A look back

In many ways, there seems a big gulf between today and 1994, when Mountain Xpress was born. That was the year Forrest Gump ruled the box office and the Oscars, and Kurt Cobain was found dead in Seattle. Bill Clinton was still a new president, and there had only been one Bush in the White House.

Locally, in many ways, it was also a different world. In today's Asheville, with its steady influx of new residents and city leaders looking to the future, it may be hard to believe that 15 years ago many downtown storefronts were boarded up with plywood, Pritchard Park was a bus depot and the Grove Arcade was awaiting renovation.

But in other ways, as Otis Redding said, "Everything still remains the same." At City Hall, Asheville City Council was figuring out how to guide development in the city with something called the Unified Development Ordinance, and a series of public meetings was held to plan a bridge for the I-26 connector.

To get a glimpse at where our city was in 1994, Xpress spoke with people in the know: those folks who were here at the time. Some of them were carving out their niche in the Asheville scene; others were wrestling with the great political issues of the day. Restaurateurs, activists, developers and a former mayor all pitched in to offer their recollections of where Asheville was way back in the late 20th century.

Since people rarely speak in neat, 150-word snippets, we have edited these comments for length and clarity.

John Cram, owner, Blue Spiral 1 gallery

"Downtown Asheville was 80 percent empty, especially here on Biltmore Avenue. I think Wall Street was fine. Parts of Haywood were in pretty good shape. Connie Bostic had the World Gallery right across the way, and she kept saying, 'Why don't you open a gallery down here?' Most of downtown was not there yet.

"In 1994, I think things were changing. That's the cusp of when Asheville was starting to happen. I had bought the Fine Arts Theatre a couple of years before as protection against having a nightclub there. The rumor was that someone else was interested in buying the theater who had another nightclub, and they were going to strip it out and gut the building. It made me very nervous.

"It was 1995 that I kind of woke up, and I recognized that there were lots and lots of people downtown. That was about a year after Mountain Xpress got going."

Dwight Butner, former president, Asheville Downtown Association

"I think in 1994, downtown was latent potential. A lot of the groundwork had been done at that time, and you started to see the fruits of the labor of the 1980s start to take hold.

"But what was different between '94 and now is that the businesses that existed downtown were kind of on their own. If you came downtown, you were going to Vincenzo's as a destination; you were going to The Market Place as a destination; you were going to Café on the Square as a destination. It was deliberate business: People know what they're going to do, they do it, then they go home.

"What happened between '94 and '98, downtown … ceased to be a group of businesses and became a destination in and of itself. And it's been growing ever since."

Debbie Miles, Center for Diversity Education

"Over the last 15 years, we've really seen an enormous change in the school system and the families that are a part of it. In the Buncombe County schools now, there are over 55 languages spoken in the homes of families. That certainly wasn't true in 1994, though there was the migrant-education plan for students that would come through, then move to another community.

"But now, it's a stationary population. Somewhere around 3 percent of students speak Spanish in their homes. There are over 10,000 people here from the former Soviet Union. There's a growing GLBT community, and many of them have children in our school system. Many smaller parts of the population are growing and adding a richness and texture to our community."

Mark Rosenstein, owner, The Market Place restaurant

"As far as food goes, there wasn't a whole lot. The Flying Frog was there, because it had been the European Grill. Café on the Square; Stone Soup. And then the one on Battery Park. I wouldn't say it was the destination it is now. Over the last six or seven years, things have really ratcheted up. You've got four restaurants on Wall Street.

"Fifteen years ago is really when the whole thing started kicking off. You had the young kids who started hanging out downtown, and all the things that attracted them. That's the classic model.

"I can remember [The Market Place being] on Wall Street for a while, and it was kind of gruesome. Then I walked out one evening mid-July about midnight. I had gotten off work, and I just stepped outside and there was all this energy. You could tell something was going on."

Pat Whalen, president, Public Interest Projects; member, Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee

"A good example is the corner with the old J.C. Penney building, where Mobilia is now. In 1994, that was still all boarded up.

"The people who had done Wall Street and Pack Square all ran into serious financial difficulties on their projects. You could buy buildings for about half what it costs to rent one now. Many of the buildings weren't up to code, the renovation costs were very high, and the banks weren't lending on anything downtown. There was a very clear recognition that downtown still had a long way to go.

"There were also a number of businesses that had been there through the dark days of the 1980s: Malaprop's, The Captain's Bookshelf, Tops for Shoes. Where City Bakery is now, there were trees growing in the building, which was all boarded up.

"Two of the primary shopping streets, Biltmore and Haywood, were still boarded up. On Lexington, John Lantzius had done some bootstrap renovation, but we didn't expect it to change as quickly as it did in the '90s. Frankly, I don't think many people that lived in Asheville believed anybody was going to be building new buildings here."

Cathy Cleary, co-owner, West End Bakery

"We drove down Haywood Road, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is so cute. I can't believe they call it Worst Asheville!'

"At that point, a lot of the retail spaces were boarded up or had junk stores in them. Where Tolliver's bar is now, there was the Ideal Drug Store. There was a record store called Green Eggs and Jam in the Bledsoe Building. Where Lucky Otter is there was a place called Rooster Cogburn's. Bean Werks opened in '96, I believe.

"Then in the next couple of years, things started shutting down. We liked to take walks in the neighborhood, and it was mostly people over 60 — and us. In 2000 is when we started talking about the bakery, and we opened in 2001."

The Rev. Otis Ware, musician and pastor, Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church

"From an African-American standpoint, there ain't really been nothing downtown for some years. So 1994 really doesn't ring a big bell for me in terms of the culture of the black community.

"Asheville has always been a tourist town, and a lot of people have come here. But it hasn't been that great or that prosperous for the African-American community. When businesses started moving into the downtown area, it didn't include the African-Americans. We kind of lost the businesses we had when The Block dried up.

"It's been that way for a long time; I can't see any significant change. The bus stop was right there at Pritchard Park. A lot of traffic was going in and out, because you could go shopping downtown. And now they've gone and moved the bus place."

Ron Lambe, activist

"In those days, we had a lot of different organizations doing specific things. We did a lot of street things, protests and marches around stopping clear-cutting. I think what's happening now is the whole community's changed a little bit. Now, it's not so many fights around issues: It's more general. There were a lot of environmental organizations going on. That's how Green Line was involved.

"The other thing I was involved with was gay-and-lesbian rights. SALGA (the Southern Appalachian Lesbian and Gay Alliance) won some of our battles, actually. We had the big, big demonstration for the nondiscrimination ordinance. Once that got to a certain place, a lot of those battles weren't needed anymore on a local level.

"A lot of people moving here now aren't so much activists but are just getting on with their lives. I was one of the first openly gay candidates: I didn't win, but at least I broke the ice. People here very much care about their surrounding environment, but they also want to protect their property rights."

Russ Martin, former Asheville Mayor

"In 1994, '95, we had two-year City Council terms. We lengthened them to four years, then staggered those terms and made them nonpartisan. When I ran for mayor in 1993, my total expense was $14,600. It was much less expensive to run a successful campaign.

"The I-26 corridor was studied and studied and studied. We had 18 different meetings. In 1995, we approved one of the plans: It still hasn't been completed.

"We began work on the Unified Development Ordinance. It was sorely needed, because the prior zoning was enacted in 1957. Pack Square Park wasn't even a thought back then.

"We had the largest City Council meeting in recorded history over the nondiscrimination ordinance. We held it at the Thomas Wolfe and came out with a 4-3 vote. The Police Department was fearing for our safety; we even had an escape route. But it turned out to be a positive meeting."

Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at bpostelle@mountainx.com.

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8 thoughts on “A look back

  1. hauntedheadnc

    I can’t read this without thinking of how Cecil Bothwell, in his August candidate email newsletter, defied anyone to prove that Asheville was demonstrably better now than it was in 1990 or 1980 — and how it might have even been better then because it was smaller and had more trees.

    I think we’re seeing here, with people recollecting that downtown was largely abandoned as late as 1994, that Asheville actually is better nowadays. Perhaps this might even mean that — horrors! — growth is not always all bad.

  2. Haunted, as in so many of your snarky, anonymous comments, you are strong on details and short on context. I have never, in any of my writing or speaking, stated that growth was bad. Never.

    What I observed in my August newsletter, as any of my 12,000 subscribers can affirm, is that life is not arguably better for everyone than it was ten or twenty years ago.

    I noted that we have more commerce today as well as more traffic. We have more businesses as well as higher taxes. We have more tourists and more crime. We have “increased the tax base” like crazy for two decades, but we still can’t afford to repair city hall – where the top two floors are unusable due to roof leaks. My point was simply that growth is not, in and of itself, a benefit. It is just one part of how a community changes over time, for better or for worse.

    And, one of the points I failed to mention in my August newsletter is that despite our great success in many areas, our work force still “enjoys” below average wages and above average housing costs. For those folks, the glitter and glimmer of downtown’s success is problematic at best.

  3. hauntedheadnc

    I agree with you that growth in and of itself is not a benefit. However, I’m less interested in stopping growth than I am in directing it into the forms and districts where we can force it to do some good and to do the most good.

    To me, that means dense urban growth, with taller buildings making the most use out of the smallest plots of land, and with urban growth replacing downtown’s parking lots, bad buildings, and other suburban scars. I won’t be content until downtown is not only the city’s but the region’s premiere mixed-income residential neighborhood, shopping district, and employment center. This, as an alternative to flinging growth up the mountainsides of the county, and this as a way to make every speck of downtown property perform at its utmost. That would take this city to the level it ought to be at, and surely even you agree that all those residents paying taxes and patronizing downtown businesses would be good for the city.

    But I just don’t see you helping that to become a reality. Every time I come close to thinking that perhaps you aren’t a garden-variety NIMBY, I see something like your newsletter or your travel guide to Asheville where you make a note of hoping that the recession has hopefully helped us to get this unpleasant spate of growth behind us.

    Believe it or not, we both only want the best for the city here, but my main worry (and the issue that will likely keep me from voting for you) is how you seem to be determined to keep Asheville a small town whether it wants to be or not.

  4. hauntedheadnc

    I just realized I forgot to thank you for clarifying your position, Cecil. I do appreciate that, and I think I was a little unfair in my response to you now that I’ve reread it.

    If you’re truly going to work for good growth and all that entails, such as urban growth and better jobs and everything else, then you may win my vote after all. Honestly though, it seems like you can take growth or leave it and that’s a dangerous attitude to have when the city is in direct competition with the county for growth, and when the city is forced by law to subsidize its own sprawl with the Sullivan Acts.

    Can you see where I’m coming from?

  5. This is the kind of conversation that makes me hope we can use Web 2.0 to revitalize community involvement in municipal governance.

    I agree with you more than I disagree, and I’m always open to thoughtful arguments. And I am happy to admit that I have published some cheeky comments in my books (thanks for reading the travel guide!0 and my newsletters. Hey, I’ve even been wrong and I’m old enough to know that I don’t know it all.

    I do think the recession has given Asheville a breather in the same way that the crash in the 20s saved our Art Deco buildings from 1950s urban “renewal.” That doesn’t make the recession “good” but as a collateral effect, there’s more time to implement sound policies based on the recently approved Downtown Master Plan.

    Yes, up not out is the way to grow, although the two are not linked. City people who want to preserve more green space should be strong supporters of County zoning (we are county residents too, y’know).

    In discussions with several architects, I’ve come to appreciate the idea of form-based design and particularly the importance of considering the effect on the street of any new project. As I’ve noted elsewhere, one seeming negative about the approved (but stalled) Ellington, is the double driveway breaking through the pedestrian sidewalk on Biltmore. People already preferentially walk on that side to avoid the similar driveway of the Pack Place parking deck. Now we’re faced with more of the same auto/pedestrian interface, plus turning traffic into both sides blocking traffic north and south. Not good planning, IMHO.

    But I digress. And in turn I apologize for my own edginess. (Will always and ever wonder, though, why so many people insist on anonymity in public debate.)

  6. hauntedheadnc

    Thank you for your response.

    If you’re curious, the only reason I use a screen name is because I use the same screen name everywhere I go online, and it’s easier to use the same name and same password everywhere. It’s also the same online alias I’ve used since for a decade, since I was 19.

    Honestly, you are the one candidate I’m most intrigued by and I would actually like to sit down with you face to face and have a chat about the future of this city that we both clearly love.

  7. Well, we could have your people get together with my people and schedule something, or you could call me at 713-8840 and we can try to synchronize our coffee or beer intake at some point.

  8. hauntedheadnc

    That works for me. I’ve got a seven day stretch of 12 hour shifts starting today, so I’ll give you a call my next day that I’m free. Perhaps we can set something up then.

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