More thoughts on the Basilica of St. Lawrence

Opposition to the hotel proposed for the site in front of the Basilica has focused on the view of that grand church and how it might be affected by placement of a massive structure in its face. But I’ve discovered what I consider to be an equally iconic view that will likely be demolished by such a building. From Haywood Street, near the intersection with O’Henry Street, check out the view of Asheville’s gorgeous Art Deco City Hall. It’s framed by the Vanderbilt Apartments on the left and the BB&T on the right, and is one of the few perspectives on City Hall with a green mountain backdrop. We used to have some of that from Pack Place before the county decided to place its ugly jail high-rise to block that view.

Whether or not you find that view of City Hall to be striking, there’s another question raised here. The city government can shape development on private land to a degree and those are the kind of rules we have wrestled with in formation of the Downtown Master Plan and the Unified Development Ordinance. The city is clearly not in the business of dictating whether construction should occur on private property, nor should it be (except for reasons of safety or overarching public interest—for example, steep slopes, stream buffers, etc.).

But at the same time, it seems very unwise for the city to be in a rush to cash in the property owned by the collective citizenry of Asheville. We bought it. And if we sell it, control of its use passes out of our hands. Once that happens it’s too late to say “oops!” Whether one considers it a change for the better or worse, structures on city land are not automatically and always better than creation of a park. And while some think we should cash in the property as quickly as possible to “increase the tax base,” this ignores the other side of the coin: the property will be worth more in the future. It’s money in the bank for future Ashevillians, and while a park can always host a building, a building almost never reverts to a park. And “increasing the tax base” is a quixotic adventure that has no provable benefit to current residents.

We have increased the tax base like crazy for almost two decades, and I would defy anyone to say that life in Asheville is demonstrably better for most citizens. (Good, yes. But life was good here in 1998, too, and good in 1980. I was here. I remember. Fewer restaurants and fewer gangs. Less bustle on the streets and less traffic. Fewer downtown condos and more trees. There are losses and wins.)

To top that off, with all that added tax money over those decades, we haven’t even been able to afford maintenance of the lovely Art Deco building where those development decisions have been made. The top two floors are uninhabitable due to leaks we apparently can’t afford to fix. So we’re renting private office space for city workers.

There’s something wrong with that picture and something very right about the picture I’ve posted with this story. Besides which, over 4,000 people have signed a petition asking the city to put a park in front of the Basilica. I haven’t heard about any petitions in favor of a hotel.

Moreover, the most consistent argument in favor of a hotel is that it would enhance the use of the Civic Center for conventions. That is a very 20th Century approach to our 21st Century priorities. Reduction of carbon emissions is going to have a tremendous impact on air travel because it is so much less efficient than train transport, so cities on bullet train routes will be more likely destinations for convention organizers. That does not include Asheville any time in the near future. Furthermore, conventions themselves will be less common as teleconferencing, even holographic conferencing becomes the norm.

The fact that only one developer bid on the site seems to write a big question mark about the scheme as well. An Orlando real estate analysis company advised Asheville to put a hotel there but that doesn’t make it the best use for Asheville’s current and future citizens. Let’s not be in so much of a hurry to cash out that we lose sight of where we’d like to end up.


One Response

  1. Nice, just bookmarked ya under Digg under “More thoughts on the Basilica of St. Lawrence Cecil Bothwell for City Council/Blog”. Kudos!

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