Lex make a deal

A handful of families control most of the property on downtown Asheville’s North Lexington Avenue, but the Lantzius name is pre-eminent. Vancouver resident John Lantzius and his kin own the lion’s share of properties on both sides of the road between College Street and the Interstate 240 overpass, along with several properties on the adjacent stretch of Broadway, and by most accounts, they are landlords to die for.

All in the families: This map, prepared in 2005 by Stephanie Monson of Asheville’s Economic Development Office, showed property ownership on Lexington, which remaims largely unchanged.

Artist Michael Hatch of Crucible Glass Works has been a Lantzius tenant for eight years. “He’s been a great landlord,” says Hatch. “He’s watched out for me; he’s made this business possible.”

Asheville City Council member Robin Cape echoes Hatch’s view, declaring, “John Lantzius is the father of the alternative businesses in this community. He’s getting older, and he wants to leave Asheville in a good place.”

Others take a less sanguine view of Lantzius family ownership, particularly the ouster of Vincent’s Ear, a widely popular alternative-culture venue evicted from its courtyard space at the end of 2004 (see “Up in Smoke,” Dec. 8, 2004 Xpress).

But folks with longer memories hark back to 1980, when the Asheville City Council unanimously approved a plan for a downtown mall. As related in these pages by Tom Kerr (“The Other Side of Asheville,” June 7, 2000 Xpress) “The project proposed to raze such landmarks as our Art Deco masterpiece, The Kress Building. The T.S. Morrison Store, a general mercantile store in business since 1891, was slated for destruction. Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop on Broadway (circa 1903) and the whole of lower Lexington Avenue … would have been demolished, on both sides of the street. Walnut Street and its handcarved granite curbstones, from Haywood Street all the way to Broadway, would have been laid to waste by wrecking balls and bulldozers. … Carolina Lane, where Thomas Wolfe used to deliver newspapers as a boy, would have likely become the location of the indoor mall’s food court.”

John Lantzius was one of those who resisted the demolition plans, preferring instead to resurrect some of Asheville’s classic commercial buildings—red-brick beauties that have housed a century’s worth of local enterprises. Some of the street’s signature businesses have numbered among the family’s many tenants over the years. Artemesia, Cat in the Tub, Chevron Trading Post, Cosmic Vision, Crucible Glass Works, Dirt and Sky People Art Gallery, Fashionistas, Heiwa Shokudo, Mela, Mountain Lights, The Natural Home, Nest Organics, News of the Blue Sky, Piece Garden, Rosetta’s Kitchen, Shady Grove, 68 Lexington, Spiritex, Terra Nostra and Vincent’s Ear are among the local businesses that have operated in Lantzius-owned properties.

Whither Lex?

Cape says she ran into Lantzius on Lexington Avenue several months ago and made a suggestion. “I told him I thought that a new city parking garage should serve Lexington and the Civic Center,” she recalls. By her account, he quickly agreed.

“He said, ‘I have a design that I’ve thought about to provide storefronts on Lexington and apartments above,’ and as we talked it was clear that it could easily include city parking.” But according to Cape, Lantzius said he wouldn’t go forward with the idea unless it protected and provided space for local businesses. As currently envisioned, the project would displace a city-owned parking lot on Rankin Avenue as well as the buildings currently housing Heiwa (a Lantzius property) and Downtown Books and News (owned by Bob and Ellen Carr).

The Carrs, who also own Tops for Shoes, formerly operated their discount shoe outlet at the current Downtown Books location. “We know that there is a garage coming behind these buildings, probably in two years,” Ellen Carr told Xpress, noting that she hadn’t discussed the matter with Lantzius. “When they do that, they are going to be taking storefronts on Lexington to make it happen. We know there will be changes, but what, we don’t know.”

Just parking?: Downtown Books and News manager Julian Vorus ponders possible eviction. photo by Jonathan Welch

Cape, meanwhile, pitched the idea to the city planning staff, who’d already been evaluating various possibilities for a parking deck on the east side of Rankin Avenue that would extend down to Lexington. It could provide convenient parking for both the Civic Center and merchants on North Lexington as well as Broadway, Walnut and Woodfin streets. “There could be a pedestrian bridge to the Civic Center Parking Deck,” notes Cape, “or maybe even an auto bridge connecting the lots.”

Cape has also discussed the idea with members of the Lexington Avenue Merchants’ Association. “LAMA members have discussed the idea, and we would only support new mixed-use development along Lexington if there were units that were affordable for artists,” Rebecca Hecht, the group’s president, told Xpress. Hecht, who owns Adorn Salon & Boutique on North Lexington, said her group would like to have input into any project that would have a significant impact on the area.

On the city’s Web site, a Downtown Parking Action Plan dated Nov. 28, 2006, includes the entry: “Evaluate possibility of new parking lot on Rankin Avenue across from the Civic Center,” with a June 2007 target date for completing the assessment. The estimated cost is listed as $13 million. Cathy Ball, director of the city’s Transportation and Engineering Department, said the figure is based on 650 parking spaces at $20,000 per space, but she failed to respond to questions about any specific plans that might be in the works.

According to Urban Planner Stephanie Monson of the city’s Economic Development office, staff have participated in several stakeholder meetings over the last year or so, seeking input from business and property owners, Lexington residents and elected officials concerning potential improvements to the area. “At one of these meetings about six months ago,” said Monson, “the entire group shared ideas for a mixed-use infill project. Everyone agreed that the overarching objective for such a project would be how to maintain and strengthen Lexington Park’s arts-centric neighborhood character and style.” Among the ideas tossed out at the meeting, she said, were: commissioning local artists to create transit shelter/bike racks; offering businesses long-term leases; creating retail condo spaces; developing artists’ studios that could be shared; and crafting policies to offset the impact of rising tax valuations on property owners.

Asked about the Downtown Parking Action Plan, Monson added, “The folks at that meeting knew this initiative was under way, so incorporating public parking into a private infill project on Lexington—or, at minimum, recognizing the added value of such a private project if it were adjacent to a new parking deck—was eventually discussed at that meeting.”

Carr, meanwhile, said: “Until we see a plan, we don’t know what the story will be. Downtown Books told us they wanted to improve the building, and we discouraged them. We wanted them to know that changes were coming.” She added: “We’d like the street to retain at least some of its old character. We have a soft spot for Lexington, and we’re optimistic. Downtown Books has been a great tenant, and we don’t want to see them go.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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