Supporters hope for plaza, not hotel near Basilica of St. Lawrence
ASHEVILLE — St. Lawrence Basilica parishioners and supporters were "shocked" to learn that the city of Asheville is preparing a contract to sell land near the historically significant 100-year-old basilica to a hotel group instead of the Diocese of Charlotte.
Pictured: A rendering of the proposed St. Lawrence Plaza. The Diocese of Charlotte has proposed spending more than $2 million to buy the land from the city of Asheville. A developer also has an offer to build a hotel on the same site. (Provided by www.stlawrenceplaza.com) Below are file photos of the Basilica of St. Lawrence.
During a May 22 city council meeting, City Manager Gary Jackson said the city is preparing a contract for purchase with the McKibbon Hotel Group of Gainesville for the 0.77-acre city-owned property.
More than 850 people have signed an online petition asking the Asheville City Council to sell the land to the diocese instead.
In the two council meetings since this announcement, no formal public hearing or vote has taken place. It is not known when the council will discuss the sale again.
In the meantime, Asheville developer Richard Kessler of the Kessler Collection Group has formally committed to the Basilica to be the developer that will build and own this plaza development under the full partnership support of the Basilica.
The commitment from Kessler is based on "not a hotel" but the current plaza plans shown above that includes: residential; retail; and commercial; with a large open plaza and fountains, according to stlawrenceplaza.com.
Earlier this year, the diocese increased its original $2 million proposal for the Haywood Street property, directly across the street from the basilica, to include an additional $600,000 to demolish an old parking deck, a vacant former restaurant, a small retail building and a surface parking lot on the site. The diocese's letter of intent was the latest move in a long-running planning and bidding process involving the city, the basilica and a hotel developer over the property.
The purpose of the proposal is to allow the Basilica to commission and monitor the future development of this site in order to protect and preserve the historical landmark
"The Diocese's letter of intent makes it clear that we want simply to open formal purchase negotiations, and that the amount offered is not necessarily our final offer," according to documents posted on a new website created to gather support for the project: www.stlawrenceplaza.com. Father Wilbur Thomas, pastor of St. Lawrence Basilica said June 1 that he did not want to comment at this time, but is referring people to the comprehensive information posted on that website.
"We are willing to meet any demands the city may impose as long as they are at a fair market appraisal, using proper feasibility studies, and within the Downtown Master Plan considerations for Historical Preservation guidelines inside a historic district," the website states.
The diocese has proposed using the site for a possible multistory building, along with a plaza with seating and a fountain, but city hasn't responded to its letters of intent, according to a letter from the diocese's legal representative Louis Bissette Jr. to the city council. A rendering of the proposed St. Lawrence Plaza shows a lower-impact, one-to-two-story building that would bring tax revenue to the city – something city leaders have specified they want from whatever is developed on the property once they sell it. A detailed plan of the site is online.
The hotel developer offered $2.3 million for the site in 2008 to build a $30 million, seven-story hotel with 130 rooms and 9,000 square feet of retail space, but the proposal idled while the developer focused on another project in Asheville. After the diocese expressed its interest in the land in December by means of a letter of intent, McKibbon renewed its offer, saying it was ready to proceed with its bid since the other hotel project was nearing completion.
The city has been reviewing those plans and the council's finance committee has recommended selling to the hotel group.
"We have, at the direction of finance committee, been trying to insert in that process the opportunity for the Asheville Design Center to facilitate a review of the design in such a way that both the city of Asheville and basilica's property owners can get the highest and best use for the property," Jackson said in the May 22 meeting.
Basilica representatives say they were told the council would not take any action until the Asheville Design Center, a non-profit company that designs to promote healthy, thriving and equitable communities, could finish its proposal, according to the attorney's letter to the city.
"It is very difficult for my clients and their supporters to understand why the City of Asheville is moving at such a break-neck speed to accommodate an out-of-state, for-profit entity in its desire to purchase city property at a price below that offered by the Diocese of Charlotte," the letter states.
The ultimate decision will be made by the council after a public hearing, said Asheville spokeswoman Dawa Hitch. The date of that hearing has not been scheduled, and the city is required to give 10 days notice prior to the hearing, she said.
"We believe that the city council has a much more important obligation to the residents and taxpayers of the city to safeguard Asheville's assets and use them for the good of all our citizens," Bissette writes in his letter.
Some parishioners have expressed concern that construction of a hotel nearby could cause irreparable damage to the historic basilica, perhaps aggravating a crack that exists in its dome – the largest free-standing tiled dome in the U.S. The signature architectural feature caps the basilica, built in 1909 by Rafael Guastavino, who also worked on Asheville's famed Biltmore Estate. Guastavino is buried at the basilica.
Some also worry that the proposed hotel could overshadow the designated "nationally significant" building on the National Register of Historic Places. The basilica, one of the oldest buildings in Asheville, welcomes more than 150,000 visitors annually.
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
SEE THE WHOLE PROPOSAL: The purpose of the proposal is to allow the Basilica to commission and monitor the future development of this site in order to protect and preserve this 102-year old historical landmark. Read more.
SIGN THE PETITION: Sign an online petition.
SEE MORE: See videos of the propsed plaza and inside the Basilica of St. Lawrence to the right.
LEARN MORE: Read an in-depth look on the history of this project in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Want to go?
The next meeting is July 10 at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 70 Court Plaza in Asheville. City council meetings are held on the second floor.
Guidelines for Asheville City Council meeting public hearing:
- Applications have up to 10 minutes to complete a presentation
- Electronic presentations are limited to agenda items with presentation materials provided prior to the meeting by city staff, applications or organized opposition
- Individuals have up to three minutes to speak
- A person representing a group of three or more other people has up to 10 minutes to address the council
- Public comment period for any one item may not exceed one hour
- Additional information may be provided in hard copy or in written form.