Thinking big

They said they would do it, and they did … well, sort of. After inheriting the perennial Civic Center problem on assuming office, the current city leadership made this year’s annual planning retreat the deadline for determining the future of Asheville’s crumbling auditorium/sports facility.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current economic climate, that decision took the form of a request that state legislators approve an increase in the local prepared-food-and-beverage tax to raise funds for tackling the high-dollar project.

But the actual form of the project — and, therefore, the cost — remains unspecified. The range of proposals brought to Council during the past year reflects some fundamental differences in approach to the Civic Center conundrum: refurbish or rebuild? serve all functions under one roof or create several separate venues?

And whatever direction the project eventually takes, seeking funding remains the logical first step, Mayor Charles Worley told Xpress. He also conceded that more ideas are needed before Council will be ready to reach a decision.

The ailing facility’s woes were outlined in a 2001 report by Atlanta-based consultants Heery International: a worn-out roof, antiquated electrical systems, water damage, poor lighting and acoustics, a less-than-regulation hockey rink and a subpar symphony hall.

Council member Carl Mumpower, who also serves as Council’s liaison to the Civic Center Commission, summed up the situation this way: “We’ve had a lot of proposals that people have been serious about, but no serious proposals.” Mumpower said he’s still waiting to be convinced that any of those proposals is “affordable, doable and supportable.”

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of opinions on the subject. And the lack of consensus among Council members only mirrors the conflicting currents swirling outside City Hall. The idea of building a new sports complex beyond the city limits has drawn heat from both downtown boosters and critics who question how many area residents would really be willing to drive to the airport to attend an event. What’s more, such a complex would have to be served by several access routes to avoid major traffic jams. Mumpower notes that he has yet to see anyone come up with a site that could really handle such an assignment.

Ironically, the very problems Council is now wrestling with reflect recurring themes throughout the Civic Center’s long and tortured history. In a guest editorial in the Dec. 21, 2002 Asheville Citizen-Times, Lilian Fischer pointed out that even the current Civic Center turned out to be far less comprehensive a facility than city leaders had originally intended, due to severe budget problems and grudging compromises. Sound familiar?

In asking for a food-and-beverage-tax increase, Council has opted for finding out what can be paid for before deciding what to buy. And as the numbers become clearer, more architects are likely to step forward with solutions, argues Worley. Meanwhile, here are a few of the Civic Center visions that have already come before Council.

Heery HEART District plan

Estimated cost: $115 million

Heery’s final report, completed in April 2002, has become a base line for both the scope and the cost of the Civic Center project. Every subsequent proposal has made some reference to the HEART District (Historic Entertainment Arts and Recreation Triangle) plan, and the $115 million price tag cited by the consultants remains the maximum anyone has been willing to put forward. Indeed, in their presentations to Council members, proponents of other approaches have often compared their project’s numbers to Heery’s high-end estimate.

At the heart of the Heery plan lies the idea that renovating the Civic Center would be cheaper than building a replacement while still providing the facilities required by the multiple uses the community says it wants. Except, that is, for one key piece: a performing-arts center.

Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the report argues, could be rebuilt as a “Great Hall” style ballroom, exhibit hall and convention space, but that wouldn’t satisfy the need for a performance space. Instead, the Heery plan proposes building a new, 2,400-seat performing-arts center on the back side of the current structure, facing Lexington Avenue, with space for the Asheville Symphony and big theater productions. The project would also include a flexible space, capable of seating 200 people, that could be used both by performance groups and for smaller meetings and conventions.

The proposed sports arena would actually seat about 1,500 fewer spectators than the current facility, but the hockey rink would be expanded to regulation size, and all seats would offer a good view.

Asheville’s arena is much smaller than most sports facilities that offer skyboxes — luxury suites owned by companies to provide private seating for clients and other guests. And though the Heery proposal doesn’t consider them essential, the project does provide for up to six luxury suites.

The plan also calls for two other separate structures: a 47,000 square foot office-and-retail area and a 20,000 square foot associated-arts facility.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Heery report points out that the Civic Center’s “deferred maintenance problems” could be addressed for about $10 million — but that would leave the city with the same substandard facilities it has now.

A brand-new space

Estimated cost: $68.1 million

If Lilian Fischer agrees with anything in the Heery report, it’s that the performance space in the existing Civic Center is inadequate.

Fischer is part of a group promoting a new, freestanding performing-arts facility. She and architect C. Crawford Murphy have set their sights on the Renaissance Hotel parking lot (literally, in Murphy’s case: His new office faces the site).

The proposed fine-arts center would be designed to accommodate opera, theater and symphony performances. That central space would be surrounded by shops, restaurants, condos and offices — for-profit operations that would offset the cost of the new structure.

Murphy’s design sketches make reference to downtown’s art deco legacy, helping the building blend in with its surroundings, he says.

Fischer says the plan is supported by various local performance groups, including the Asheville Symphony, and she has repeatedly asked Council for some sign that the project should move forward. That sign may have come during Council’s Jan. 31-Feb. 1 retreat, when the mayor spoke with Fischer and gave her what she calls an “acceptance in principle.” The city’s portion of the total cost would be $15 million to $20 million for parking facilities, plus the cost of providing the needed infrastructure. Although Worley said the city would have to see a more developed plan with harder numbers before committing, he confirmed that Council has given informal support to the proposal. Murphy’s report puts the total cost of the proposal, including the city’s contribution, at $68.1 million.

And while Murphy says he has no plans to get involved in renovating the existing Civic Center, he has suggested to Council that building a new floor in the arena 12 feet above the existing one could create enough space to both expand the ice rink and add locker rooms and storage space underneath.

Fischer says she is “delighted” by the progress, adding that the next steps — fund-raising and soliciting more detailed proposals from nationally known designers — are already under way.

That other restoration project

Estimated cost: $91.6 million

From their offices high in the BB&T Building, the staff of Pearce, Brinkley, Cease and Lee enjoy a sweeping view of Asheville. But they also have their eyes on the stretch of Haywood Street that’s practically on the Civic Center’s front stoop.

“Upper Haywood is currently a jumble of poorly defined drives and surface parking lots,” reads the report from PBC&L to City Council, “directly adjacent to three of the City’s more significant buildings: the Grove Arcade, the Battery Park Apartments and the St. Lawrence Basilica.”

Downtown watchers will recall that the city has already set its sights on the area to accommodate a new parking deck intended primarily to serve the Grove Arcade (that project, reports City Engineer Cathy Ball, is still in the long-running land-acquisition stage). The city’s tentative plan calls for several privately developed buildings adjacent to the parking deck, providing retail and office space. PBC&L’s proposal would accomplish those goals while adding a performing-arts facility to the mix. The south side of the structure would consist of a 1,000-seat concert hall and a 200-seat community theater.

As for the existing Civic Center, PBC&L proposes to refurbish the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium as the facility’s performance space, knocking out the back wall to expand the stage and backstage areas. Behind the arena, a three-level convention center with a rooftop “sky terrace” would be added. PBC&L is on familiar ground here: In 2001, construction was completed on the firm’s design for renovating Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.

Total cost of the project, including the parking deck: $91.6 million.

The tower

David Linsley and his partners in the Asheville Civic Redevelopment Coorporation thought they’d found the solution to a cramped, worn Civic Center: Move the sports facilities someplace else. The group had a number of prospective sites in mind, including the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, where they planned to add onto the hotel, build a professional-size hockey rink (plus a separate practice facility), and develop a sports village featuring shops and restaurants.

The plan also called for leveling the current Civic Center and starting from scratch. Linsley’s vision included a ground-floor entertainment complex with a cineplex and an IMAX theater. A 26-story tower would include condominiums, shops, offices and a hotel.

The whole project, they maintained, could be funded with private money.

Armed with this plan, Linsley approached city leaders last December seeking a 99-year lease on the Civic Center property. He was, he says, unceremoniously rejected. The group’s problems grew, recounts Linsley, after a presentation to Council by one of his partners was dismissed as disorganized and overly long. Since then, the city has shown little interest in the idea, and Linsley admits that his proposal is now dead in the water. The mayor, says Linsley, told him “he would not entertain our project at all.”

What’s next?

In the coming months, word is expected from Raleigh on the food-and-beverage tax. That should help clarify what kind of money is actually on the table. At that point, said Worley, it will be time to seek out architects to tackle the project. For his part, the mayor feels that renovating the Civic Center makes sense — but so does moving some functions, such as the concert hall, to new locations.

“We know from the Heery report that the [existing Civic Center] is structurally sound,” he said. “But various ideas still have to come from the community.”

Once a funding source emerges, however, there seems little doubt that ideas for what to do with it will follow.

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