converted to a city park. As former chairman of the City’s Greenway Commission, I am a strong advocate for parks and open space. I do not support this site as a park because our planning indicates many other sites around town as much higher priorities for parks and open space and because conversion of this site to an urban park would require millions.
If the City wished to negotiate directly with the Diocese, it would declare the existing RFP process dead and start all over with a fairly-administered competitive process to identify a qualified partner. The Diocese would have to participate and prevail in that process in order for the City to negotiate directly.
As I hope you can see, there is no reasonable scenario where the City could simply abandon the RFP process and either accept the Diocese proposal or begin a direct negotiation with the Diocese. It is also not true that McKibbon would unilaterally control the final design/implementation on the site. There is misinformation about all this in the community, and I hope you will help clear that up by sharing this with others.
Given the situation as it stands today, I believe the prudent course is for the City to fairly continue the process that we began in 2007 and carefully consider whether we can arrive at an acceptable arrangement for development with McKibbon. I want you to know that I will be insistent on assuring that McKibbon is at least as qualified to perform as they were earlier, that a final design meets the needs of the entire community including the Basilica, and that if the City does move forward with McKibbon, the development would be a very positive outcome for the City and the neighborhood. I would be insistent that any demolition/construction activity not threaten the structural integrity of the Basilica. I would also avidly promote that the design incorporate open park-like space on the north side near the Basilica, and that the architectural design of the entire project complement the Basilica and support the historic character of the Basilica. Some have suggested the Diocese consider negotiating/partnering with McKibbon in the development to assure that such things occur, and I would hope the two parties will meet soon to consider that. Nothing I have heard causes me to think any of this is out of reach and that we cannot end up with a spectacular outcome for all concerned.
Again, thank you for your interest and concern about the future of this project and our community.
Member, Asheville City Council