Introducing South Slope: Downtown’s fringe district sees new life

Image 1. Table for tomorrow: Soon, dining will be a reality in South Slope. Pictured here, Jessica and Doug Reiser of Burial Beer, with baby Axel. Photo by Max Cooper

Image 2. Corner of Coxe & Sawyer: In the ‘50s and ‘60s, much of Coxe Avenue was populated by car dealerships, which later moved to the outskirts of town. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

Image 3. Charming grit: Dan and Jael Rattigan like South Slope for its proximity to downtown coupled with its rugged, industrial-cool feel.

On a bright Thursday morning, an equally bright Mercedes slinks down Banks Avenue. It passes a giant hole in the ground filled with brush and debris, a graffiti-ed cinderblock building and a gaping gravel lot. It slows outside a vacant warehouse, the Standard Paper Company building. Inside the car, a buttoned-up, well-coifed financial-type pulls out a stack of papers and eyes the warehouse — until he realizes he's being watched. He pulls away, only to double back past the building that has caught his eye.

“Every time I drive down Banks Avenue, there's somebody parked on that street with a clipboard or a notepad,” says Lane Reid, owner of Image 420 in West Asheville. He’s seen a slew of real-estate agents and prospective buyers surveying the heretofore overlooked neighborhood since he purchased building at 15 Banks Ave., with partners from The Admiral. Together, they're working on a (still-unnamed) restaurant that will serve creatively updated Southern staples in the neighborhood south of downtown.

“Most people know it as South Slope,” Reid says in reference to the area that includes Banks, Buxton, Collier, Coxe and Southside avenues, among others. It's unclear where the name got its start, but most of the business owners in the area use it. The Downtown Master Plan defines South Slope as a larger area roughly bounded by Patton, Biltmore, Southside and Asheland avenues.

“The Downtown Master Plan didn't generate that name,” says Alan Glines, an urban planner with the city of Asheville. “It was already being used, and the Master Plan reiterated it.” (The 2009 Master Plan details goals for Asheville’s development. It was commissioned by City Council and compiled by a private firm as the result of a series of public-input meetings.)

Like Reid, Glines sees major growth coming. “If someone took snapshots today and compared them with 10 years in the future, I think it will be a completely different environment down there,” he says. “There's so much land; there's so much property that's available.”

Glines has been watching as new businesses have germinated and set roots in South Slope, among the auto parts stores and repair shops that have been in the area for generations. In 2005, Greenman Brewing moved south. Then, The Prospect bar and Asheville Hardware opened in 2010. The next year, Eagle's Nest Outfitters and the French Broad Chocolate factory followed. In January 2013, Tolliver's Crossing, a pub in West Asheville, told Xpress it will relocate to lower Coxe Avenue, and Burial Beer announced its new microbrewery and taproom will open at 40 Collier Avenue in spring.

In December 2012, a group of investors that includes Eric Booker of Asheville and Mark Maynard, a Wilmington-based developer, bought the Chrysler Building on Coxe Avenue and the adjacent vacant lot (known as “the big hole” for the swimming-pool-size depression it contains). Booker says the future of the properties is still unclear. “We are developing them; I just don’t know if we know into what yet,” he says. He listed office space, parking and commercial as possible components of the project.

Dinah Shore played the big hole

In the early days of the automobile, South Slope was alive with the sounds of purring engines and expensive shoes, says Barbara Ayers-King. She owns Motor Parts of Asheville at the corner of Hilliard and Coxe; her father owned the business before her. “In October, the automobile dealers had big galas,” she recalls. “Everybody would be dressed up. Dinah Shore would be here, these incredible bands. I can remember walking down this street — this was before our family purchased the building — and coming in here, and the Edsels and Chryslers and DeSotos were parked right here.”

Coxe Avenue was built in the early 1920s. Glines says it was the first street in the city designed with automobile traffic in mind; that's why it's wider than other downtown streets. South Slope grew up around Coxe. In a decade, the grassy slope known as Buxton Hill that had been the pastoral location of several schools was transformed into a frenzy of manufacturers, car dealers and repair shops, according to Asheville City Directories.

Eventually, the auto dealers moved out to suburban locations such as Tunnel Road and New Leicester Highway, Ayers-King says, getting at one of the reasons why South Slope has so many vacant lots now. But there are other possible reasons why the neighborhood remains underdeveloped. In the early 2000s, the rising property values of the real-estate bubble may have prompted owners to sell. Investors snapped up real estate, only to watch their prospects languish as the economy turned, says Glines.

One of the most promising developers, Zona Lofts, planned a 15-story condo tower and dug the big hole, but the project stalled out post-2008, and the company went bankrupt in 2011.

Even without the Zona project, South Slope has grown deliberately, albeit slowly, over the past decade. “South Slope might be a little more modest, a little more homegrown,” Glines says, comparing the neighborhood to what it might have been if the proposed condos had come about. “Those [businesses] are going to be catalysts in their own way. They're going to be smaller, but they'll create energy down there and get people thinking about it.”

For her part, Ayers-King hopes the neighborhood will host a more diverse range of businesses. “I like the cities that have a real, real interesting mix of professional offices and businesses like ours, as well as good restaurants,” she says. “I think it would be more fun, like Atlanta, to have it all mixed up and more thriving instead of so downbeat and quaint and village. I like a little more dynamism and enterprise.”

She may get her wish.

As a testament to the success of the area's small businesses, every lot on Buxton Avenue is in use. For a small, unassuming cross-street, that density would seem to be a mark of success.

The heart of a new neighborhood

South Slope business owners know the momentum in their neighborhood is building. “I feel really lucky that we got into the neighborhood right on the cusp of it,” says Jael Rattigan, who co-owns French Broad Chocolates with her husband, Dan. The couple opened the chocolate factory on Buxton last spring to support their South Lexington Avenue chocolate lounge. “It strikes the perfect balance between manufacturing and retail space for us. We've got a garage door. A truck can pull right into the space if we need, but we still maintain neighborly frontage.”

South Slope occupies the fringe of downtown’s central business district, so Dan says the city requires the business to maintain a storefront. In other words, South Slope will never be a full-fledged manufacturing district. “The city has a long-term vision for this area as being part of the central business district, and I appreciate that,” Dan says. “[The neighborhood] seems to be going in the right direction.”

The city's hopes for South Slope are laid out in the Downtown Master Plan, which underscores the neighborhood's important location between downtown and Mission Hospital. “Coxe should become the heart of a new residential neighborhood with a comfortable, walking scale, direct links to downtown, new housing and neighborhood retail,” the plan states. “The intersection of Biltmore and Southside [avenues] is an important gateway to downtown and Biltmore Village and the south. It should become a high-value area that includes housing, stores other commercial uses and medical offices.”

As new projects get under way, current tenants hope the neighborhood will maintain its character. Everyone seems to agree: The important qualities of the area are its history, laid-back feel, industrial architecture and “charming grit,” as Jael puts it.

“Instead of tearing down buildings, hopefully they'll be revived,” says Chuck Brown, who is relocating Tolliver’s Crossing from central Haywood Road to Coxe Avenue in spring, once a building renovation is complete.

He's banking on South Slope as a place where his customers will feel comfortable. He says the polish of downtown could alienate some of his regulars. “Downtown, it's a beautiful thing down there, but it's kind of hard,” he says. “[Here], we will be a little on the outskirts, where we can hopefully still bring that family that we've gotten to know over the years.”

Like Brown, Doug and Jessica Reiser, the owners of Burial Beer, were attracted to South Slope's fringe quality, but instead of moving across town, they moved across the country to bring their business to the neighborhood. They relocated to Asheville from Seattle in September to scout a location for their nascent brewery. This spring, they plan to open a small taproom in the loading bay of a warehouse on Collier Avenue. Head brewer and co-owner Tim Gormley, formerly of Lazy Boy Brewing and Sound Brewery near Seattle, will head up the beers.

Eventually, the Burial folks hope to relocate to a larger property with room for gardens and a farmhouse and abrewery, but for now, they want to build their brand grass-roots-style. That’s where South Slope comes in. Jessica says she’s inspired by the surrounding local businesses, as well as the feel of the place. “We like that kind of rugged, industrial look,” she says. “This neighborhood still has a lot of potential to grow, so we just kind of resonated with that stage.”

Emily Patrick can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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