If you’d asked around downtown Asheville a year ago what people thought about Biltmore Park Town Square, chances are you’d have heard at least one mention of the popular Regal Biltmore Grande Stadium 15 movie theater. But the massive planned community's idyllic "small town" design might also have sparked references to The Stepford Wives or The Truman Show.
Since then, however, more and more individuals and businesses have moved into the south Asheville development’s roughly 1 million square feet of residential, commercial and retail space. And today, first-time visitors are likely to be surprised not only by the size and scope of the self-contained "town" that has seemingly emerged from nowhere, but by its built-in livability.
"A lot of people get confused with what is called ‘lifestyle centers’ and what is called ‘new urbanism,’" notes Paul Szurek, chief financial officer of co-developer Biltmore Farms. "A lifestyle center is really just an outdoor shopping mall — it doesn't have the mixed use, and it is not a community place."
In the early ’90s, Jack Cecil and his father, George, hatched the vision of a high-density, mixed-use, mixed-income “town square” in the heart of Western North Carolina that could help Asheville grow while reducing suburban sprawl.
From the beginning, says Szurek, Biltmore Farms incorporated education, health care, the arts, environmental responsibility and economic development into its ambitious plans, drawing on the emerging philosophies of “smart growth” and new urbanism.
"If you don't have the mixed use, you don't have the vitality, the growth," he explains. "If you look at the stores that have been here from early on… their sales were solid but relatively flat. But now, since everything else has developed, I think their sales have doubled. It is stunning what the impact of this is."
Art and commerce
After almost 20 years and $200 million (the biggest private investment in WNC history, says Szurek), Biltmore Park Town Square is a testament to that vision. Besides driving traffic and employment opportunities to the planned community, he notes, chains like P.F. Chang’s, Barnes & Noble and REI help support such local enterprises as Moda and Constance Boutique, The Natural Home, Shades of Green, Lavender Fields, Sensibilities and Natural Impressions.
O.P. Taylors proprietor John Taylor says the Biltmore Park branch, which is at least as popular as his other locations, marked the first time he could "build a toy store from the ground up — the way a toy store ought to be built." The wide range of available goods and services also includes a growing roster of healthcare providers.
Local artists are finding a home in Biltmore Park too. Museum-cum-event-space DINO-kinetics showcases the giant, interactive dinosaurs created by the late John Payne, patron saint of the River Arts District. Echo Gallery, meanwhile, is a remarkable resource for artists. "We provide the space for free, and they provide the inventory and manage it," Szurek explains.
"They got three of us artists initially to commit, and then we decided to turn it into a co-op," notes potter Lori Theriault. "They wanted the artists to put it together and run it, so that it was truly reflective of the Asheville [arts scene]."
Local artwork hangs in the lobbies of condos and offices, and even the metal sculptures scattered throughout the park are for sale.
Among the many entertainment options are free outdoor concerts on Saturday evenings.
Tech appeal or “pop-up city”?
One key strategy was bringing in high-paying, cutting-edge tech and research jobs.
"To attract knowledge-based businesses from Atlanta, Charlotte, D.C. or Florida, you had to have a modern urban center with all the modern urban upgrades of power and technology," says Szurek. "There are very few town centers in the country that are as comprehensively wired with multiple fiber providers as we are. Of course, you also have to have a work environment where the Gen-X, the Gen-Y and whoever follows them feel excited about working there."
Netriplex, a data-processing center that moved its headquarters from Boston four years ago, provides free Wi-Fi throughout the Main Street corridor.
Much like downtown, however, Biltmore Park currently has its share of vacant space (29 percent of the available retail and 22 percent of the office space, Szurek reports). Some of it had been earmarked for four high-end women’s dress shops that backed out when the economy went south, he reveals. But leasing to local and regional tenants has actually been stronger than expected, and those holes are filling in at the rate of about 5 percent per month.
"We are grateful to have a really good mix already in place, with more on the way, which will give it a more eclectic flavor and help avoid the situation where you look like just another suburban Charlotte or Atlanta," Szurek notes.
Still, in some quarters the project hasn't shaken its image as a sterilized facsimile of downtown Asheville catering solely to well-to-do retirees.
Adam Samuel, enjoying an ice cream downtown, dubs it “the pop-up city. It seems like a movie set; it doesn't belong here. … I think that if a couple of Asheville kids just tried to go hang out over there, they wouldn't last long.”
Green and growing
Yet many downtown denizens might be surprised to learn not only how vibrant this planned community has become but how green it is.
A Wednesday-afternoon tailgate market sponsored by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project features fresh vegetables, pies, cheeses, plants, healthy snacks and more. "It’s really neat, because you see a lot of the residents and even the office workers going down with their bags and getting their produce for the week," says Sarah Davis, Biltmore Farms’ marketing director.
In operation for nearly two years, the market was only recently able to move to its current site due to continuing construction, ASAP Program Coordinator Mike McCreary explains. "We’ve been growing with this development … and I’m excited to see how we will grow even more in the next year."
Environmental consciousness was there from day one. The high-density, mixed-use design and stacked parking accommodate as much development on 42 acres as would typically consume 100 or more, while generating less traffic and fewer air emissions. Instead of driving to each destination separately, Szurek points out, "When people come here, they can park their car and do it all [on foot]."
Extensive water-quality measures include a large retention pond and an underground storage vault. "We not only surrounded the area with stream buffers and conservation easements … but we put in the most comprehensive storm system that Buncombe County has ever seen," he reports.
The Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park is in the process of obtaining certification by LEED, an internationally recognized green-building accreditation program.
One of the region’s largest solar hot-water systems heats more than 2,000 gallons on most sunny days — enough to service the entire building, including the pool and laundry facilities (there’s a gas backup for cloudy days). The hotel also offers alternative transportation options including bikes and a shuttle service, maintains a rigorous recycling program and uses local vendors and products whenever possible. In-room pamphlets educate guests on conservation and sustainability.
"We have striven for energy efficiency and water efficiency in all the buildings, upgraded insulation, low-flow water features, even in the condos," Szurek reveals. "Our 2B office building is also in the LEED registration process, and FLS Energy will shortly install photovoltaic on its roof. As the renewable-energy program expands, Biltmore Park hopes they will be able to utilize all their rooftops for PV."
All together now
Twelve-year Asheville resident Bland Holland, who sold his 3,700-square-foot home last October in favor of a 1,500-square-foot condo in Biltmore Park, says he often goes four or five days without driving. But gas mileage isn’t the only thing greener about Holland’s life these days. As a concierge at the Hilton, he wears a uniform made from recycled plastic bottles. "It actually feels fine," he reports during an evening walk with his dogs in the town square, "although it does get a bit warm." And pausing to clean up after them, Holland points out the elegant poop-scoop dispensers beside the sidewalk, noting, "There are seven or eight of those conveniently located around here."
In the end, however, it’s not all about either the environment or commerce or arts and entertainment. "The goal is not to do all of one thing or the other, but to find a balance that makes everyone stronger and stay open-minded to ways to liven us up," Szurek observes. "Everything is synergistic, and everything supports everything else."
— Freelance writer Michele Scheve lives near Asheville.