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The parking garage debate continues

  • Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Citizens of Mount Pleasant showed their passion Tuesday night for preserving their town’s ambiance and iconic Shem Creek scenery. They filled council’s chamber to speak out about the proposed parking garage/office building at the corner of Mill Street and Coleman Boulevard.

This is a complicated and multifaceted issue involving building design, a height variance, a “service license agreement for parking availability,” a new building setback requirement and perhaps a few other big words. But what cannot get lost in government-speak is the heart of this matter, and THAT is the tension between the townspeople’s vision of the community verses a different vision, whether it’s held by a developer or by their own municipal government.

While introducing his motion at Tuesday’s meeting to rescind the town’s agreement to pay about $2.8 million for parking spaces (spread over time), Councilman Gary Santos asked council not to “bring in buildings not compatible with the area.”

Council went into executive session to receive legal advice about the binding nature of its signed agreement, returned to open session, and heard impassioned statements from citizens. Joanna Ghegan said, “Don’t give in to pressure from developers.” Former town councilman Jimmy Bagwell received rousing applause by saying, “Shem Creek is one of the most wonderful places in America. This is not a good use of public funds.”

Resident Jim Owens is emerging as grassroots leader in the effort, and he spoke as a “pro-business, pro-property rights believer,” asking council to keep Shem Creek “eclectic and small-scale,” as stated in previous reports and studies addressing the future of the creek.

After public comments, the vote was taken and only Santos voted in favor of his motion. The crowd of 70-100 interested citizens, which included former Governor Jim Edwards and his wife Anne, left in a stunned silence.

Councilman Paul Gawrych tells me that vote was only on the issue of that one motion regarding immediately rescinding the parking agreement.

He stresses it was not an up-or-down vote on the project at this phase in the process. Mayor Linda Page offers, “In 2013, the town agreed to increase the height of buildings in flood zones that have parking garages. The reason being ground-floor retail that requires flood proofing is not economically feasible. All ground-level parking must be completely screened from view with architectural elements and landscaping.

They must also include features such as public art, a fountain, a bus stop or similar features. This text amendment affects approximately 10 properties.”

She continues, “I know some are waiting on the edge of their seats to see what we will do about this project. The next phase is for the developer to bring us a design for approval. I have full confidence that the town staff will ensure that this is not an eyesore but a building which is complementary to the area.

“There is a possibility of public parking supported by our resolution or this may not be the case. This issue extends beyond a single vote, and while it may not be resolved tomorrow, the positive side of the outcry from the citizens should assure us all there will be more engagement in the future as we revise the Comprehensive Plan and determine our future as a community.”

Meanwhile, social media is abuzz. The Facebook group “Protect Our Coleman Boulevard and Old Village Neighborhood” shows a steady stream of comments, some well-informed, some simply passionate.

The online petitions gather more signatures. The people demand to be heard, and they are right.

Despite a perceived defeat last Tuesday night, it seems our collective voices are having an impact, and through dialogue and engagement, there may be a window of opportunity for more substantial design revision of the proposed structure as it grinds through the process.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 op-ed columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. His niche is as a humorous conservative. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or email him at Haynie.will@gmail.com.

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