You’d never know it from the kids splashing around the fountain or the young couples playing Frisbee on the lawn, but a decade ago, the 6.5 acres comprising downtown Asheville’s City/County Plaza was a mishmash of thoroughfares — three lanes of Patton Avenue traffic cut eastward past the Vance Monument, merging onto College Street — and ragtag green space featuring scraggly trees and a scarcity of benches.
Aug. 18 marked the fifth anniversary of Pack Square Park’s official public groundbreaking. But the relative calm of the space today belies its controversial history: years of delays, major cost overruns, closed streets, the continuing lack of public restrooms and a $2 million shortfall (see sidebar, “Payday?”).
Although informal plans for a park on the spot stretch back more than a century, the current incarnation roughly dates to 1999, when it was discovered that a water-line leak was undermining the street fronting the Biltmore Building. At the time, according to longtime downtown advocate Karen Tessier, the city had no plans (or money) to do much more than dig up the street, fix the problem and replace the dirt. “A number of us saw an opportunity to finally make George Pack’s dream a reality,” Tessier recalls. Instrumental in raising money for the new park, she considers it “the crown jewel” of Asheville’s decades-long downtown revitalization movement.
Not everyone is bullish, however. Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell has characterized the project as a “debacle,” with a final tab far exceeding the original estimates. “It was supposed to be done without government funds, but has consumed millions of tax dollars, and the [Pack Square] Conservancy owes the city $2 million it doesn't have,” he asserts, adding, “It’s a good example of a failed public/private partnership.”
The early years
Back in 1999, the Downtown Commission formed a task force to look at redesigning the entire area from Pack Square to City/County Plaza, seeking input from the public on what features they’d most like to see. Among the most-requested items were better landscaping with native plants, re-routing traffic, a better setting for events and performances, outdoor art and public restrooms.
The following year, the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy was formed, charged with overseeing the park’s design and construction while raising money to build it and establish an endowment. The group has a volunteer board and two paid staffers.
For the first five years, the conservancy held public workshops, consulted architects and designers, drew up initial plans and worked on fundraising.
In 2005, Congress approved a $4 million earmark requested by Rep. Charles Taylor for transportation-related infrastructure costs (including digging up streets and re-routing Patton Avenue). And by the end of that year, the conservancy had raised $9.6 million to cover the actual park construction. In 2006, plans were drawn up for a large multipurpose pavilion/visitor center that would include public bathrooms.
Infrastructure projects continued well into 2007, but work was often halted till the N.C. Department of Transportation and the State Historic Preservation Office could review the progress. Outside entities — designers, archaeologists, structural consultants, mechanical engineers, utility company representatives, various city departments, property owners and county officials — had to be consulted every step of the way, and contractors, committees and the conservancy itself had to negotiate a labyrinth of approvals every time an unexpected problem arose.
“The public/private nature of the project guaranteed that it was no quick process. … It took one entire month just to remove some concrete buried under the road in front of the Jackson Building because of all the necessary approvals,” notes Gary Giniat, the conservancy’s executive director since early last year.
Along the way, the project was also beset by extreme weather delays and skyrocketing construction-material costs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Rising costs, sinking timelines
In the meantime, the cost of the park continued to grow.
In 2000, the conservancy had estimated the cost of the park at somewhere between $500,000 and $2.5 million. By 2004, the plans had advanced in response to public input, and the estimated cost had jumped to $7.5 million, plus another $2.5 million for an endowment that would cover future maintenance and repairs. In September of that year, the Buncombe County commissioners signed off on a $10.5 million budget for the project (including a $2 million endowment), and early in 2005, they followed that up by agreeing to chip in $2 million in public moneys.
In 2007, the conservancy hired an independent firm to provide a revised cost estimate for the completed park, which came in at just over $20 million, not including the endowment. That figure has since been revised downward to reflect items scrapped from the plans; it now stands at about $18 million, not including the endowment.
At this writing, the conservancy has $200,000 in the bank, plus outstanding pledges totaling just over $700,000 and an additional $500,000 in as-yet-uncollected bequests. Meanwhile, the nonprofit owes the city roughly $2 million (see sidebar).
Intertwined with the cost increases was a series of missed deadlines. A 2001 agreement with the county set a firm completion date of Dec. 31, 2006. A June 25, 2007 press release stated, “The entire park [including the pavilion] is expected to be done by the end of 2008.” And an October 2008 audit by Buncombe County noted, “Completion is now slated for August 2009 … which is several years past its original completion date.”
Work on the park proceeded in stages, and it was finally wrapped up in March of this year.
For Bothwell, those delays remain highly problematic. “Having worked in the construction industry since 1970, the extended time frame of the park reconstruction was incomprehensible,” he maintains. “A for-profit company would never have permitted a major enterprise to drag on for five years, and the city could have accomplished the work in half the time and probably at half the cost.”
Bringing it to life
The infrastructure work was finished in August of 2007, when work on the park’s major features — the veterans memorial, the interactive fountain, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Stage, Roger McGuire Green, the Reuter Terrace amphitheater and the massive bronze Pack Square fountain — began. By the end of 2009, local sculptor Hoss Haley (who designed the fountain) had also designed and installed the striking, stainless steel pergola that now crowns the stage.
Bothwell isn’t shy in critiquing the park’s features, either. “The completed park is replete with design and management failures — I think one might expect an experienced public-space architect to do better,” he comments. The placement of the stage, he maintains, hinders offloading of equipment, because Court Plaza is a fire lane and can't be blocked. “The popular Splasheville fountain is too close to the stage, so it has to be turned off during performances,” he said.
In addition, notes Bothwell, “The stage faces due west, forcing evening performers to face the setting sun. There is no permanent roof for the stage area. And the conservancy now tells us that the space which was once the center of Asheville's largest festival is not appropriate for large events.” Giniat, however, says it was never intended as a venue for major bands.
Local jazz singer Kat Williams, on the other hand, says, “Honey, for an outdoor venue, the stage is fabulous, because the sound really travels.” And theater designer Kyle Smith, who worked on the project, says the stage’s electrical components are better than those at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. “You just don’t know they’re there,” he explains. “The architect went to great lengths to disguise them.”
Tiffs and trade-offs
Like most nonprofits, the conservancy took a hit after the national economy tanked in 2007. As early as 2008, the group discussed putting the pavilion — and its $2.5 million to $3 million price tag — on hold. Other features were also axed or postponed, including a custom-designed cover for the stage that would have cost another $250,000. For the time being, groups staging events can rent a temporary cover to prepare for bad weather.
As originally conceived, the pavilion would also have included offices for the conservancy, a large workshop/meeting space and a café (which drew the ire of neighboring restaurants). The nonprofit finally shelved those plans last year, citing financial concerns and a desire not to further postpone the park’s opening.
In March of 2009, the park received a $500,000 challenge grant from the Tourism Development Authority for the pavilion. Now, however, it may help fund a scaled-back informational kiosk that could further the TDA’s mission while addressing the need for restrooms. Hoping to minimize construction time and the impact on the park itself, says Giniat, the conservancy is hoping to start construction by late fall.
But key issues remain unresolved. “Public bathrooms are difficult to maintain and keep clean,” he notes. “Will they be heated? Will they be open in the winter or after dark? Will they have security or attendants? And who will pay for the maintenance? These are all questions that still need to be worked out.”
— Michael Muller can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at email@example.com.