The area that sits in the foreground of the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the U.S. Cellular Center (the renamed Civic Center) offers a rare opportunity (see “City Will Bring Forward Offers on Haywood St. Properties in March,” Feb. 21, 2012 Xpress). Representing a unique civic/religious convergence in downtown Asheville, this urban canvas, which includes multiple parcels owned by the city and by the Diocese of Charlotte, respectively, offers us a challenge: Will we, as a community and a government, come together, set aside simplistic short-term solutions and create a compelling vision to guide the evolution of this property?
Thus far, the conversation seems to have gotten stuck in the same tired old debate: corporate high-rise versus park. And while the city bears some responsibility for generating a blurry development vision, basilica supporters have compounded the stumble by insisting on an equally bland and reactionary alternative.
Meanwhile, both courses ignore numerous urban challenges and opportunities. Setting aside for now the competing options’ financial and property-tax implications and the merits of reaching an agreement with the McKibbon Hotel Group, let me instead explore the urban-design issues that should rightly provide the foundation for this project.
Anyone who’s ever attended or witnessed a big event at the Civic Center understands that the exterior gathering space, ticket office, drop-off area and parking access are dysfunctional. Even as this civic venue undergoes its own enhancements and evolution, these related challenges must be factored into the scope of the project across the street. The basilica, too, is hampered by the lack of a large gathering space in front, a drop-off area, parking, etc.
Rather than ignoring these issues, we need to adopt a broader, more inclusive and creative analysis and design process that will facilitate optimal solutions — before the city agrees to sell its property.
For starters, we should analyze and adjust the current road configurations: perhaps straighten Page Avenue to eliminate the awkward land patterns and traffic signals; narrow the footprint of Haywood and Flint streets; and eliminate underutilized travel/turn lanes. Maybe we shift this entire streetscape to modular paving, removing all asphalt and curbs to create a large, European-style plaza shared by vehicles and pedestrians as events at the adjacent buildings dictate.
An open space here is a no-brainer, but we should seek integrated urban solutions for this site — durable, low-maintenance surfaces and appropriate urban furnishings (benches, trash containers, lighting, information/history kiosks, etc.) — rather than a suburban lawn surrounded by awkward roads and the blank wall of an existing structure, or a sterile elevated platform in front of an ugly building cartoon, as proposed in the renderings offered by the opposing forces.
With reconfigured roadways, this open space could become a lively forecourt shared by the basilica and Civic Center as well as other buildings around the perimeter.
Successful urban spaces enhance adjacent structures — but only if the buildings forming the walls of this “outdoor room” respect and amplify the qualities of that open space through appropriate plaza-level uses and connections, building height and details, subverted service/utility/vehicular connections, etc.
One could easily make the case that two new buildings — one on the city-owned site along the southern edge, and another on the diocese property to the west — would create a world-class, dynamic, flexible urban space that could solve various issues while accommodating a variety of functions. But this will happen only if those structures are appropriately designed and the surrounding streets are reconfigured. This approach would also serve the basilica’s interests better than the ideas it’s proposed thus far.
The city has designed and proposed a surface parking lot for the site that, according to my math, would pay for itself in two years. This would be an appropriate temporary, cost-effective use while we thoughtfully explore and refine the site’s future. But lack of leadership and direction seems to have left us paralyzed, with nothing to look forward to except another year of abandoned buildings and ugly asphalt.
The Asheville Design Center has offered to facilitate a process seeking this level of inquiry and outcome. The city and the diocese should both take advantage of this offer, so we can roll up our sleeves and get to work articulating a shared vision.
— Local architect Michael McDonough is vice chair of the Downtown Commission, vice president of the Montford Neighborhood Association, a founding board member of the Asheville Design Center and an unabashed believer in good design. This commentary represents the author’s opinions, not those of any of the above-mentioned groups.