Are Asheville and Buncombe County investing enough in the city’s popular downtown? Speakers at this year’s annual State of Downtown luncheon, held Tuesday, Jan. 31, gave different answers to that question. While Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman touted lists of major projects and initiatives that benefit downtown, urban planning consultant Joe Minicozzi argued that tax revenue data show more municipal investment in downtown is both warranted and needed.
The annual event is organized by the Asheville Downtown Association, a membership organization made up of business and property owners and residents. According to board member Ben Colvin, this year marks the organization’s thirtieth anniversary.
Addressing a capacity crowd of over 200, Manheimer called downtown “a place for both locals and visitors.” She cited the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Asheville as one of many events that drew large crowds over the past year. The city’s winter lights program coaxed many visitors downtown during the holiday season. However, she continued, “I don’t want any more emails about how bad our Christmas wreaths look,” noting that the city probably won’t be using those decorations again.
Manheimer pointed to the hiring of Downtown Development Specialist Dana Frankel, the launch of Walkable Wall Street pedestrian-only days, a pilot busker policy, street median maintenance, upgrades at the U.S. Cellular Center and a task force to develop a community vision for city-owned property on Haywood Street and Page Avenue as significant initiatives the city has undertaken to support downtown. She outlined proposed zoning ordinance changes that, if passed, will give City Council greater oversight of proposed downtown development projects.
Improvements planned for Pritchard Park this month “didn’t quite hit a brick wall,” the mayor said, but ran into questions and concerns. Though the proposed lighting and signage improvements will move forward, the landscaping and hardscaping components of the planned upgrades “are going to take some more study before recommendations come forward,” she said. City staff are collecting more public input on the proposed design.
The city’s planning department is undertaking a 12-month study of the fast-growing South Slope district, and the transportation department is close to completing a comprehensive parking study. The mayor also said the city will be launching a new website on Feb. 10.
County Commission Chair Newman recalled that, since moving to this area in 1990, he’s lived within walking distance of downtown for all but two of those years (when he was attending Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa). Downtown plays a key role in making this a unique community, he said.
County government is focused on policies that meet the core needs of its citizens, provide opportunity for all and create connections between different parts of the community, Newman said. One important example of this commitment is $135 million of investments over the past four years in new public education facilities, including the new Isaac Dickson Elementary School, Asheville Middle School, A-B Tech Fergus Center for Allied Health and the Mission Health/A-B Tech Conference Center. Over the next few years, he said, the county will be called on to invest $25 million in critical repairs to stabilize buildings on the historic Asheville High School campus. “It will be extremely expensive,” he conceded, “but it is critical to extend the life of Asheville High School for another 50 years.”
The county stepped in to fund a new gym floor at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, Newman said, and the commissioners are interested in funding additional projects to benefit areas where concentrated poverty exists. He also touted the new Family Justice Center on Woodfin Street. With four miles of greenways completed, over six miles planned or under construction and additional connections moving forward from the River Arts District to Woodfin, the county will have over 15 miles of continuous greenways in the foreseeable future, Newman said.
An initiative to develop public art that recognizes and honors local African-American heritage is underway, said Newman. The county and the city have contributed funds to a planning process to determine the next steps for that effort.
After the elected leaders had their say, Asheville-based urban planner Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 took the podium to declare that Asheville is not doing nearly enough to invest in and grow its downtown. Minicozzi outlined the story of Asheville’s original development boom in the 1920s, as well as the debt crisis that boom left in its wake. Now the city is in the midst of a new boom era that’s bringing 10 million visitors to the city’s downtown each year, he said. The value of all taxable property in the city has reached $12.8 billion, Minicozzi said. In an online comment on this article (see below), Minicozzi clarified that the taxable value of downtown real estate is close to $1 billion.
Minicozzi posited that $26 million in downtown investments in the early 1990s, which financed projects such as the revitalization of Wall Street and the construction of the Wall Street parking garage, laid much of the groundwork for the current tourism boom.
In 1991, 43 Haywood St. had been vacant for 40 years and its tax value was just over $300,000, Minicozzi said. The city provided benches, trash receptacles and a street tree outside the building, which now houses the modern furniture retail store Mobilia. Today, he said, the property generates $634,000 annually in real estate taxes and $83,600 in retail taxes per acre. It is valued at over $11 million, a 3,500 percent increase over 15 years for the 1/5-acre site. By contrast, the Walmart on Bleachery Boulevard sits on 34 acres and generates $6,500 in property taxes and $47,500 in retail taxes per acre.
Because the infrastructure needed to support dense development in areas like downtown costs less than that required to service sprawling development that yields far less tax revenue, Minicozzi suggested focusing public investment on promoting dense urban development in both downtown and outlying areas such as west, north and east Asheville.
Colvin presented the results of a recent ADA survey, which showed that downtown business owners continue to prioritize expanding parking and transportation, investing in infrastructure and supporting small businesses over other concerns.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 31 at 5:21 p.m. to reflect the real estate value information supplied by Joe Minicozzi in his comment below.