The extensive resistance to building right on top of the disputed magnolia tree in City/County Plaza proves there’s still plenty of vitality in Asheville’s old democratic bones. Many usually apolitical people have joined the fight, saying something like, “This is the last straw.”
But the last straw in what?
If the magnolia could speak, I believe it would say, “The last straw in letting big property interests decide what our city will be.”
A huge private building in our main public park—on the front porch of the beloved City Building—is only the most blatant example of the overwhelming power of big property interests. It’s really just an extension of the experience of every neighborhood that’s seen its peace shattered by giant condo developments; of every person who’s watched their treasured green spaces buried by buildings, asphalt and people.
But unless we can connect this resistance with a principle that’s broader than just saving a magnolia tree, all that precious energy will simply evaporate into Asheville’s ever-more-polluted skies.
That bigger principle is deciding that the time has come for Asheville’s democracy to take control of developments larger than a specified size: say, 5,000 square feet. In other words, if someone wants to build something that would have an impact equivalent to that of three ordinary houses, then residents of the affected neighborhood and City Council should decide whether the proposed development would be in everyone’s best interests.
The Unified Development Ordinance currently states that developments of less than 100,000 square feet need not be considered by City Council. That’s the equivalent of 50 to 65 middle-class homes! Changing this standard, however, will first require city residents to conclude that Asheville has about as many people and big developments as it needs. That preserving our green spaces, natural life-support systems and easygoing way of life is now more important than honoring the rights of big property interests.
A truce with nature
Most Ashevilleans aren’t willing to support such a principle, I believe, due to one or more of three major objections. The first stems from the adage, “You can’t stop progress.” The corollary is that if our economy isn’t expanding and the city’s population isn’t increasing, then Asheville is dying. Yet many European countries now have decreasing populations, and they’re not dying. And in our own country, many Northern cities have declining populations while remaining fine (or even finer) places to live.
And even if there is some truth to this objection, does that mean we’re doomed to eventually see every green space developed? As noted conservative philosopher (and Asheville native) Richard Weaver observed in the 1950s: “A disequilibrium, called progress, has been institutionalized. It is causing us to sacrifice comfort, leisure and enjoyment to win Pyrrhic victories over nature at points of no strategic importance.” Even so-called “smart growth” no longer represents progress, because it’s so detrimental to our quality of life.
The second, even-more-substantive objection underscores just how fundamental is the crossroads at which we’ve now arrived: What will people do for jobs if we don’t continue to build? What will all the architects, engineers, contractors, construction workers, building suppliers, interior decorators, etc. do if there are fewer new buildings to work on? The European model calls for expanding education and health care exponentially. Their national health care and free education—including college—employ huge numbers of people.
Meanwhile, Asheville is already tapping another employment source so eloquently touted by Weaver: “Once a reasonable material wealth had been achieved, we turn our attention to humane ends. When we conclude a truce with nature, our loving arts, religion and philosophies will come spontaneously into being; these are the blessings of peace.”
Megaphoning the magnolia
In order to create such an economy, we’ll have to take care of those workers displaced from the building trades until we can find something else for them to do. This will require a fundamental shift in attitudes: From “We’re in a life-or-death competition over who gets the most of every vanishing resource” to something more along the lines of “We’re all in this together.”
On the other hand, there will still be plenty of employment in the building trades. We need to humanize many existing buildings and technologies designed purely for profit. That means putting clothes on the ugly bones of the BB&T and many other naked superstructures, constructing nonpolluting transportation options such as light rail and bike trails, and nonpolluting energy sources such as solar arrays and windmills.
The third common objection to this idea is that we are threatening to strip away the sacred rights of property ownership. To be sure, property rights are important and should be protected. But perhaps the biggest current challenge to property rights is the ability of big property interests to destroy the rights of small property interests—those homeowners and others who love this city just the way it is.
The magnolia’s most important point is that in order to shore up her defense, we need a slate of truly green candidates. The current city and county leaders are just waiting for this latest ruckus to pass, hoping to outlast exhausted community activists. Then they can shove yet another huge building project down our throats.
But if that happens, we might as well just let the magnolia die. It will hardly be remembered anyway as countless thousands of other trees are felled so that big-time developers can pile up a few more dollars.
Meanwhile, the embattled magnolia hollers from its verdant treetop: “Run for office!” The filing fee for City Council is only about $75, and a bit more for mayor and the Board of Commissioners.
[Local author Bill Branyon is currently working on a nonfiction book, tentatively titled Liberating Liberals from Conservative Preservatives.]