Asheville City Council

The Saturday breakfasts for the homeless are gone from Pritchard Park, but public sentiment has been simmering at low boil since Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department evicted the do-gooders in early May.

“This is what you have done. You haven’t brought this community together; you have divided us.”

— Mayor Terry Bellamy to Adam Ripley, who organized the Pritchard Park breakfast project

Montreat resident Adam Ripley, who headed up the project, had tapped fellow Montreat College students and nonprofits around town to help fund the project, cook and distribute food, and wash dishes. The weekly feedings began last September, and the crowds quickly swelled into the hundreds, says Ripley.

Pritchard Park
A people’s park?: Pritchard Park, a vibrant gathering spot in downtown Asheville, is at the center of new debates over who uses public parks. Photo by Jon Elliston

It was those numbers, Parks & Rec Director Irby Brinson said later, that made him call a halt to the meals. Brinson also noted that Ripley hadn’t gotten the required permit for an organized event.

The city did offer Ripley alternate sites, including a parking lot behind City Hall that he’s used twice as a temporary venue. On another recent weekend, Ripley distributed food at Aston Park.

But the 21-year-old activist continues to push for a more central location. And in recent weeks, as word has spread on the street and Ripley’s cause has gained momentum, that fight has turned uglier, culminating in a sometimes rancorous discussion at City Council’s May 23 formal session.

Indigestion all around

The controversy dominated the meeting’s public-comment period, as people on all sides of the issue spoke to the purpose of Pritchard Park and the place of homeless folks in the community.

“What we have here is a bunch of actors,” chided the Rev. Christopher Chiaromonte, a local figure recognizable by his maroon robes and heavily ornamented staff. Pacing slightly behind the lectern and raising his voice, Chiaromonte called Council members “hypocrites,” drawing a warning from Mayor Terry Bellamy to remain respectful.

Speaking in more civil tones, the Rev. Amy Cantrell quoted biblical passages in defense of the poor and compared the current issue to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

The City Council and Senior Opportunity Center parking lots that the city offered Ripley are close by, she conceded, but that doesn’t make them acceptable choices. “It is not that far to the back of the bus,” she declared. “Not that far to the balcony of the theater.”

Representing several others in the audience, Cantrell pleaded with City Council to “end policies that make downtown Asheville an exclusion zone.”

Ripley was present and had signed up to speak, but he ceded his time to Cantrell and was subsequently denied another chance, having forfeited his turn under Council rules.

Whose park is it anyway?

But behind all the rhetoric looms the fundamental question of who gets to use public parks, and for what. And after advocates for the homeless had their say, downtown business and property owners took their turns at the microphone, asserting that having homeless people in the park is incompatible with the area’s functions as a business district and tourist destination.

“It has improved since they stopped feeding the homeless and derelicts,” said four-year downtown resident Stephen West. He called the homeless population “unamenable to our way of life. They can’t find the will to work; they can’t find the will to stay sober.” West likened the homeless population’s Saturday gatherings to scenes from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which soulless human clones gather en masse in the city center.

Twelve-year downtown resident Judy Swan said the people hanging out in Pritchard Park are “the same drunks that I chase out of our alley when they go there to urinate.” Their presence in the park, she maintained, discourages other city residents and tourists from using it.

“Downtown is a wonderful place,” said Swan. “Please leave the park for those who would like to enjoy it.”

Other speakers emphasized that they don’t hate the homeless but are concerned about their negative impacts. “I have no problem with the homeless,” declared College Street business owner Tom Bunch. But he added that many of his customers are appalled by what they see in the park.

The acerbity of the debate wasn’t lost on Bellamy, who had particularly choice words for Ripley.

“This Council has been made to seem like villains because we asked for order,” Bellamy fumed. Since the breakfasts were shut down, Council members have received e-mails calling them “all sorts of names,” she said.

Voicing support for staff’s judgment on the matter, Bellamy noted that Ripley had rejected the compromise locations he’d been offered. (Ripley later told Xpress that he’s agreeable to the Aston Park site.)

Calling the recent attacks on City Council divisive and harmful, Bellamy cited individual Council members’ personal outreach to the homeless, as well as city initiatives such as the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.

“Adam, this is what you have done,” scolded Bellamy. “You haven’t brought this community together; you have divided us.”

The mayor’s comments sparked applause, which she promptly gaveled down.

Charrette wins Council’s favor

Earlier in the evening, City Council unanimously approved two measures aimed at promoting high-density, mixed-use development along Haywood Road in West Asheville. The more general item involved amending the language of the Unified Development Ordinance’s “urban place district” designation. A second measure called for rezoning the block between Blue Ridge and Mitchell avenues, now occupied by the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church.

Developer Kevin Crump and others recently hosted a weeklong charrette in connection with a project planned for the site (see “Lending an Ear,” March 29 Xpress). The attempt to solicit community input and buy-in appeared to pay off as both measures passed unanimously (Council member Brownie Newman was absent).

Crump’s plans envision a block-long, three-story building along Haywood Road, with a mix of housing types behind. Some neighbors who attended the meeting aired concerns about a sidewalk-and-buffer requirement that they said would threaten trees on the site. They’d already discussed the problem with Crump and are working on a compromise design that will need to be approved by the city. But the issue must first go before the Tree Commission, which will determine what impact each option would have.

Bellamy, meanwhile, had glowing words for the project’s attempts to provide affordable housing and encourage public input. “My hat’s off to you,” she proclaimed. “I think you are a good neighbor. You are one of those lights in the darkness.”

Seats up for grabs

The city is looking to fill vacancies on the following boards and commissions: the Airport Authority, Board of Adjustment, Civic Center Commission, Civil Service Board, Board of Electrical Examiners, Historic Resources Commission, Noise Ordinance Appeals Board, Tourism Development Authority and Recreation Board. The deadline for applications is Thursday, June 15. For more information, call the city clerk’s office at 259-5601.

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