The Haywood Park project is big: On that, everyone agrees. Developer Tony Fraga‘s proposed megaproject would fill up much of the block between Page Avenue and Haywood Street in downtown Asheville, including a 100-unit, high-rise condominium tower; a 200-room, 23-story hotel; 42,000 square feet of office space; 80,000 square feet of retail space; and 506 parking spaces.
So far, the project has had pretty smooth sailing, clearing the Downtown Commission on a 6-2 vote and winning unanimous approval by the Technical Review Committee. It still has to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission and, finally, City Council.
Meanwhile, down on Haywood—home to such mainstay independent businesses as Malaprop’s, the Chocolate Fetish and Bloomin’ Art—opinion is mixed. Apart from the project itself, there’s concern about what potentially years of construction might do to their livelihoods.
“Business is business,” says Louis McElreath of the Flower Gallery with a shrug. “I guess it will improve the area, but I wonder if it will still have all these small businesses, or if they’ll move away. Those that stay might not be able to afford the higher rent.”
If the project is approved, the Flower Gallery will have to move, along with all the other businesses in the Haywood Building (one of them, Ariel Gallery, has already shifted to a new location on Biltmore Avenue). Also slated for demolition are the parking garage behind the Haywood Building and the brick building at 35 Battery Park Ave. that houses a Subway and Kostas Menswear.
Across the street, Malaprop’s owner Emoke B’Racz takes a somewhat different view.
“What I hear from our customers is that they love downtown Asheville because it’s different—because it doesn’t have high-rises, because it has small businesses you don’t see anywhere else in the country,” she says. “We’ve worked hard for 27 years to make [downtown] viable for the emerging artists, writers, musicians, galleries and bookstores. Why we think we’ll make Asheville better by having a Tiffany’s store is beyond me. If the small businesses can’t afford to stay downtown, we’re changing what this town is—and it’s not going to be attractive to tourists. Period.”
B’Racz doesn’t know whether Malaprop’s would still be in business by the time the Haywood Park construction finished. “I hope we could handle it, but I’m not 100 percent sure, in all honesty, that we would survive,” she notes. “Speaking from my experience of the six months we had construction on Haywood for the water pipes, that was a really hard time. This development is two years, and how much do you want to bet it’s going to take longer. No small business has the funds to stay open for three years without sales coming in—and why would [customers] come down here if there’s dust and explosions everywhere?”
Miles Bender of Bender Gallery (57 Haywood St.) doesn’t see any good coming out of the development.
“I’m not sure how it would impact us, except in a negative way,” he says, standing amid delicate-looking glass sculptures. “All that dust and noise—and with parking being an issue on top of all of that. It just doesn’t fit the neighborhood. I mean, heights of 12, 14 stories, that’s one thing. But 23 stories? Have you seen these things?”
He shakes his head. “There goes the sunlight.”
Over on Page Avenue, Chandler Gordon of the Captain’s Bookshelf sounds a more positive note.
“The project looks pretty good to me,” he reports. “I like the underground-parking idea; I even kind of like that they’re replicating the tower that was going to be on the Grove Arcade. I like the way that [Fraga] has involved the community and put right out front what he’s trying to do.”
Still, “it’s obviously a big thing, and therefore it’s a little hard to take,” he adds. “But basically my take is positive—though it’s going to be extremely disruptive to the street and this part of downtown for however long it takes it to get built.”
On the corner of Haywood and Battery Park stands the Haywood Park Hotel (also now owned by Fraga). The Frog Bar and the Flying Frog Café face the intersection, and co-owner/head chef Vijay Shastri sees a better future ahead—with the Haywood Park development.
“We need that sort of development in downtown—and as a whole, this project is quite good,” Shastri maintains. “Yes, it will hurt all of us for a short time, but I do believe that we need to stay focused on what’s going to be there: It will bring in a lot of revenue to the area.”
Shastri also says he’s confident that Fraga will do everything possible to make the construction process relatively painless.
“He’s very mindful of that, and he doesn’t want the businesses to get hurt,” says Shastri. “I trust him, and I think that in any plans he makes, I don’t think he would try to extend or make things more inconvenient than absolutely necessary.”
Beth Stickle has operated Bloomin’ Art in the ground floor of 60 Haywood since 1977. The long-running flower shop sits right next to where the project’s demolition would end.
“When I came here, it was empty from the Basilica to the Haywood Park Hotel,” she recalls, adding, “Things have certainly changed. It’s a very ambitious project—it’s going to have a substantial impact on businesses and residents that are already here. So it really needs to be done well, and everyone needs to be involved on the front end, instead of being reactionary once it’s finished.”
The new Haywood Park will mark a test for Asheville, says Stickle—particularly residents and businesses that have been downtown for decades.
“Change is definitely coming—it’s a test of us how we manage the change, and it needs to be good for everybody, not just a few,” she asserts. “Certainly developers and speculators have the right to make a profit, but sensitivity to the impact on the community must be part of equation.”
The current plan, says Stickle, “has some very serious design flaws, like the entrance to the parking garage that will be right next to this wall,” pointing toward the Haywood Building. “But those [flaws] can be remedied now. I’m sure these things can be looked at.”
As for the construction, she says it will affect the business “negatively. I’ve been here during all the [previous] construction,” and during the water-line replacement, “there was a piece of heavy equipment in front of my shop for seven months solid. So how that is handled—keeping the streets and sidewalks open, joint advertising to let people know we’re here—is a great concern. It’s already started: Ariel Gallery is gone. If that continues, we’ll have two years of a half-empty street. That’s not what we need. It’s going to have a huge impact. Huge. Overall the plan is spectacular, but it’s going to be a lot of growing pains, and it has to be done right.”
Like Gordon, Stickle credits Fraga for “holding a number of meetings with anyone who wants to talk—and that I appreciate.”
The longtime downtown entrepreneur also recalls previous ambitious projects—like the late-‘70s plan to demolish 11 blocks of downtown and replace it with a shopping mall.
“We banded together to stop that 25 years ago. We called ourselves the ‘Asheville 1,000’—there were only 1,000 of us downtown in those days, and no one had that much money,” she remembers. “This is different. People with this amount of money, they can do whatever they want. They can be nice and listen to what people say, but they don’t have to. That’s scary.”
It will be up to the next generation, she observes, to decide what kind of city they want to have.
As the head of Public Interest Projects for the past 17 years, Pat Whalen has also seen downtown change. The private development firm has focused on renovating old buildings to create space for small businesses and residents downtown. The company currently owns the building housing Malaprop’s and Zambra.
In July, Whalen, who also chairs the Downtown Commission, turned thumbs down on the Haywood Park project.
“I cast my vote against it because I didn’t think they were being flexible with the condo-tower design—there’s room to be more sensitive to the architecture of the area,” he explains. Whalen had previously championed another large, controversial downtown development: The Ellington, slated for Biltmore Avenue.
With his vote on Haywood Park, however, Whalen says he also wanted to draw attention to the potential negative impacts of construction.
“This could be very good in the long run, but the short run is a different story—I’m not so sure that in the long run a lot of the businesses will still be there” due to the construction, he warns. “There are ways to try to lessen the impact, but right now I’m not crystal clear on how they’re going to do that.”
But Whalen does note that Haywood Park “has a lot of good aspects, and it would add more retail, hotel and residents to downtown.”
There’s still time to change the project for the better, he believes. “This will have an intense impact on the neighborhood, and people need to make that clear in their remarks to [City Council],” he asserts.
B’Racz, however, questions Fraga’s promise “to make Asheville better. Excuse me: Asheville is good as is. There are a lot of things we can do to improve the community—we don’t have to scrape the sky.”
As short as humanly possible?
Fraga spokesperson Dave Tomsky says the concerns about construction impacts have come through loud and clear.
“Obviously, there’s some disruption that goes on any time you construct a project of this size, but Tony’s made plans to minimize that as much as possible: The streets will remain open, the walkways will be accessible,” Tomsky reports. “He’s also trying to help things by shortening the construction period as much as humanly and engineeringly possible.”
As for the height of the planned buildings, Tomsky says the company has sought feedback from the community and has received “very little concern” about the height.
“The hotel is Grove’s tower, right across the street from where it would have originally been—and the condo tower is considerably shorter than that,” notes Tomsky. “I’ve been at all the meetings. There have been some questions about the architectural appeal, but very few problems with what Tony has planned.”
Tomsky also emphasizes the efforts the developer has made to be sensitive to community concerns. “Out of the gate, one of the first things Tony did—before we brought the plans to the city—was to talk to business owners, talk to the residents, and listen to their concerns, and he’s taking all those into consideration going forward.”