The Asheville Downtown Commission has approved the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church's plans to demolish two downtown buildings it owns. On July 10, the commission gave final approval on a 7-3 vote.
Both structures are in The Block, the city's historically African-American business district: a 10,000-square-foot building at 40 S. Spruce St. (built in 1915) and a 15,000-square-foot building at 51. S. Market St. (erected in 1920). The three-story brick structures housed the operations of Asheville Supply & Foundry until about 1950.
The area, which includes Eagle Street and the landmark YMI Cultural Center, has been the target of redevelopment plans for 20 years. But while downtown development has boomed during that time, there's been little progress on The Block. The church's own efforts to redevelop the buildings have likewise never come to fruition. Roy Harris, chairman of the church's trustees, said the buildings have become a financial drain. Homeless people have moved in and trashed the interior, he said, and the cost of maintenance and property taxes has grown too large for the church to bear.
The church's demolition plans came as a surprise to the downtown advisory board, which initially put off making a decision in the hope of finding a way to save the buildings, which have some historical value and remain in good shape. City officials offered to help the church seek tax relief and to lease space from the church for parking.
In a July 9 letter to city Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel, the Rev. John Grant, Mount Zion's pastor and president, said the church was interested in renting 22 existing parking spaces to the city and in discussing options for saving another building it owns, in the old foundry complex at 35 Eagle St. But without further explanation, Grant wrote that he wasn't interested in further negotiations concerning the Spruce Street and Market Street properties.
Making the motion to permit the demolition, Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who serves on the Downtown Commission, said, "I think we, as a body, have done everything we can do."
Commission member Harry Weiss said he understood the church's reasons for demolition but opposed the plan.
"I understand why it's occurring, but I can't support it," said Weiss. "I want to go on record as saying this is a bad option: It's lousy all the way around."
After the meeting, Harris said demolition might not start for several weeks. The church has to complete its vacation Bible school and make sure that its timetable fits with the schedule of the demolition crew it plans to hire.