After years of failed plans, scuppered developments and legal battles, downtown’s historically African-American Eagle Street neighborhood, The Block, may finally see major growth and redevelopment.
Asheville City Council approved $3.3 million in funding for The Block, specifically Eagle Market Place, a project that will include and add to many of its existing historic buildings. The redevelopment will include 62 affordable housing units as well as commercial and community space.
Redeveloping the neighborhood has been a city priority for many years, ever since it was devastated by the urban renewal of the 1970s. While much of the rest of downtown saw a boom then, The Block’s long-abandoned storefronts remained empty.
The $13 million project, headed by the Eagle Market Street Development Corporation and Mountain Housing Opportunities, has received federal and local funds to bring it to completion. Earlier in its planning process, the city had already committed to $1.3 million in grants and loans.
The fact that The Block hasn't experienced the same prosperity as the rest of downtown is a major reason to see the project through, MHO Director Scott Dedman said.
“We remember the progress in downtown,” he noted. “Buildings that add vitality to our community downtown, including economic energy and a sense of place, have come to places that stand just a few feet away from the Eagle Market Place properties.”
Further, he said, it will prove a boon to Asheville's working class, as “we are in job central for the people who will live there. Tens of thousands of workers nearby earn in the range of $15,000 to $30,000 a year.” In commuting costs alone, he said, the development will save the families there 1,000 miles a year.
Marvin Chambers, who, as a student at Stephens-Lee High School, was part of the core of the local civil rights movement, said the development will show the city that “The Block is still alive.”
“I think of the many who lost their businesses in the fight to maintain the rights of people to enjoy the equity that exists between all people,” he said. “The Block has a value that, in terms of real estate, is a very important part of this city. Those of you that are business people, I'm sure you already know that. But to us it has a greater value, because this is where we had a part of Asheville.”
Matthew Bacoate, a member of the MHO Board of Directors, remembered The Block's reputation as “one of the most thriving black business districts in our country” with 47 locally owned businesses and a strong community. He hopes a measure of that vitality can still return.
The endorsements of local planners, community members and nearby business owners proved persuasive to the Council, which unanimously approved the additional funding. Council member Gordon Smith lauded the proposal as "transformational."
The latest round of funding came after estimates for the project rose sharply in the last two months, due to rising construction-industry costs and structural problems with the buildings.
After a third-party assessment, the city determined that the market rate would actually be above the new estimates — justifying the cost increase — and staff put together a $3.3 million funding package, including money from the city's economic development and affordable housing trust funds. Some of the funds were originally designated for infrastructure.
The city must still approve a development agreement on Sept. 10, but the funding was the last major hurdle for the project. MHO and the EMSDC expect to begin construction on Eagle Market Place in October.