Up and coming

“What’s taking place at Twenty One Battery Park is great, but … some people can’t afford to continue to own property downtown.”

— real-estate appraiser Mac Swicegood

The long-abandoned former department-store building is gone, its utilitarian bulk having succumbed to the business end of a wrecking ball. In its place, a massive crane looms over the downtown skyline, lifting beams and hoisting trusses. The chainlink fence surrounding the construction site is adorned with artist’s renderings of what all this activity aims to create: a five-story condominium complex, complete with a towering atrium and balconies so big the developer had to secure air-rights from the city in order to be allowed to build them.

A sign on the fence proudly touts the new development’s strategic location “in the heart of downtown Asheville,” adding, “Twenty One Battery Park is the city’s premier address.” The new condos, another sign explains, will be “within walking distance of award-winning restaurants, eclectic shops, exclusive galleries and a wealth of entertainment, including music, dance and theater.” A third sign proclaims: “Asheville and the surrounding area offer attractions and diversions for just about any taste. Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, artist or professional, there is something for everyone in Asheville.”

To some, these are signs of progress and economic health in the community. Others, however, worry about the impact of this kind of development on the majority of Asheville residents, who couldn’t afford to live at Twenty One Battery Park. (The one- and two-bedroom units range in price from $310,500 to $706,800; the city’s 2025 Plan, a comprehensive planning document adopted last year, cites the median household income in Asheville as $46,800 and the median sale price for a home as $138,000.) Among those unlikely to be moving to these new digs are the people who work in the award-winning restaurants, perform in the theaters, or otherwise contribute to the eclectic urban Asheville that’s now being marketed. And as that marketing finds its target, does the risk of more and more Asheville residents falling by the wayside in an increasingly upscale city center also grow?

But the 2025 Plan also calls for infill housing (to discourage sprawl) and redeveloping existing properties (to increase the city’s tax base while supporting local economic development) — and the new condos seem to fit the bill on both counts. The same thing could be said about the recently deceased revitalization plan for The Block (see “We Need to Talk” below). So why has “gentrification” become such a loaded term?

Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in the mid-’60s to describe the rapid changes then occurring in London’s residential districts. Today, the word is more broadly used to refer to any number of associated phenomena.

In Asheville, gentrification is nothing new. Local literary icon Thomas Wolfe vividly described the frenzy of real-estate speculation that swept the city in the Roaring ’20s until the Great Depression brought the whole house of cards tumbling down. Indeed, many of the structures now being lovingly renovated date from that era.

And now, for at least the third time in its long history, the city is being “discovered” once again. As its unique flavor is being marketed from coast to coast, this mountain metropolis is experiencing a renaissance the likes of which it hasn’t seen in 75 years. Asheville today is a city with big plans, wildly diverse opinions — and construction crews eagerly waiting in the wings.

But at stake is the very thing that’s now being marketed — Asheville’s remarkable blend of big-city amenities and a human-centered scale. And ironically, this relatively recent phenomenon was largely created by downtown gentrification.

We need to talk…

The debate about gentrification in Asheville is hardly academic. Within the last six months alone, two major controversies have erupted over downtown-development projects. The proposed sale of public land on Pack Square to the Grove Park Inn as a site for a mixed-use high-rise was scuttled after the Inn declared the project economically unfeasible — but not before city residents had banded together to protest the privatization of public space.

A few months later, in one of the most dramatic local moments in recent memory, City Council voted down a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan, a decade in the making, for the long-neglected Block. In casting his vote to reject the plan, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower declared that he couldn’t endorse “government-supported gentrification.”

And just last month, yet another allegedly development-related brouhaha broke out when the Asheville Community Resource Center, a collective of grassroots nonprofit organizations, had its sublease of a space on lower Lexington Avenue abruptly terminated. Amid a firestorm of claims and counterclaims about what had happened, ACRC members found themselves holding a press conference outside the padlocked doors of their former headquarters. And for its part, the group blamed its eviction on downtown gentrification, which appears to have broader implications for them.

Amid the bustle of midday traffic on Lexington Avenue, ACRC collective member Mary Giovanello commented, “We see this as another blow to Asheville’s community by big money interested only in progress, not community and compassion.” Group member Jodi Rhoden added: “The idea is that because this is private property, landowners can do what they want, with no regard to the community. We refuse that. We believe that landowners have an obligation as community members to help support the community efforts of people.” And Eamon Martin of the Asheville Global Report, one of the ACRC’s member groups, reflected: “It wasn’t until property values quintupled on this street that anybody gave a crap about what happened on this street.”

ACRC members later said they hoped their group’s displacement might inspire city leaders and residents alike to take a good, hard look at the whole issue of gentrification in Asheville.

Accordingly, Xpress asked several local people with an interest in downtown development to define “gentrification.” Their widely varying answers, presented here in their entirety, suggest how far Asheville is from finding common ground on this highly divisive issue. The comments reflect a diversity of opinion that touches on everything from the nature of community to the pros and cons of the capitalist system, a key (if not always acknowledged) player in this debate.

In so many words…

Asheville Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford: “Gentrification is one of those words that typically has a negative connotation. However, it has to be taken in context with particular circumstances. The opposite of gentrification is disinvestment, so the way I look at gentrification is ‘reinvestment that displaces prior residents or businesses.’

“Disinvestment in Montford and many West Asheville neighborhoods ultimately set the stage for reinvestment that has created a fair degree of gentrification there. Disinvestment in the WECAN [West End/Clingman Avenue] neighborhood resulted in significant loss of structures, and this loss has contributed to a lack of reinvestment — and gentrification — in that neighborhood up to now.

“In downtown Asheville, it would be difficult to refer to any residential development as gentrification, since there has typically been no displacement resulting from the recent residential rebirth of downtown — the above-shop space was vacant. There has certainly been some level of commercial gentrification, however; for example, the Fine Arts Theater displaced an adult-movie house. Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective.

“In The Block, new residential development and virtually any new commercial development will not result in gentrification, since no residents and few businesses will be displaced.

“On the whole, I believe that gentrification in Asheville, if you use my definition — reinvestment that displaces prior residents or businesses — has generally been a pretty good thing. Montford, West Asheville and downtown are all more vital and interesting places than they were prior to the level of gentrification that they have experienced; historic structures have been saved and reused. However, the gentrification issue bears watching, particularly if there are no options for displaced residents or businesses to relocate or no opportunities for disinvested neighborhoods to gentrify.”

Asheville Community Resource Center: “Gentrification is the historical process where economic, social and political pressures systematically allow resources to be extracted disproportionately from oppressed groups. It displaces poorer communities through classist laws and inflated property [values] to create an atmosphere that appeals to the wealthy. Terms like ‘revitalization’ and ‘cleaning up’ are used as justification but are often doublespeak for locking up the homeless and banning public gatherings of those who are not spending (i.e. removal of public benches). Gentrifying forces claim to be solving ‘social issues’ they are in fact creating. Another consequence is appropriating the culture of the community for monetary gain. Many have the ‘not me’ attitude concerning their role in the process. The reality is [that] gentrification, akin to colonization, is perpetuated not only by developers, but also by whites of any economic status moving into ‘blighted’ communities, thus making the area more comfortable for the rich.”

Real-estate appraiser Mac Swicegood: “I’ve worked all over Western North Carolina, and I’ve noticed gentrification. It’s the exact same thing we did to the Indians — local inhabitants are being displaced. Many of the original inhabitants have to move to find a job; many work here but can’t afford to live here. We’re seeing a change all over Western North Carolina. If you can afford to live here without a job, then this might be the right place. What’s taking place at Twenty One Battery Park is great, but it also causes real-estate prices to increase, and some people can’t afford to continue to own property downtown because of property taxes, which are based on market value. The bad thing about gentrification is we’re not growing as healthily as we should in commercial and industrial [sectors]. The tax burden is on residential; it’s a double-edged sword. We’re becoming another Aspen, Colorado.”

Mayor Charles Worley: “Gentrification is a sensitive issue, and I think it’s important for our community to recognize where Asheville fits into the context of gentrification. Citizens, working together, can make the forces that create gentrification work in positive ways for the community if we balance opportunity with livability. I emphasize the word ‘balance’ here because it is so important when dealing with gentrification. In other words, successful communities have both strong economies and thriving neighborhoods. We must balance long-term economic stability with preserving the community’s social and cultural diversity. I believe that Asheville is a community that wants to be fair to all residents, old and new, and so we must balance policy to serve those living in areas in need of assistance as well as those moving into our area.

“On a policy level, this sense of balance translates into developing good neighborhood-planning models, creating unified community plans for our city’s growth, and working with our citizens to hash out common goals. City Council has set priorities to create affordable housing, develop planning goals, and encourage community forums that knit the community together. Going forward, citizens must continue to join us in defining how we will preserve our heritage and cultural diversity while jump-starting the economy and revitalizing neighborhoods in need. We, as a community, must also value education and employment opportunities as a way of empowering our youth.

“We must not overlook the fact that discussion of gentrification usually centers around a particular area or neighborhood. Too often, we let a discussion of a relatively small area drive the issue when it is really about us as an overall community. We may not be able to stop gentrification on a small scale, but we must work as a community to remain diverse and open to all.”

Council member Brownie Newman: “Gentrification is an economic dynamic in which a large percentage of people end up getting ‘priced out’ of their community. Gentrification is at work in Asheville and across the Western North Carolina mountain region. Some of the key factors driving the process of gentrification in Asheville are: regressive tax policies, high cost of living (especially housing costs), and the high percentage of jobs that pay low wages. We should be looking at changes to local public policies which contribute to the process of gentrification.”

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower: “The loss of a community’s social and economic balance through natural cycles of redevelopment, public-policy excesses, or consequence of success.”

A pivotal moment

On a crisp March evening, a film was screened by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood to help raise money for the ACRC. The pair’s critically acclaimed documentary, Boom — The Sound of Eviction, depicts the giddy glory days of the dotcom economy that surged through San Francisco in the late ’90s — and the evictions, skyrocketing rents and cultural cleansing that accompanied that roller-coaster ride.

Xpress asked the filmmakers, who recently relocated here from California, for their thoughts on gentrification. They offered the most succinct definition of all for this much-debated term: “Making room for the gentry.” The filmmakers also said that Asheville is at a pivotal moment in its growth, and a dialogue about gentrification is urgent if we are to maintain a healthy community.

The movie was shown at the Fine Arts Theater, a long-boarded-up former adult-movie house that found new life as part of the revitalization of Biltmore Avenue in the early ’90s — an emblem of the continuing gentrification of downtown Asheville.

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