Half an hour before Asheville residents began flooding into the Civic Center for the Downtown Master Plan kickoff meeting on May 8, a rally organized by People Advocating for Real Conservancy had sprung up outside. Waving signs that read “Save the Basilica” and “Stop the High Rise,” PARC was there to protest a nine-story hotel and parking deck that has been proposed for a parcel directly across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence as part of the city’s request for ideas for uses of city-owned property. The protesters feared that the new building would “dwarf the Basilica,” obstructing views of the 99-year-old Catholic church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Protest participant Laura Thomas had created a model to illustrate the scale of the proposed hotel. “A lot of people have different notions of what ought to be here,” she said, lifting the cardboard representation of the high-rise off the plot to show a triangle of green felt underneath, signifying a park. “Some people want a plaza, some people want a park and some people want a sculpture garden. What we want is a discussion and a say.”
Bud Hansbury, operations manager at the Basilica, expressed frustration at City Council’s recent decision to proceed with discussions with the developer, McKibbon Hotel Group, which wants to buy the city-owned land for $1.8 million. “The main thing that we want is a full presentation [about the proposal] in front of the church, because of its antiquity,” he said.
PARC had picked a good time to express an opinion, as gathering public input was the focus of the evening’s Downtown Master Plan kick-off meeting, held in the Civic Center Banquet Hall. Due to the tremendous turnout, it took longer than expected for things to get underway. “Be patient,” Vice Mayor Jan Davis said into a microphone as everyone milled about, searching for seats. “This is a great problem to have.”
After Davis and project manager Sasha Vrtunski gave some opening remarks, David Dixon took the floor. Dixon directs planning and urban design for Goody Clancy—the Boston-based firm selected to create the Downtown Master Plan for $170,000. He emphasized that the decision to develop a comprehensive plan couldn’t have come at a better time, as interest in living in urban centers is on the rise in Asheville and nationwide.
“You can manage this growth and change,” he told the crowd of some 300 people. “Instead of having it happen to you, you can shape it.” A master plan, he added, could protect the highly valued aspects of downtown and chart a course for accepting new proposals—but the key was that it had to be shaped by all the stakeholders. “This has to be an open and inclusive process,” he noted. “Otherwise, it will lose legitimacy.”
The wide spectrum of people who showed up to throw in their two cents got their turn next, breaking into smaller groups to discuss what they enjoyed about downtown and what they thought should be changed. A few key issues emerged as spokespeople from the groups reported back to the larger audience. Protecting small businesses, supporting the creative community, creating more affordable housing, focusing on historic preservation and placing a greater emphasis on cleanliness were all popular aims. The most prized aspect of the heart of Asheville seemed to be its “funkiness.” Leaning close to the mic and enunciating her words for emphasis, one woman drove her point home: “Keep Asheville weird.”
The next Downtown Master Plan meeting will be held Thursday, May 15, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Public Works Building, 161 S. Charlotte Street. The panel and discussion is titled “History of Downtown Asheville: Understanding the Context.”