New plan for The Block unveiled

After years of infighting and stalled proposals, a $20 million plan aimed at revitalizing “The Block,” a historically African-American downtown neighborhood, calls for adding new commercial space and 52 condominiums within the next two years.

The plan, a partnership between a nonprofit arm of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Landmark Group, a Winston-Salem-based developer, was presented to area residents at a June 21 community meeting held at the church.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” noted Roy Harris, the chair of the church’s board of trustees, adding that residents can expect the community to change. “We’re trying to make sure that this community keeps its heritage, but we have to be realists as well. We’ll never be able to bring back The Block the way it was—completely African-American. What we’re looking for now is how can we do business in this area while still keeping our heritage.”

The plan calls for renovating three historic structures: the Boozer Building on Eagle Street and two others nearby, known as Foundry I and Foundry II. Landmark would add three additional buildings, plus a central courtyard and prayer garden. All of the property in question is owned by the church.

“This is a true partnership,” said Rex Todd the Landmark Group. “The condominiums are built at a scale compatible with the community. They don’t remove the culture of The Block—they enhance and fill out the existing culture. It will be a major removal of blight, and it will convert hopes and struggles into cash.”

Both the renovation and the new construction would be handled by the Asheville-based Rowhouse Architects, which was also involved in the Grove Arcade renovation, noted Todd.

Mount Zion would get half of the proceeds from any condo sales. The money, Harris noted, would enable the church to build a long-desired education building behind its current site and pay off much of its debt.

However, some residents raised concerns about the price of the condo units, which are projected to start at $180,000, and the effects such a project would have on the community.

“Initially, what all this was about was preservation of The Block—I thought that meant preservation of the black community, of black culture and black entrepreneurship,” said James Smith. “It seems like all I’m hearing now is about money. The current owners of the shops around here won’t be able to afford one of those condos, and the people moving into the condos are going to change things. I don’t think it will be The Block anymore once this construction is done.”

But community resident Barbara Jones saw things differently, saying, “In these days in downtown Asheville, comparatively, $180,000 is about an affordable price.”

Cost, noted Harris, was a concern to the partnership as well. “This has been a long, tough, arduous process. That’s why it’s taken us 15 years to get to this point,” he said.

In the end, said Harris, the project will benefit both the church and the larger community. “This will bring people to The Block, it will bring their money to The Block, it will bring their commerce here, and it will make this a thriving part of downtown—and these condos will be available to whomever wishes to buy them.”

After several additional community meetings and adjustments to the plans, they will be submitted to the city’s Downtown Commission this summer. City Council, which has made redevelopment of The Block a goal, is expected to hold a public hearing in January.


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