Here comes the neighborhood

Back-bedroom views of the Pisgah range: a nice selling point for the urban homes now under construction at 86 Patton Ave. David Mallett, the 74-year-old owner of the building that once housed the Piedmont Electric Co., hopes the four new condominiums and six apartments will be finished by May.

Stacked up against some of the more ambitious downtown renovations of the past dozen or so years, such as Wall Street and Haywood Park, Mallett’s project seems modest in scope — but that doesn’t mean it was cheap to do. Encompassing most of the second and third floors, the work included installing an elevator into the classic edifice, originally built in 1924 (and the first in Asheville with steel framing). The cost is expected to total well over $1 million. But don’t weep for Mallett: He plans to rent the one-bedroom apartments for $775 a month, and the condos will be priced at up to $200,000 each. And why did the longtime proprietor of the Weinhaus, the wine shop on the building’s first floor, choose to renovate now? Mallet’s answer is double-sided — as complicated as it seems obvious.

“Mainly because I’m a property owner,” he allows — meaning, perhaps, that he owns the buiding and he can afford to do it. “But I think, from the standpoint of the ecology, it’s good for the whole community. We’ve got to use these cities, and not have things all boarded up.” Mallet’s project is part of a growing trend in downtown Asheville. The success of such areas as Biltmore Avenue south of Pack Square has spurred interest in acquiring and renovating old buildings, especially those available for historic-preservation tax credits. At this writing, the owners of the Kress and Leader buildings (on Patton Avenue), the Costanza (on Haywood Street), and others are eagerly planning renovation projects.

Many say the key to success with such projects lies in creating the right mix of first-floor retail space and office/residential units upstairs. You might liken the process to reinventing the two-by-four, in order to turn a dead city block into a 24-hour neighborhood.

The twists and turns of history

Chuck Tessier remembers catching the bus, after school, from Leicester to downtown, where he worked afternoons at the Bon Marche department store. That was in 1958, when a lot of folks made similar forays into the heart of the city. It was a different time, says Tessier — one that disappeared for 30 years. “We came downtown because it was fun,” he says, grinning as he recalls the good old days, now coming back new.

Tessier — a commercial realtor who headed Buncombe County’s Planning Department from 1974-84 — thinks that trying to recreate the Asheville of the ’50s, thick with big, glitzy department stores, would have been an easy mistake to make. He likes to talk about the old days (it seems to run in the family, in fact — his mother, local historian Mitzi Tessier, has written extensively about the city), but he realizes that what worked then won’t necessarily work now. “The dynamics are just not the same,” he explains.

During the ’60s and ’70s, an exodus began from the city center to new suburban developments to the south and west. Increasingly, the old buildings downtown sat boarded up and empty.

And when citizens gathered in 1976 to burn Asheville’s Depression-era bonds — born of the city’s stubborn refusal to renege on its financial commitments — they thought they were celebrating financial freedom after decades of debt. Soon, the hidden blessing for the city in those decades of debt would become apparent — but just not yet.

Meanwhile, the mass exodus continued, and the future of the antiquated structures — never razed to make way for Orwellian parking lots and shiny office complexes, as in other cities, because there wasn’t any money to do it with — seemed increasingly in doubt. Many felt the time had come to clear away the past and start anew.

“We were only 25 percent occupied downtown,” recalls Karen Tessier. “You could roll a bowling ball down Biltmore Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, and you wouldn’t hit anyone. It was dead.” In a 1982 referendum, citizens barely voted down a proposal to flatten 17 buildings to make way for the Strauss Greenberg Mall, and that, she says, started a groundswell to do something with all the old buildings. Mayor Roy Trantham began seeking answers for what to do with the city’s amazing inventory of early-20th-century architecture, and the Downtown Commission was born, says Tessier.

Nearly two decades (and about $200 million in investments) later, residents and visitors alike use words like “vibrant,” “booming,” “unique” and “quaint” to describe Asheville’s thriving center.

Downtown-business owner Bob Carr, who chaired the Downtown Commission from 1986 to ’92, thinks the city is on track. “What we hoped would happen is a complete, block-by-block revitalization, and we figured it could take 20 years,” Carr explains. “We are right on target for 2006. It’s wonderful to see small businesses like Jewelry Design, Malaprop’s, Salsa — these are real success stories.”

Living with the past

On the heels of downtown’s commercial rebirth has come a wave of residential development, catering to a new class of urban denizens. “What we’re getting is a whole new citizen group of young people, and I find that very stimulating,” says Carr. “We’re being helped by a strong economy, and some people prefer to live in the city, [to] look for the urban life. The demand is obvious — just look at these buildings being leased up.”

Estimates of downtown’s residential population range from 1,500 to 1,700, but some say that’s still not enough.

“There’s still a lack of housing in the downtown; we’ve been, basically, preoccupied with retail spaces,” observes Emoke Bracz, co-owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, a well-established downtown business that began in the mid 80’s as an oasis in an urban desert. Bracz was a downtown pioneer, and she believes that Asheville, today, needs to concentrate on its growing urban community.

“Developers are now making tremendous efforts to increase the number of [apartment and condominium] units, and the greater the number of people who live downtown, the better,” Bracz declares. “I think, as more of my generation [Baby Boomers] realize what the on-line generation is about, the more they will want to move downtown for its individuality, community and dreams.”

Pat Whalen of Public Interest Projects — a major downtown developer — says his company’s mission involves helping build a downtown community. Lots of cities have tried other methods of promoting urban renewal, he notes — with dubious results. Such places, he maintains, have a tendency to shut down after 5 p.m.

“People living downtown is the magic weapon to revitalization,” Whalen asserts. “We look to the old East Coast cities, like Philadelphia and Boston, as models. They have 24-hour neighborhoods, with retail on the first floor of buildings and residential upstairs — mixed-use buildings.”

Many cities elsewhere, says Whalen, haven’t managed as well: “Take Milwaukee, for example — they have separate blocks for business offices and single-use housing. Charlotte has done the same thing, with suburban housing projects in the downtown area. It’s not mixed-use, and nobody is on the sidewalks.”

What would motivate someone to trade suburban space and privacy for a more concentrated urban setting?

“It can really add another hour or two to your day,” maintains Whalen: “Instead of spending 45 minutes a day in your car, you can walk to work in five minutes. And you also have the potential to get rid of one car, and then reap the savings that can come from that. On a larger concept, if people move and work downtown, there is less suburban sprawl, less traffic congestion, and less acid rain eating up our mountain air.”

Walkability, agrees Bracz, is a big plus. She tells about a woman who recently came into Malaprop’s. When Bracz asked the woman where she’d parked her car, the customer replied that she didn’t have one. She moved to Asheville, she told Bracz, because she didn’t need a car here as she did in Italy.

For many, however, one still-missing piece of the community puzzle is a full-blown downtown grocery store. Despite its recent expansion, the French Broad Food Co-op lacks the shelf space — and the range of products — offered by a typical mega-grocery. “You can walk to almost anything downtown, except a grocery store,” notes Whalen, adding, “Possibly, the Public Market in the Grove Arcade can serve the purpose.”

Other problems regularly cited by downtown merchants and residents include: a lack of playgrounds or places for families to go; limited parking; noise — both from the clubs and on the street; and rising rents. These are some of the things the Downtown Commission is focusing its efforts on now, notes commission Chair Carol King. And some folks even argue that the trash truck banging cans in the alley at 5 a.m., and the homeless person sleeping in the doorway, are part of the charm of urban life, anyway.

“I don’t live downtown because I have four children,” confesses Whalen. “That’s one of the challenges: It’s hard to find a place where you can have a family.” And as Asheville prepares to renovate Pritchard Park, Whalen suggests that a classic carousel, featuring animal species native to the region, could help remedy the situation.

“It could be a community project, perhaps with a competition among our local craftsmen and artists. They could submit models, and elementary-school classes could pick the winning designs,” he enthuses, adding: “It would be nice to have a place that is full of joy and open to the whole community. To have a residential downtown, there has to be interesting places to go and reasons to mix.”

As for those rising rents, in 25 years, the average price of office, retail and residential space has tripled, says Chuck Tessier. With the demand for renovated downtown space continually outpacing the supply — residential and office space is 97 percent occupied — sometimes even the pioneers get squeezed out. Take Kim Pitman, for instance. She recently moved her print shop, Firefly Inx, from Lexington Avenue down to the River District. Her landlord, she says, jacked up her rent from $500 to $800 back in May, leaving her with no choice except to pack up and move.

“I’ve been on Lexington for 20 years,” Pitman laments. “That’s what happens — the artists build it up, and then they [have to] move. We’re succumbing to the same trends other cities are.”

Meanwhile, Tessier — who fondly recalls when raccoons inhabited the top floors of the former Asheville Hotel building on Haywood Street, living on pigeon eggs — likes to sit in his Haywood Street office with trace paper, making fantasy maps of downtown, speckled with additional parks, parking garages and new buildings. Asheville’s gritty charm, he believes, is part of why people keep moving here from all over the country: “Asheville is the greatest city, because people want to live here, want to work here — and be creative about doing it.”

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