Everything new is old again

Asheville’s struggle to define its identity downtown is not limited to recent debates, but has occurred again and again throughout its history.

That was the message from panelists participating in the second installment of public meetings in the run-up to a new Downtown Master Plan.

Despite a gray and drizzly evening on May 16, slightly more than 100 people showed up at the city’s public-works facility to hear a presentation on the history of downtown’s development.

A show of hands indicated that the room was evenly split among residents who have lived in Asheville five, 10, 20 years and more. While the panelists were considered experts, there were several in the crowd who have been in the city long enough to shout out corrections when needed.

The panel included architectural historian Harry Weiss, architect Jim Samsel and former Director of Downtown Development Leslie Anderson. Their message? The growing pains and changes downtown are nothing new, thanks to “topographical restraints … that forced us to rebuild downtown many times over,” Weiss said.

And this isn’t the first time the city has felt pressure rising from increasing population. In the 1920s, Weiss continued, Asheville’s population increased by 30,000 and downtown construction increased threefold. That resulted in a much more vertical downtown as taller buildings went in.

“Asheville has always had outsiders coming in and being embraced and asked to leave their mark,” Weiss said, an acknowledgment that much hay has been made of the fact that Goody Clancy, the firm charged with drafting a new downtown plan, is based in Massachusetts.

Samsel noted that many of the desires talked about today, such as walkability, housing and public transit, were once well-established in Asheville, but were eventually outdone by federal-highway policies, cheap gasoline and, later, the opening of the Asheville Mall.

Anderson, who now runs a consulting firm, noted the importance throughout recent history of public/private partnerships in restoring downtown from its slump, which lasted through much of the 20th century. She encouraged the city not to abandon policies that foster interest by private businesses.

“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve forgotten the very important role of the private sector,” she said.

The next Downtown Master Plan meetings will be held Friday and Saturday, May 30 and 31, with the locations to be announced.

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