Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Block

By Tim Peck
Mountain Guardian
March 8, 2006

The missed story coming out of the inaugural Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, held at City Hall on March 1, occurred during discussions about “The Block,” where long-time Asheville resident, monied businessman and former City Council member Gene Ellison gave the committee an earful and a brief lesson in basic economics.

The Block

The Block, as it is generically called, is a section of downtown Asheville, in the area around Market and Eagle Streets just off Biltmore Avenue, and has been part of an extensive push for growth in the central business district. It has also been the focus of multifaceted debates concerning property rights, business development and cultural preservation; many of them occurring in City Hall.

This neighborhood has undergone several distinct phases over many decades; even going back as far as the Depression Era. That difficult era pounded this cloistered Black community hard and it is still bruising.

In the Jazz Era, it was a bastion of cultural and commercial activity and a foundation for filial cohesion where Blacks could comfortably congregate as a community and enjoy the sights and sounds of urbane conviviality in the clubs, restaurants and doorways of Eagle and Market Streets.

During the short-lived era of the Great Society, it became the target of urban renewal. City fathers at that time concluded that The Block and its surrounding area, comprised mostly of Blacks, was a blight on the city and that it‘s poverty-stricken inhabitants would fare much better elsewhere. So, with the handy lubricant of federal money, the city broke up the tight community and the residents were scattered around the city in newly constructed public housing “projects,” including Pisgah View and Deerfield. They would replace the existing neighborhood with assorted parking lots and with a new City of Asheville Public Works Department and garage (for housing garbage trucks) which has been given the amusing moniker “The Taj Garage” (see G.S. 160A, Article 22, Urban Redevelopment Law, § 160A-503 (2)).

Around the mid-1970s, the inhabitants and patrons of The Block began to disperse. This phenomenon is in part attributable to the cumulative effects of desegregation. Blacks were increasingly able to move more easily in wider circles and this diluted the tribal clustering that was, and still is, typical of marginalized ethnic minorities.

It has recently suffered through the ravages of a burgeoning and entrenched illicit drug culture and the concurrent stifling atmosphere of crime, misdemeanor and ignominy.

But this once-blighted neighborhood has since been bought out, bulldozed, built up and cleaned up and it seems now to be a fairly viable and promising business area. The Black-owned businesses there are well integrated with the vital and diverse character of downtown. Its streets are currently the outdoor urban venue for the annual Goombay Festival, a celebration of African and Caribbean culture that began as a fundraiser to help revitalize the area. And property owners are still holding out for a substantial return on their investment in this storied quarter.

The Planners

In 1993, Gene Ellison was seated as a council member when the South Pack Square Redevelopment Plan was passed. This plan provided a sound and acceptable framework for the area's development.

However, new infill housing proposals promised to undermine the spirit of the plan under the pretext of “broad interpretation” and “flexibility.” The South Pack Square Development Plan Task Force endorsed this redevelopment proposal that emerged out of a budget amendment to accept $1,140,000 of federal money to eliminate blight ($800,000 of HUD Section 108 funds and $340,000 of EDI grant monies). “The money would be used to help Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (EMSDC) in the acquisition and redevelopment of three key properties in the South Pack Square redevelopment area.” (EMSDC is the nonprofit agency created by the city to oversee the redevelopment of The Block.)

“By itself, it will create over 8,000 square feet of additional retail and office space and 14 residential units. The funding would also leverage additional monies to be spent in a Mt. Zion Church project, resulting in a total of approximately 12,000 square feet of retail and office space and a total of 47 residential units. Five historically significant buildings will be restored to Secretary of Interior standards and a new infill building will be constructed on vacant property if these two projects are realized.”

At the City Council meeting of December 16, 2003, Mayor Whorley announced that attorney’s Gene Ellison and Howard McGlohon had filed a temporary restraining order against the City of Asheville and Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation preventing a vote on the budget amendment. (McGlohon is the husband of the Assistant City Attorney Martha Walker-McGlohon and could give this action the appearance of a conflict of interest.)

The issue would eventually be debated in one of the most contentious City Council meetings on record. Tempers flared and patience wore thin. But a vote had to be taken. Council member Carl Mumpower declared this proposal to be nothing better than taxpayer-funded gentrification and the measure failed with Joe Dunn and Terry Bellamy siding with Mumpower against.

The Meeting

At the March 1st Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, the touchy subject of The Block surfaced once again.

Gene Ellison, here to speak on the matter, patiently waited through presentations on plans for annexation and city real estate while standing just outside the packed meeting room eating a cheeseburger with one hand and wiping up the drippings with a napkin in the other.

After 20 minutes of discussion of The Block among council members and staff, Chairman Jan Davis allowed an agitated Ellison, co-owner of the Ritz building on South Market Street, to speak out of turn and offer his public comment during staff's presentation, explaining that he felt Ellison’s comments would be "germane to the present discussion." Indeed they were.

Citizen Ellison gave the committee a tongue-lashing about how he and other investors in The Block had been hoodwinked by the city since passage of the redevelopment plan. He and other property owners have invested heavily in The Block under one planning vision and the city turned around in October of 2003 and entertained development proposals that would significantly devalue their investments. Those private investments add up to over $2,000,000.

Ellison said that "inverse condemnation is no different than the ordinary kind." His demeanor and the character of his public comment made it unmistakable that Ellison and company were quite annoyed at this imposed hardship and quite adamant that some resolution be expedited in this matter.

By allowing subsidized, high-rise housing structures that are towering and generally incompatible with the promise of The Block and which would overshadow other privately-held properties, those properties would be effectively drained of their value as investments.

This would result in a profound reversal of fortune for Ellison and his fellow investors and in the eyes of Ellison & Friends amounts to a government taking for which they would appreciate some relief. Ellison was on record back in 1993 saying that the developments proposed would violate the South Pack Square Redevelopment Plans.

Now we are hearing from Ellison that "we've got people with no investment in these properties making decisions.”

In staff’s presentation on The Block, the committee was reminded that one stated goal of the development vision for this area was the preservation and promotion of a vestigial African-American culture spawned and nurtured in this historic part of town. Referencing this race-based public policy, Ellison now barks at the committee saying, "You can go ahead and take race out of this issue. Let me tell you something, there is no such thing as black money. We are businessmen and this is all about business! All money is green.”