Over the rubble and through the square

Unless your office happens to overlook the sprawl of mud and rubble in downtown Asheville where City/County Plaza used to be, or you have reason to drive College Street and run the gauntlet of concrete barriers, or you’ve tried to approach the City Building or the Buncombe County Courthouse on foot, you may not have given much thought to the new Pack Square Park.

In 1999, citing structural problems in City/County Plaza, the Downtown Commission called for a study of, and improvements to, the historic public space. The following year, the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy was formed, charged with overseeing the planning, design, fund raising and construction of the 6.5-acre park. The conservancy broke ground at the site in 2005, starting at the end of the park closest to City Hall. More recently, construction has focused on Pack Square proper, near the Vance Monument.

From the outset, however, the project has been marked by setbacks and rising costs. The original cost estimate was $13 million; it now stands at $17.5 million (including a $2 million endowment) and could rise further still. And in the wake of a controversy regarding the design of a veterans’ monument for the northwest corner of the park, lead landscape architect Fred Bonci has worked closely with local veterans’ groups.

To get a sense of what’s going on with the project and when we’ll have a park again, Xpress checked in with a number of people connected with the Pack Square Park and/or knowledgeable about downtown development. Here’s what they had to say.

Mountain Xpress: Why is it important?
Carol King, chair of the Pack Square Conservancy board of trustees: “You’ve got to go back to how it all started, historically speaking. The people of Buncombe County are having a park returned to them. What people said at the charrettes [public workshops] was, ‘We want our park back.’ People have also been saying: ‘I want my green space. I want people in the heart of the city.’ And this park is that vision brought into reality. The park will change the sociology of downtown. It makes an emphatic statement about people, about relationships, about walkability. That’s the value that I see.”

MX: What will it look like?
Donna Clark, communications director for the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy: “It will be a large sweep of green lawn bordered by native trees and shrubs. The green will form a natural amphitheater overlooking the main stage. The park will also feature original art created specifically for the site, water features, benches, a second smaller stage, and a park pavilion with a café area, an information desk, a multipurpose room and public restrooms. The park will be a place of celebration.”

MX: What will make it uniquely Asheville?
Clark: “I think the original art and the native plant material will put a very Asheville stamp on the park. The three artists are from the Asheville area, and they all have distinctive styles that echo the long tradition of arts and crafts in the region. In addition, the park will contain numerous historic markers and monuments, as the site did before we began the project. There will be six Urban Trail stations in the park, and these tell part of the story of the region. The programming will also celebrate the culture, history and environment of Western North Carolina. Incidentally, there will be a veterans’ monument in the northeast portion of the park near the main stage.”

MX: Who will benefit?
Chuck Tessier, a former Downtown Commission member whose Asheville-based real estate business, Tessier & Associates, has a long history of involvement with downtown property: “As an economic engine, it’s a key piece of the city. When you think about the cultural events that will benefit from new performance and amphitheater space—Shindig on the Green, for instance—that park will really provide a space for them to happen. Livability is what drives Asheville’s economy now, and the park will be a big part of that.”

MX: What will all this cost?
Clark: “The current budget is $17.5 million—$15.5 million for [all phases of] construction and $2 million for the endowment. We have not gone out to bid with the second or the third [pavilion] phase. Once we get those bids in, we will have a better picture of what we’re dealing with. The total might go up a bit—we just don’t know. I guess it could go down, but I doubt it.” The conservancy has raised $14.1 million thus far, and Director Susan Harper says she’s “quite confident” that they’ll secure the remainder. The major reason for the cost increase, says Clark, is big jumps in the prices of construction materials due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita and major construction projects happening in the Far East. “Steel, for instance, went up 50 percent in the 18 months ending in September 2006. Stainless steel, which is what the pergola is made of, went up 100 percent.” Delays and “digging into unexpected things” also increase the cost, she notes. “Any kind of change like that calls for a change order, which means costs added to the original contract. We’ve cut costs on a few things to lower some costs. We simplified the water feature in midpark after we realized the original design would cost about $950,000.”

MX: Where are the funds coming from?
Clark: “Government is providing 44 percent; 56 percent is coming from other sources, including individuals (28 percent), foundations (23 percent), businesses (4 percent) and special events (1 percent).”

MX: Who are the top donors?
Clark: “Our biggest contribution by far is a $3.8 million pledge from the U.S. Department of Transportation. We don’t have the money yet, but we’ll get it. Other donors include: Buncombe County ($2 million), Janirve Foundation ($2 million), a private individual donor ($1.5 million), private individual donor ($1 million), three private individual donors ($500,000 each), and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority ($500,000).”

MX: When will the project be finished?
Clark: “We are shooting for fall 2008. The completion date has gotten pushed back more than a year.”

MX: Why is it taking so long?
Clark: “In late 2005, we were working in the parking lot in front of the city and county buildings, and we got hung up because of the weather. That’s the lowest section of the park, and it was very wet for about two months. The crew was sinking down in the mud. It was also bitterly cold for three weeks, so we lost some time there. In midpark, we lost time because we started digging into unexpected things. Right in front of the fire station, we hit paving that was a yard thick, no joke—layers of asphalt and concrete filled with rebar. It took weeks to get it out. We’ve also dug into unexpected duct banks [large concrete pipes containing electrical wires], and long-buried rubble and wood that someone was too lazy to cart off. Right now we are also waiting for a sign-off from federal agencies that control the flow of dollars from the money we’re getting from the Department of Transportation. That’s about $3.8 million. We can’t begin the next phase of the project until we get that sign-off.”

MX: What is the projected economic impact on the greater Asheville area?
“Economic Benefits of Pack Square Park,” a 2004 report by the Center for Regional Development at Western Carolina University, commissioned by the conservancy: “Additional visitors will produce increased income to the lodging industry of $1,045,222 based on 15,139 additional room nights generated. … Overall positive impact of $24,143,400 on the local economy, based on the average tourist spending $157.80 per day. … New “edge” development—successful urban parks around the country have spurred a pattern of edge development, where new or renovated buildings spring up around the periphery of the improved park setting. It is known that several significant projects are under discussion that would be in the vicinity of the park site. This early activity is an indicator of the dynamic effect the park will have on area real-estate values.”

MX: What is the predicted tax- and property-value impact of the park?
WCU study: “Since 1991 the estimated market value of downtown Asheville has risen 360 percent, from $133 million to $483.5 million in 2003 (source: City Development office). New development around Pack Square Park could nearly double the market value of our downtown—and property taxes will follow suit.”

MX: Is there a danger that inflated property values and increased downtown desirability resulting from the park might price out current and potential small-business owners and downtown residents?
Darryl Hart, chairman of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation:
“Overall, I think the effect from the park will be a good one. There is, of course, the possibility of taxes going up, which is not always a good thing, and it’s something which will be felt on The Block [downtown Asheville’s historically African-American business hub, just south of Pack Square]. There will be consequences: Landlords and property owners will have to adjust their fees to meet the rising cost of property, and people who are already having a difficult time, including the elderly, may have a hard time bearing that burden. The economic ripples will definitely be felt east, west, north and south. It will be a challenge, but as I said, the park itself will be a good thing for the community.”


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One thought on “Over the rubble and through the square

  1. I guess none of these people remember what downtown looked like for 50 years after the Depression and the previous Asheville Boom in the 20’s.

    Well, maybe they will learn this time.

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