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51 Biltmore project can help keep Asheville thriving



1/23/2011 - 51 Biltmore project can help keep Asheville thriving
by Asheville Citizen Times Editorial

Parking or sidewalks? Private cars or more mass transit? Debate over the 51 Biltmore project has heated up in recent weeks as many framed the issue as a black-and-white choice over transportation needs in downtown Asheville

Asheville City Council will hold a public hearing Tuesday on financing for the 51 Biltmore project, which city planners and developers have been working on for the past four years. The city would borrow around $14.1 million for a parking deck below a six-story hotel to be built by the private developer McKibbon. Public Interest Projects, which currently owns the site used as a public parking lot, brokered the deal to add public benefits to the project. The public parking would add about 300 additional spaces to the fast growing area south of Pack Square, while McKibbon will add additional retail space along Biltmore Avenue below the hotel.

 Public Interest Projects has been, in our view, unfairly portrayed in some quarters as just another developer out to make money off city taxpayers. In fact, the company founded by the late philanthropist Julian Price has been a key player in the renaissance of downtown Asheville into a destination for tourists and a desirable neighborhood for people to live and work.

 Over the years, PIP has renovated scores of downtown buildings to create more than 200 units of affordable housing. The businesses that Price's company has helped support with affordable rents and other investments reads like a Who's Who of downtown destinations, from the Laughing Seed and Zambra to The Orange Peel, Malaprops, French Broad Co-Op, Blue Moon Bakery, Fine Arts Theater, Laurey's Catering and many others.

 We see PIP actually looking after the public interest in this deal. Price's heirs could have simply sold the property outright to McKibbon. By insisting on a private-public partnership, PIP has ensured that more than just hotel patrons can have a place to park. And it's naïve to think that this particular piece of property, currently used as a surface parking lot, as well as the Hot Dog King property adjacent, wouldn't be developed at some point in the future.

Councilman Cecil Bothwell has been an outspoken champion for mass transit and sidewalks, which we wholeheartedly support. But with bus service running only once an hour, we can't expect buses to magically ferry all our residents and visitors in and out of the downtown. Trolley cars quit running almost a half-century ago. Realistically, Asheville, like all American cities, is going to have to accommodate cars for the foreseeable future.

There seems to be the misconception that the city has $14.1 million sitting in a pile to spend either on the deck or on new sidewalks and buses. Rather, the city would borrow the money, which would be paid back by the substantial revenues that people pay to park every day, week in and week out.

The revenues from parking services subsidize mass transit or sidewalks. The city can borrow to build a deck, which will surely pay for itself, as well as sidewalks and buses in the future. For every dollar invested in parking services, Asheville gets $1.40 return on investment. Mass transit has to be subsidized when every dollar put into bus service loses 85 cents. Transit services currently require subsidies of about $4.5 million annually.

Do we need more parking for the many visitors to our thriving downtown or do we need better bus service and more sidewalks for residents? We need all of the above, but the 51 Biltmore project shouldn't be viewed as an either/or choice.

 With several decks already around downtown, opponents raise good questions about the proposed cost or need for more parking, but looking carefully at the 51 Biltmore plans, this looks like a good idea that will benefit merchants, residents and visitors. City Council should continue its support for this particular project that would expand the tax base, keep taxes lower, provide parking and potentially fund future sidewalks and bus service.

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