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Council agrees to close alley

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — In an unusual split vote, City Council agreed Tuesday to close an alley in downtown Salisbury to allow improvements to a deteriorating private parking lot on South Lee Street.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing the parking lot owners should pay the city for closing the alley. She echoed the objections of two business owners who said the property is too valuable to give away.
Other council members said the alley, which runs through the center of the Wallace parking lot, hasn’t been used for 60 years and long-awaited improvements to the lot will serve the public interest.
The worn pavement square on South Lee Street between East Fisher and East Innes streets is surrounded by more than a dozen businesses, including Cooper’s (formerly Brick Street Tavern), Critters and Salisbury Square Antiques. Future downtown businesses Nashville Nights and Bangkok Garden will back up to the parking lot when they open on East Innes Street.
Four people at the Council meeting spoke in favor of closing the alley, including Victor Wallace, who presented a plan for improvements including new trees, light poles, walkways, curbing and 91 re-striped parking spaces.
Wallace said he will not repave the lot but apply a seal coat, which City Engineer Dan Mikkelson described as a thin layer of asphalt. Wallace called the planned improvements modest but necessary as businesses open nearby, leading to “heavier use of this lot and higher visibility.”
Wallace said he met for months with a group of downtown business owners, trying to come up with a plan for the property. He said suggestions exceeded his budget and he “had to step back and do a shorter version.”
Closing the alley prevents the city from using the stretch of land in the future to run utilities and fire protection. Wallace pledged to give the city the rights to nearby Wallace property for those purposes.
“Rest assured, if we get the closure, we will grant the easements,” he said.
Council’s approval to close the alley was contingent on the easements.
Attorney Glenn Ketner, developer Todd Steinman and architect Gray Stout, who drew the conceptual plan for the parking lot, also spoke in favor of closing the alley.
No one spoke against the request at the meeting, but two business owners sent emails to City Council members.
Michael Young, a developer who owns the building that houses Uncle Buck’s restaurant near the parking lot, said the Wallaces have neglected the property and for 25 years rejected offers from the city and Downtown Salisbury Inc. to redevelop the space.
The idea of “closing the alley with only the vague promise of possible future development is not palatable,” Young said in an email, calling the alley closure “an undeserved gift.”
City Councilman Brian Miller said he takes Wallace’s word that he will improve the parking lot.
Giving away valuable land that belongs to the residents of Salisbury “is just not right,” Bob Lambrecht of Critters Cards and Gifts said in an email.
“This is a smart business acquisition for one party, but not for everyone,” Lambrecht said. “I urge you not to grant this request without more specific plans and guarantees from the requesting party.”
Salisbury-Rowan Utilities Director Jim Behmer said the city has been working with Wallace to obtain easements and has some in progress. The city is waiting for state permits to complete the process, Behmer said.
Three 10-foot-wide alleys surround the parking lot and empty onto East Innes Street. The Wallaces will grant easements along these alleyways, attorney Ketner said.
City Councilman Paul Woodson praised Wallace’s plan for the lot.
“This would be a great improvement to what’s there now,” Woodson said.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said he would support the alley closure as long as easements are granted.
While the public owns the right to use the alley, no one actually owns the property, City Attorney Rivers Lawther said. The alley is not maintained by the city, but under state law the city has the authority to close it.
The city could not ask for an offer to buy the alley, since the government does not own it, Lawther said.
Blackwell maintained the Wallaces owe something in exchange for the valueable land.
“We are talking to a viable business,” she said. “Their purpose is not to feed the homeless or do something charitable.”
Council should run the city like a business and not give away land, she said.
“I would like to see an offer of some sort by a viable business that would serve the city’s interest,” Blackwell said.
Mayor Susan Kluttz disagreed and said closing the alley serves the public.
“Part of the public interest is the appearance of the lot that we’ve wanted for so long to be improved,” Kluttz said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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