Mount Zion to proceed with demolishing buildings

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.

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10 thoughts on “Mount Zion to proceed with demolishing buildings

  1. AvlResident

    Not clear what’s at stake in this issue.

    “. . .the buildings . . . have some historical value.” Are they of historical value simply because they’re old? Are they architecturally significant? Were they places where events important to the history of Asheville took place? Was Asheville Supply & Foundry key to the development of Asheville? Was it important in the African-American community? Did the church buy the buildings in 1950? If so, what did they do with them or intend to do with them?

    Some photographs might help the reader get a better sense of why these buildings are significant.

    Why is Harry Weiss so opposed to their demolition?
    “I want to go on record as saying this is a bad option: It’s lousy all the way around.” If the reporter told us WHY Mr. Weiss thinks this is such a bad option, we might get a better understanding.

    Is there an issue of racial identity involved in this matter? Is it similar to old “urban renewal”
    efforts in which predominantly black neighborhoods were destroyed? This is an African-American group wanting to tear down one of its old buildings. Should they not be allowed to do so? If these buildings were not in “The Block” would there be similar concerns?

    Very confusing.

  2. ginny daley

    AvlResident – to answer some of your questions – yes, yes, yes. Actually here’s what I posted about the buildings’ significance on the other article. Hope this sheds some light on the buildings themselves.

    The age of these buildings is not what makes them significant. Along with the 3rd Asheville Supply & Foundary building (which Mt. Zion also owns), these buildings provide the only remaining physical and visual link to a significant aspect of Asheville’s development as a town. This section of town originally developed as the primary service or industrial sector of downtown. This is where the critical mass of liveries, coal & wood for heating, foundries, carpenters were located in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Asheville Supply & Foundry Co. buildings are (as far as I know) the ONLY remaining buildings representing that aspect of the town’s history/development.

    Also these service industries/businesses employed African Americans in the late 19th century and contributed to this area of town being developed as one of the most significant African American communities in Asheville during Jim Crow.

    Demolishing these buildings won’t alter history, but keeping them in the landscape would provide a visual and visceral link to Asheville’s history and evolution.

  3. orulz

    There are plenty of other existing buildings in downtown from this age, but that doesn’t make these any less valuable.

    I really think that by tearing these buildings down, the church is doing itself and The Block a disservice.

    What is it that made the renaissance of downtown Asheville possible? One big factor is the tremendous number of old buildings available for renovation. If Asheville had torn most of its historic buildings down, it would look more like Charlotte or Durham or Raleigh: no character, no “heart” to the city.

    It was only AFTER most of the historic buildings had been restored that new construction started happening downtown.

    If they want The Block to become a revitalized neighborhood, two things need to happen. First, follow the example from the rest of downtown, and DON’T TEAR THESE BUILDINGS DOWN. Second, realize that The Block’s glory days as the center of the black community in Asheville were during segregation. Don’t get so hung up on “It has to be JUST LIKE IT WAS, all the businesses owned by black people” etc. We can’t and shouldn’t bring segregation back. In other words, let it develop naturally.

    The church actually put forth a proposal several years ago to turn these buildings into condos, but the community was outraged, OUTRAGED! at the thought of gentrification… in a location just one block from Pack Square!

    In any case, many of the buildings that now form the commercial core of downtown Asheville sat vacant and derelict for decades, many of them occupied by squatters, before getting renovated. Why the big rush now? The consensus seems to be that they are very solid buildings and are in no danger of collapse. Surely a community fundraiser could raise enough money to pay the property tax to save them, and to lock them up more securely so that vagrants can’t set up shop.

  4. AvlResident

    Thanks to Ginny Daley for clarification of historic value of the buildings. Would they meet federal Historic Landmark (if that is correct term) requirements for protection?

  5. ginny daley

    To answer AvlResident – The buildings may already be part of the Asheville Downtown Historic district, which is currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If not, the buildings could probably be added to that listing or be nominated under their own right. This information would be available in the city’s Historic Resources Commission office or the State Historic Preservation office in Biltmore Village. I think folks from both of these offices have been part of the meeting with the church.

    Just FYI, if the buildings are elligible for the National Register, they might also be elligible for federal and state tax credits totaling 50% of the rehabilitation costs. The rehab process would put $ into local jobs and putting condos or businesses on the property would also create jobs
    and more importantly generate taxes for the city. More taxes than a parking lot would generate.

    There is a lot of win-win in this recipe, but I am sure folks sitting around the table already know this. There may be a sticking point on the investment end with the current economy or maybe Mt. Zion just isn’t interested in selling. Whatever the catch is, its a shame and I hope the buildings can at least be documented before they come down.

  6. jax

    Folks – only the will of the owner (or the willingness of the owner to sell it instead of demolish it) could save this property. Historic designation, landmark status, etc. — which this property has — can not prevent demolition — it may provide some incentive not to demolish, but there’s no law or zoning in place to prohibit demolition of anything, unless an owner places an easement in the property deed stating such. Our historic buildings are inherently fragile that way. We can’t take preservation of places that are important to us for granted.

  7. AvlResident

    The National Parks Web site gives the criteria for National Historic Landmark designation. They are very demanding. It seems like these buildings would not qualify.

    The quality of national significance is ascribed to districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States in history, architecture, archeology, technology and culture; and that possess a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:

    (1) That is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to, and are identified with, or that outstandingly represents, the broad national patterns of United States history and from which an understanding and appreciation of those patterns may be gained; or

    (2) That are associated importantly with the lives of persons nationally significant in the history of the United States; or
    (3) That represent some great idea or ideal of the American people; or

    (4) That embody the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type specimen exceptionally valuable for the study of a period, style or method of construction, or that represent a significant, distinctive and exceptional entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

    (5) That are composed of integral parts of the environment not sufficiently significant by reason of historical association or artistic merit to warrant individual recognition but collectively compose an entity of exceptional historical or artistic significance, or outstandingly commemorate or illustrate a way of life or culture; or

    (6 ) That have yielded or may be likely to yield information of major scientific importance by revealing new cultures, or by shedding light upon periods of occupation over large areas of the United States. Such sites are those which have yielded, or which may reasonably be expected to yield, data affecting theories, concepts and ideas to a major degree.

    Ordinarily, cemeteries, birthplaces, graves of historical figures, properties owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes, structures that have been moved from their original locations, reconstructed historic buildings and properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years are not eligible for designation. Such properties, however, will qualify if they fall within the following categories:

    (1) A religious property deriving its primary national significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance; or

    (2) A building or structure removed from its original location but which is nationally significant primarily for its architectural merit, or for association with persons or events of transcendent importance in the Nation’s history and the consequential association . . .

  8. jax

    All of the buildings that belong to Mount Zion Church — plus dozens more downtown — are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places!!! There is a downtown historic district listed in the National REgister of Historic Places, and has been for nearly 30 years due to its historical and architectural significance!!! Check it out here: http://www.nps.gov/history/nR/travel/asheville/. That status does not stop an owner or developer from tearing a building down. The Broadway Market Building (across from the new Dripolator Coffee House) was town down a few months ago, and it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A brick commerical building on Biltmore Avenue, listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the downtown district, will be torn down for the Ellington hotel and condo development. Stewart Coleman has been threatening to tear down the Hayes & Hopson Building, which is — guess what — listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the downtown district! There is no absolute protection for historic buildings (except for a covenant written into a property deed)— there’s no substitute for public and private STEWARDSHIP of buildings that are important to communities.

  9. All I know is I have photos of these building broken into, vandalized, and with giant tree stumps & roots rotting the foundations.

    I can’t see how these buildings could possibly help the city or Mt Zion preserve any sense of history or dignity without some significant financial investment in order to revive these parcels back into any sort of usable space.

  10. ginny daley

    JBo – I don’t think the condition of the buildings are the problem. You’re right that a rehab of this scale would take a significant financial investment, but the returns eclipse the initial outlay in terms of creating jobs, increasing the tax base, and revitalizing the surrounding area. These projects can pour a ton of money back into the local community.

    Its hard to imagine if you haven’t witnessed the process (at least it was for me). I recently toured Revolution Mill in Greensboro http://www.manilasites.com/RevolutionMillStudios/ and have seen before pics of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. Both of these started out much worse than the Asheville Foundry Bldgs. Rehab Builders in WS has lots of before after pics of adaptive reuse at http://www.rehabbuilders.com/cmt/79.html. There are several architects in Asheville who could handle this kind of project sucessfully.

    Most of these projects are done with private funding via bank loans, but sometimes public funds are used via HUD Community Development Block Grants. The key is finding the investor who has the vision and know-how to put the project together! (Just FYI since this kind of stuff seems to fit with your platform for the city council race.)

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