Basilica of St. Lawrence, developer eye city land for sale
Parishioners concerned about proposed hotel's impact on historic church
ASHEVILLE — The Diocese of Charlotte has increased a $2 million proposal to buy a piece of land, located adjacent to the historically significant Basilica of St. Lawrence, which the City of Asheville is hoping to sell.
In an amended letter of intent sent to the City of Asheville Feb. 15, the diocese is offering $2 million for the city-owned property on Haywood Street, directly across the street from the basilica. The letter also offers to pay up to $600,000 to demolish unused buildings on the 0.77-acre site.
The diocese proposes initially putting in a surface parking lot of 80-100 spaces on the site, with future plans for a plaza of "architectural relevance" to the surrounding area. The parking lot would be for public use, as are two other parking lots the basilica already owns.
The diocese's letter of intent is the latest move in a long-running planning and bidding process involving the city, the basilica and a hotel developer.
Pictured above: A view of the the largest free-standing tiled dome in the U.S. on the Bascilica of St. Lawrence. Parishioners worry construction of a hotel across the street could cause a crack in the dome to widen. (Photos by Patricia Guilfolye, Catholic News Herald.)
The hotel developer, McKibbon Hotel Group of Gainesville, Ga., 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 diocese's initial letter of intent was considered by the city council Jan. 10 and referred to the city's Planning and Economic Development Committee. Despite the diocese's latest expression of interest, city officials said they are continuing to discuss a development agreement between the city and McKibbon.
"The direction we have from (city) council at this time is to continue on with the McKibbon Group through the process they started, drafting a development agreement," said city spokeswoman Dawa Hitch.
City officials have said the property's use should fit within its downtown master plan, create jobs and add to the tax base, among other goals.
The city acquired the land in 2002 and 2003, when it and the diocese had plans to build a parking deck nearby. That idea dissipated after plans for the parking deck were changed.
The city council signaled support for the hotel plan in 2008 and again in January, but has not formally approved any sale offer.
The diocese's proposal would involve a private sale of the land by the city to the diocese. A private sale to a non-profit like the diocese is allowable under state law in cases where the property "is significant for its architectural, archeological, artistic, cultural or historical associations, or significant for its relationship to other" such significant property, especially if the non-profit is involved with preservation and conservation efforts.
Father Wilbur Thomas, rector and pastor of St. Lawrence Basilica, said he does not want to comment while negotiations are under way with the city, but he said he is encouraging interested parishioners to call or write city council members and urge them to take a look at the diocese's proposal.
He added that he hopes a meeting between city officials and basilica representatives may be scheduled soon.
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, the architect of Asheville's famed Biltmore Estate.
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.
Asheville native Jasper Dunlap Sr. said his main objection to a hotel is concern about the "rumblings" of constructing potentially damaging the basilica.
"That is the only church that I feel I can have a real relationship with the Lord," said Dunlap, who has been attending St. Lawrence for more than 35 years. "I forget everyone is there but me and the Lord. I love that particular church more than I can imagine.
"The only thing holding the dome up is the dome itself. I would hate for something to happen to St. Lawrence. That church is really a part of Asheville."
In a Jan. 13 letter to the city, McKibbon assured city building officials that it would address concerns about construction and protecting the basilica's structural integrity.
Paying for demolition of the buildings on the land is a bargaining chip that parishioner Anne Fitzgerald Smith said she hopes may help persuade city leaders to favorably consider the diocese's expression of interest.
"I love the basilica. It's on the top of the hill – you can see the basilica coming up the street. It's beautiful. I remember the first time I saw it walking. I stopped and thought 'wow,'" said Smith, a member of the parish who has been active in seeking its preservation.
"We have to protect the architectural treasure it is."
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
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