A house divided: Ashevilleans debate the Master Plan

Nobody said it was going to be easy. The closer Asheville gets to producing a Downtown Master Plan, the devil gets more and more embedded in the details. When completed, the plan will govern everything from building heights to parking strategies to the types of businesses allowed downtown. So it’s really no surprise that the process of creating it has been complex and contentious.

Making a plan: The Good Clancy consulting team, led by David Dixon (second from left), encountered a range of opinions in meetings with community groups to discuss the Downtown Master Plan. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Throughout May and June, a team of consultants from Goody Clancy, the Boston-based firm hired by the city last year to craft the plan, held a series of meetings to gather public input (see box, “Dramatis Personae”). In September, they’re expected to present a draft plan to the public before taking it to City Council in October. But before sitting down to start writing, the consultants and city staffers hosted two more days of meetings, July 28-29, to check in with the public once again and share their plan of attack. The first four were held in the Public Works Building on South Charlotte Street; the wrap-up was presented at the Civic Center. And for the most part, those attending the sessions made no bones about how they felt. Here’s a rundown on the five sessions:

Experiencing downtown Asheville

Monday afternoon, July 28

“This is kind of not glamorous stuff,” cautioned consultant Fred Burchett. “We’re not talking about future vision: We’re talking about making things work.”

That may be as good a way as any to sum up the initial Downtown Master Plan meeting, which sought to address people’s experience of downtown, including things like transportation, parking, historic buildings and public art. Even the latter category didn’t provide much glamour, however. In response to a list of strategies and goals handed out at the door, Downtown Commission member Kitty Love said, “I feel like for the other strategies there are a lot of specifics, but for the art it is pretty vague.”

There were plenty of specifics concerning parking and mass transit, however.

First off, the parking rates are too low, said lead consultant David Dixon. That, he said, makes driving into the city center too desirable for everyone—residents, tourists and commuters alike. Rates, said Dixon, should be high enough that 50 percent of parking spaces are vacant at any given time.

A circulating transit system, noted Burchett, would make it easier for people to park on the outskirts of town and ride in—but it would probably require a hefty increase in public-transit funding. Chattanooga, he said, already has such a system in place—but it spends four times as much on transit as Asheville does. In addition, warned consultant Tom Gallaher, running shuttles downtown could hurt existing, privately owned trolley- and bus-tour companies.

But that didn’t wash with Asheville resident Jake Quinn. “Community comes first,” he declared. “Those commercial concerns come second.”

If anything, the meeting pointed up how entwined the master plan and its various component factors inevitably are, and how quickly one runs into chicken-and-egg situations. Which comes first—more density or more transit?

“I tend to think we are out of sequence on some things,” noted Gallaher, emphasizing that many other answers would be forthcoming over the next 48 hours.

As with any discussion of downtown’s future, this one clearly indicated how much compromise—not to mention outright horse-trading—the planning process entails. It also gave a hint of what might lie in store for the consultants and city staff during subsequent sessions.

— Brian Postelle

The African-American community

Monday evening, July 28

Consultants and city officials confronted a barrage of often-angry comments from members of Asheville’s African-American community, many of whom were skeptical that their problems or concerns would be incorporated into the Downtown Master Plan.

“We’ve got planning fatigue,” said the Rev. John Grant of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Eagle Street. “I’ve been here 19 years: They were planning when I came; they’ve been planning ever since. That’s what you see when you hear us reacting—we’ve gone through all these studies for decades, and now they tell us they need more studies. Then after that we can get even more studies.”

Dramatis personae

A roving pack of consultants and designers has been at the front of the room throughout the recent Downtown Master Plan public meetings. The cast of characters includes both Goody Clancy personnel and professionals subcontracted to fill in the gaps. Here are the ones quoted in this story, in order of appearance:

Fred Burchett: vice president, Kimley-Horn and Associates, a Raleigh-based design firm subcontracted by Goody Clancy.
Tom Gallaher: architect with Asheville-based Heritage Directions, subcontracted by Goody Clancy.
David Dixon: principal in charge of planning and urban design, Goody Clancy.
Mary Means: director of community initiatives, Goody Clancy.
Angela Ruppe: planner, Goody Clancy.
Benjamin Carlson: LEED associate, Goody Clancy.

Asheville resident Viola Williams was even more blunt.

“You’re offending our intelligence,” she told the assembled planners and officials. “This is the system: Promise us everything, but your money won’t allow you to go where we [they] say you can go. They don’t discriminate with your color—they discriminate with your money. Lower-income people get pushed out so you can make condos for just-arrived baby boomers. You’re offending our intelligence to make us feel we’re going to get a piece of this pie: I don’t see a crumb coming this way. This is already a done deal. You just want to pretend we had a voice in this.”

Pointing out that neither Mayor Terry Bellamy nor any Asheville City Council member was in attendance, Williams proclaimed: “They don’t care, but they should remember: We do vote. They’ll remember when the election gets tight—then they’ll come and visit the church.” The room broke into applause.

Many members of Mount Zion’s congregation were on hand, however. And several maintained that almost every time the city has embarked on an ambitious urban-renewal program, their community has come out on the losing end. In the 1970s, hundreds of buildings around the Southside Avenue and Valley Street (now South Charlotte Street) areas were seized via eminent domain and demolished, scattering their former inhabitants across the city. In fact, noted Urban News and Observer Publisher Johnnie Grant, the Public Works Building (where the meeting was held) occupies the former site of her childhood home.

Planning fatigue: Johnnie Grant points to parts of the Public Works Building that were her family’s home before the city demolished a large part of the East End neighborhood in a 1970s “urban renewal” effort. Photo by Jonathan Welch

“This used to be my family’s living room,” she said, pointing. “Now when you talk about urban renewal and redevelopment, I can speak for my family personally: We get a little jaded. If you want to engage the community, why not have an African-American consultant on your team?” Again came the applause.

Willie Mae Brown, a 72-year-old East End resident, was more restrained in her remarks, welcoming the planners “to my neighborhood.” But the substance of her comments differed little from what other speakers said. Asheville, she maintained, will have to realize that “it is nothing more than a neighborhood—and whatever mess we’re in, we’re in it together.” Brown then proceeded to lay out the local history as she sees it.

“I grew up in East End,” she said. “We have had model cities, and we know what model cities have done. We’ve had urban renewal, and we know what happened during that period. Any major change that takes place within the city of Asheville affects the black community very negatively. Urban renewal came through, and they invented urban ghettos. We value our place, our living. We are survivors; we have had promises made and broken. The Block [the historic African-American business district centered around Eagle and Market streets] is a part of downtown, but any new development always ends right next to it. I want to see Eagle and Market included. It’s been neglected for too long.”

In many ways, said resident Sylvia Verington, Asheville is still segregated—an obstacle that she feels planners and the city at large usually ignore.

“We live in a tourist environment, [but] a lot of tourists don’t like to come into restaurants and hotels and see black people sitting next to them—that’s the fact,” asserted Verington. “This community is ‘diverse white’; Asheville is still segregated. It’s not fair that we should just be on The Block.”

That prejudice, she said, is hurting black entrepreneurs and businesses, and it underscores the need for local black representation at every level of developing the downtown plan.

“You have to have that perspective,” she urged: “They’ll fill in the gaps for you.”

Dixon tried to reassure the audience that “not one word” of the plan had been written yet.

“I appreciate that you all have been very direct and very blunt,” he said. “One of the things that has struck me [is that] virtually everyone that’s spoken, when you look at these [artist’s renderings of possible downtown development], you don’t see yourself in them.

“Frankly, as I listen to the voices and the history, I can see why this looks sort of alien and other. But it doesn’t, it shouldn’t and it can’t be that way going forward. We can’t change history; we can’t change the way the world works. But we can try to make a difference for you and your role in Asheville—for everyone’s sake.”

One potential measure Dixon mentioned was adding grandfather clauses to protect the owners of working-class homes from losing them due to rising taxes as property values increase—a concern raised by several at the meeting.

“We have heard you,” Dixon assured the audience.

— David Forbes

Downtown business owners

Tuesday morning, July 29

Notwithstanding the vitality of downtown’s unique amalgam of locally owned small businesses, the clear consensus among the 40 or so representatives of the city’s business community in attendance was that more needs to be done to make Asheville hospitable to commerce and development—both now and in the future.

First, they said, the city must provide much clearer and simpler rules governing development. And once the completed master plan spells out what development the community wants built and where, new buildings that meet those criteria should be fast-tracked, skirting the various levels of review and approval currently required.

For their part, the consultants suggested dividing downtown Asheville into five distinct districts: the core, the Beaucatcher gateway to the east, the Patton Avenue/River District gateway to the west, the south slope (coming up Asheland Avenue), and the historically black Eagle/Market Street area. Each would have its own development rules.

Developer Chris Peterson complained that projects, particularly large ones, are now subject to the whims of too many players, including politicians and those who are antidevelopment. “If you’re going to do a big project, you’d better get ready to get in your pocket and pay out and do what some of these Council members that we have with their little pet projects want to do. It’s absolutely nothing more than a bribe.”

Lead consultant David Dixon agreed about the need to depoliticize the review-and-approval process. One way to do that, he said, is to consider downtown development district by district, rather than building by building. The idea—and the challenge—is to create design guidelines that are so specific and clear that they can’t be misinterpreted.

Other keys to continued downtown viability include making a commitment to build work-force housing and finding ways to keep small businesses downtown.

“You are known across the country as a downtown with wonderful small businesses. It is amazing the reputation—and very well-earned—that Asheville has for the unique character of its downtown business community,” said Dixon. “Losing that would be giving away a heritage of immense value. It would be a very sad thing to do. … We have to find real ways to support small, startup, mom-and-pop businesses so that the tradition that has made you so successful can continue.” Without mentioning them by name, Dixon cited businesses such as Woolworth Walk and the Kress Emporium, which rent space to entrepreneurs, artists and crafters to peddle their wares, as one of the innovative approaches Asheville must focus on to maintain its commercial viability.

Master Plan strategies

Here are the strategies the consultants distilled from a series of meetings with residents, to guide them in writing the draft plan:
• Establish a downtown management-and-redevelopment entity;
• Nurture a sustainable and resilient downtown economy;
• Cultivate downtown’s essential cultural and historic resources;
• Expand choices for downtown access;
• Improve parking convenience and value;
• Inaugurate an urban-design framework to extend downtown’s sense of place;
• Shape building form to promote quality of place;
• Update downtown design guidelines to be current, clear and green;
• Make downtown project review transparent, predictable and inclusive.

Audience members asserted that downtown is the economic engine driving the entire Asheville area, and many said that downtown isn’t getting its fair share of services, such as recycling and more frequent trash pickup for those who don’t use private haulers.

Consultant Mary Means indicated a need for the downtown to have its own distinct management entity. Dixon agreed. “There is clearly a gap here” between the city and the business community, he said. Perhaps it’s a job for the Downtown Association to tackle, or maybe business owners should consider designating a liaison or ombudsman to interface with City Hall. Means also touted structures such as business-improvement districts and tax-increment-financing districts as ways to give business owners more control over their destiny.

Tax-increment financing allows cities to make infrastructure improvements within specially designated districts in order to generate private-sector development or redevelopment. Such improvements typically increase the value of surrounding real estate and spur private investment in new or rehabilitated buildings. That all results in increased tax revenues, and the amount of that increase—the tax increment—is set aside to finance the debt on the publicly funded improvements.

A business-improvement district is typically a public/private partnership in which businesses within a defined area elect to pay an additional tax in order to fund improvements to the area.

“There may not be the money to do everything,” said Dixon, “but the city residents and property owners need to determine what needs to be provided and work on it from there.” Among the needs cited by audience members were creating more transportation options and parking downtown. Those concerns, said Dixon, will receive heavy consideration in the final plan.

“America has definitely entered an era in which places you can walk around are valued much more highly,” he noted. “And one of the things we feel an obligation to do is create a plan that really takes advantage of just how walkable downtown really is.”

—  Hal L. Millard

Shaping downtown

Tuesday afternoon, July 29

In a follow-up to the design workshop that kicked off the two-day blitz, about 60 businesspeople, property owners, residents, designers, developers and architects considered how to preserve the “downtown experience” in the face of new development. That, said a consensus of the audience, means not only actively managing downtown for the benefit of all, but also maintaining its historical heritage and culture.

“It is our sense from lots of conversations with people—some of whom are elected, some who are businesspeople, some who are residents—that this is a community that is collectively ready” to shape its future, said lead consultant David Dixon. That means, he continued, “a community that: plans for itself now on a regular basis; creates design guidelines it believes in and then translates into zoning; says it has a merit-based approach to development; and removes that process from the political arena and makes it one of, ‘Are these the right buildings in the right place with the right uses?’”

Putting the pieces together: The consultants framed some of the discussion about downtown’s future around the distinct history and uses of five key areas. Courtesy City Of Asheville

One man in the audience said he believed the idea was laudable, if a bit “utopian.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t believe there is enough trust” in this community to pull that off, he observed.

Undeterred, the consultants said the city should review and perhaps reconstruct the process for approving new development. The idea is to depoliticize the process as much as possible, using clear and exacting design guidelines that enable suitable projects to receive faster approval without coming before City Council or perhaps even the Planning and Zoning Commission. But there should also be an appeals process, noted Dixon, for those opposing projects that staff might approve with no prior public input.

The goal, he said, is to “have guidelines that are clear, zoning that is clear, the community benefits that are expected from development are clear. This is all set out, so all these things aren’t negotiated—they’re complied with.”

But while developers might like such an approach, city residents such as Steve Rasmussen argued that it could lead to projects being “steamrolled” through with no way for the public to vet them.

That, responded Dixon, is why it’s important to have guidelines that are clear, so that they can be understood by everybody. These rules, he emphasized, would first have to be approved by the people—starting right now with their involvement in the master-plan process.

—  Hal L. Millard


Tuesday evening, July 29

The last act of the two-day meeting frenzy played out in the Asheville Civic Center’s banquet hall. About 100 people—many of whom had already spent hours in the earlier meetings—turned up for a summation of the key points derived from the workshops. No less than seven consultants, each with a distinct expertise, took turns making presentations. Residents also had a chance to make comments or ask questions during the three-hour finale.

Dixon, the lead presenter, ran down a list of nine specific strategies for guiding downtown’s future (see box, “Master Plan Strategies”). Some, he said, will take the form of specific recommendations in the draft plan the consultants will present in September, while others might change shape as the consultants work on the draft document.

In terms of managing downtown Asheville’s growth, the consultants said they would recommend that the city create a management-and-redevelopment entity. There’s a range of models to follow, noted consultant Mary Means—from choosing a volunteer group to hiring professional staff. “There’s a need to start thinking now” about the management organization’s structure, she added, so the planning process can maintain its momentum.

In talking about how people experience downtown, the consultants zeroed in on parking and transportation. Most trips to downtown Asheville (87 percent) are by car, noted consultant Fred Burchett, citing an earlier city parking study, but residents have repeatedly said they want alternatives. The city, he said, should consider a park-and-ride system, using more environmentally friendly vehicles and bike paths. New city parking decks should be better camouflaged, and parking meters should be updated to enable motorists pay by debit or credit card. And before parking rates are increased, residents should be offered alternatives, he suggested.

Technical suggestions dominated the consultants’ ideas for shaping downtown Asheville. The city’s current process for reviewing downtown building projects “is frustrating and difficult to understand,” said Angela Ruppe. She suggested getting the public involved in the process much earlier—though she also said the city should consider streamlining the process. City Council, said Ruppe, should consider delegating more responsibility to boards such as the Planning and Zoning Commission and changing the criteria for projects that get the strictest review.

Consultant Benjamin Carlson said the city needs to update its downtown design guidelines to better address the development issues that are coming up now. The city, he said, should consider establishing limits on the height and scale of buildings, as well as guidelines to preserve specific view corridors.

Downtown Asheville, noted Carlson, could be viewed as five distinct districts, each with its own “urban design framework” (see “Downtown Business Owners” above). Each area, he said, presents opportunities for developing a unique character and associated land uses.

In answering a couple of questions about the Downtown Master Plan’s impact, Dixon emphasized that it will be up to City Council to put the plan into action. Council members’ high level of interest in the process bodes well, he noted. The bottom line, said Dixon, is that “this generation of people in Asheville has a chance to leave a legacy of new urban neighborhoods” that can attract new residents and drive economic growth over the next 20 years.

—  Jason Sandford


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4 thoughts on “A house divided: Ashevilleans debate the Master Plan

  1. Bryan Freeborn

    Did you notice how Chris Peterson actually came out and said that you have to bribe council members to get a project approved. This comes from a former council member and someone who maxed out on at least two of the sitting council members.

  2. AshevilleObserver

    Could you post some of your images so that, when clicked, they enlarge? My impulse was to click the little map to see it better, but it doesn’t click!

  3. firelady

    Just for clarification- I believe Tom Gallagher is an urban planner and not an architect.

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