Like many a downtown business center, The Block once thronged with people shopping, going to the library, working in offices, and meeting with friends. But over the years it has fallen into disuse, its buildings lapsing into disrepair, and its reputation slipping.
“We’ve seen [the rest of] downtown recover, but not The Block,” Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan reminded City Council members at their July 20 work session. Nearly $500,000 has been spent on studies and plans during the past decade to address redevelopment, said Caplan. “Some [of that money] could have been better spent, no doubt. But [change] takes time,” she noted.
The Block, she summarized, has had an uphill battle: Its first handicap has been location. “It’s just off the beaten track, behind government buildings, away from residences,” Caplan explained. And years of neglect have led to empty, decrepit buildings in need of repair. The resulting public perception of The Block tends to be negative, especially because of the drug- and alcohol-related problems prevalent there.
The various improvement initiatives have been plagued by controversy among stakeholders and a lack of expertise in The Block’s relatively new nonprofit organizations, Caplan said.
But, as Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick observed, “The Block’s on a roll.”
Caplan presented Council members with a strategy for The Block, based on four general ideas, which have already been put to use in the past year (some in just the past few months): strengthen and create partnerships; restore the “physical fabric” by renovating buildings; bring the people back by hosting a steady series of positive activities on The Block; and provide services, such as literacy and health-clinic programs.
Offering a more specific example of what the city can do, Caplan suggested that the sale of city-owned properties on Biltmore Avenue — possibly next year — could provide some of the seed money needed for a loan pool. Property owners on The Block could then apply for low-interest loans from this pool, to help renovate their buildings, she mentioned.
And Sitnick highlighted some recent people activities on The Block — particularly the Thursday and Friday game nights, when adults and (especially) kids can play checkers, chess, dominoes, horseshoes, midnight basketball and more. The summer program will culminate in a Goombay Festival tournament in late August, she noted. Of her own participation in the first game night, Sitnick reported, “I got beat so bad in checkers — by a 12-year-old. I thought checkers was a snap.” Sitnick also announced a series of “Learning Lunches” that will be held in the small park located on The Block, with such topics as “Get Organized Financially.”
As Council members scanned the strategy handout, Caplan added this reality check for all the implied hopes and wishes: “How will we know whether we’ve made a difference?” She answered her own question: The city can monitor construction permits on The Block — more permits will indicate that properties are being renovated. Businesses will be established on The Block, and property-tax values will rise as redevelopment occurs. And the police will file fewer reports, as criminal elements on The Block decrease.
Sitnick also applauded the efforts of such volunteers as Asheville Police Officer — and Asheville native — Quentin Miller, who has been instrumental in organizing the game nights for kids. Thanking Miller personally, she emphasized, “I want to touch and see and feel things [happening] on The Block.”
Council members took no formal action on the strategy plan.
Access from Hillcrest — to the future
The bridge was just the beginning. When Hillcrest Apartments residents split 50-50 on whether or not to open the pedestrian access over Interstate-240, Asheville City Council decided to keep the bridge closed, in order to maintain the reduction in crime and the increase in quality of life that many residents attributed to its closure. But Council also suggested the formation of a task force to examine the bridge debate, with all its underlying issues, and report back to Council.
“We’re still 50-50,” Marshall Logan informed Council members on July 20. Logan — who is leader of the Hillcrest Focus Group, a commissioner for the Housing Authority, and a former City Parks and Recreation Department employee — said that half the residents still wanted the bridge closed, for safety reasons. The other half want it open — but only under certain conditions: if lighting, security and bridge-area cleanup are provided.
But the real work of the focus group, Logan noted, lay in addressing bigger issues. In meeting with children and adults of the community, he learned that the number-one priority among teens was jobs. Number two was improved police protection. Another top priority was providing more activities for children 6-13 years old, he continued. A city summer-teen-program provides approximately 50 jobs each year — “but 250 kids need jobs,” said Logan.
He said he talked to his former boss, Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson, about the issue: “Naturally, he said he didn’t have enough money. … [But] I’m not talking about money; I’m talking about people,” Logan said, and then urged Council to support a jobs initiative for next year — a targeted effort to get local industries and businesses involved in putting these teens to work. “We can save our children now, and pay very little. … Or we can wait … [and] we might have to pay more for jails,” Logan declared. Or Council could wait for the same thing to happen as happened to him many years ago: He had to leave town, initially, to find work. Placing teens in summer and yearlong jobs would better prepare them to become adults and also provide the city with good employees in the future, he argued.
Younger kids, Logan suggested, need recreational activities — more playgrounds and more activities like the city’s Rec ‘n Roll bus, which provides services at Hillcrest just a few times a week for a few hours at a time. Or the city needs to provide better transportation to existing programs in Asheville, such as at the Montford Community Center, he urged.
“I’m not asking you to put up all the money,” said Logan. “But there are creative ways [for] collaborative efforts to work.” He remarked that the only reason he wanted to serve on a board or commission of any kind, and provide his expertise, was in order to give something back to the community. “I’m asking you to give something back,” Logan stated emphatically.
“That’s why I appointed you [to the focus group],” replied Mayor Leni Sitnick, visibly impressed with Logan’s presentation. She directed Brinson to coordinate meetings with local business leaders, such as representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and Council of Independent Business Owners. Those meetings will begin in early fall.
Asheville Transportation Planner Ron Fuller mentioned that the N.C. Department of Transportation has some funds available for “enhancement” projects, such as lighting and cleaning up the Hillcrest bridge. The city will be applying for some of those funds, with the bridge listed as one of several projects under consideration.
Council members took no formal action.