The demolition plan -- a surprise to city officials -- is a sensitive subject because the buildings are in The Block, the historic home of Asheville's African-American business community. Despite 20 years of redevelopment plans, the area has seen comparatively little progress even as downtown has boomed.
That has frustrated the congregation and leaders at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which wants to take down a 10,000 square foot building at 40 S. Spruce St. (built in 1915) and a 15,000 square foot building at 51. S. Market St. (circa 1920).
Mount Zion bought the buildings to gain control over its surroundings and allow for possible expansion, Roy Harris, chairman of the church's trustees, explained. But the structures have become a financial burden, Harris told the city's South Pack Square Redevelopment Committee at a June 8 meeting. Homeless people have trashed the interiors, and the maintenance costs and property taxes are a financial drain.
"Those buildings are income-consuming and not income-producing for us," said Harris. "Personally, I'm tired of baby-sitting old buildings." He said the church has no long-term development plans for the property, which could be used for parking.
The committee took no formal action, but Harris' presentation launched a series of meetings to review the demolition plans. On June 10, the city's Historic Resources Commission recommended that the Downtown Commission postpone its vote to allow more time for negotiations. Two days later, the Downtown Commission discussed the plan and then continued the matter, stalling the demolition (which had been scheduled to begin June 15) for 30 days.
Members of both groups urged the buildings' preservation while acknowledging the church's right to dispose of its property. Harris, meanwhile, was reluctant to negotiate.
Barbara Field, who serves on both the Redevelopment Committee and the board of the adjacent YMI Cultural Center, said the buildings could provide artists' work space or housing for older residents. "I would hope that there would be some kind of synergy ... where those buildings could be preserved," she said. "I think we all want to see the area grow and blossom."
Committee member Darryl Hart, who chairs the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation, emphasized the church's right to do what it wants with its property. "Sometimes you have to take action," he said, adding, "I think we need to look at the big picture and not be quick to criticize."
Paul Reeves of the local Preservation Society wanted more time to help the church explore options.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis pleaded with Harris, saying, "I would beg you: Trust me for 30 days." Davis proposed a public/private partnership that would keep the buildings intact while creating a parking area to generate revenue for the church. "I think it's worth delaying to discuss that," he said.
Downtown Commission member Guadalupe Chavarria, who voted against the continuance, said: "I just have to ask: Where have you been [over the past several years]?"
"I've never seen Asheville do anything in 30 days."
Harris, meanwhile, stressed the church's many attempts to get something done.
"We've been there. We've done that," he said. "That's part of our frustration."