Back to the future

Asheville’s urban center is fairly dense, but there are still some unused nooks and crannies and plenty of unrenovated buildings. Eventually, however, they’ll all be reclaimed — and, in the meantime, the central business district will continue to expand, anyway. So what’s on the horizon? Where will the first new buildings go? Could any of them alter the city skyline?

One spot that’s ripe for picking is Coxe Avenue, down as far as Southside Avenue. A key issue is how to use that area to connect the hospital complex with the city center. “We need to broaden our scope from the core area, and improve the neighborhood corridors into downtown,” declares Asheville city planner Gerald Green. It’s a relationship, he explains, “that strengthens the downtown and the communities that utilize it.”

But looking to Coxe Avenue as a hot spot for development is nothing new. The area is irrevocably linked with another downtown landmark: the 12-story Battery Park Hotel. Completed by visionary developer E.W. Grove in 1924, the massive brick structure replaced an earlier hotel that had perched atop downtown’s highest point — Battery Porter Hill — offering stunning mountain views. Grove leveled the hill and then replaced it with a hill of bricks, of roughly equal height.

“Curious citizens watched the procession of trucks and wagons hauling that dirt that was being gouged out of the hill by coal-powered steam shovels,” wrote local historian Mitzi Tessier, in her Asheville Pictorial History.

Where did all the dirt and rubble go? The ever-resourceful Grove used it to back-fill a worthless ravine nearby, creating Coxe Avenue (named for the man who built the original Battery Park Hotel). Grove immediately began selling the newly created prime commercial lots, using the money he made to help finance the centerpiece of his extensive vision: the Grove Arcade.

Coxe Avenue’s fortunes have been mixed in the decades since then: As late as the ’50s and ’60s, the area bustled with new businesses; more recently, it has been the domain of used-car dealers, derelict structures and a bevy of empty lots.

Working from the Center City Plan, an evolving document that prioritizes the development of the urban center, the city is identifying appropriate sites for the next phase of redevelopment. “There is need for additional parking, and it could come in the form of mixed-use structures — combining retail and parking under one roof,” said Green. “There are a number of open surface lots that could be utilized for this purpose.”

Among the newest civic buildings, of course, are the post office and bus station at the top of Coxe. But other developments are sprouting down the hill, like Midtown Plaza — a spanking new office complex fashioned from the old Iwanna building. Farther down, a sign on a four-story building at the corner of Banks Avenue boasts of offices and an 85-car parking garage coming soon.

What about new buildings? Public Interest Projects Inc. is looking at a couple of pieces of property. “Some we own, and some we’re looking to buy,” reports President Pat Whalen. “We wouldn’t do apartment buildings; we’d do [mixed] retail, office and residential buildings. In Asheville, you can live downtown and still have wonderful views of the mountains. It’s a calmer lifestyle.”

The new projects, Whalen said, would range from three- and four-story buildings to 15-story structures. The bigger ones, he cautioned, would be designed to be in scale with the city and worthy of the venerable ’20s designs — no gargoyles, but set back from the street, with a courtyard or verandalike entrance. And the demographics would be as diverse as Asheville, he said, running the gamut from luxury to low-income spaces.

No discussion of what’s big on the urban horizon could ignore the Grove Arcade. Like a dormant volcano, the 220,000 square-foot structure (downtown’s largest) appears ready to rumble back to life. Left silent since the National Climatic Data Center moved to the new Federal Building in 1995, the Grove Arcade — after several stumbles — seems poised to undertake a $16 million renovation, beginning this spring. Under the direction of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, which has leased the building from the city, space will be created for 70 shops, galleries and restaurants — all locally owned, nonfranchise businesses — and 50 condominiums. And the city has committed to building a parking deck to accommodate shoppers.

“We always talked about a different shopping experience than the mall,” recalls former Downtown Commission Chair Bob Carr, who owns Tops For Shoes. “With Pack Place and Pack Plaza, people forecasted what would happen — a life spring along Biltmore Avenue — and a lot of people didn’t believe it. Now there is the Grove Arcade, about to come on-line. Hopefully, we’ll see the same thing.”

On paper, at least, the renovated Grove Arcade has the potential to become downtown Asheville’s crown jewel, in keeping with Grove’s original vision. But some folks are already asking about the impacts of those 70 new businesses and 50 new residences on downtown traffic, parking — and existing businesses. At a recent City Council meeting, Council member Barbara Field read a list of such concerns that she’d received from local merchants.

Community dissension is another thing that has a lengthy history in Asheville. But most folks seem to think the city and its center will continue growing, like it or not . The real challenge seems to be deciding how to guide that growth — or whether we should even try. But that’s another story.

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