Growth vs. grace

“Everyone moved here and destroyed what they moved here for. … We’re loving it to death.”

— developer Greg Phillips of Mayfair Partners

It’s a Catch-22 of sorts. The Asheville area’s natural beauty is one of the reasons people love it here. So they move to the mountains in droves to be close to said splendor — and who can blame them? All that immigration, however, creates a need for more housing, so subdivisions sprout up where hay and corn used to grow. Many of us groan each time we see a field replaced by rows of townhouses; it’s tough to watch the countryside that drew us to Western North Carolina consumed by condo colonies and suburban sprawl.

East Asheville epitomizes that growth. Once largely farmland and horse pastures, the small community’s rolling hills first saw change with the arrival of the Beverly Hills subdivision in the 1920s. “That’s when it all began,” explains Haw Creek resident John Hilliard. “When the Depression came in, they’d finished the streets and five houses, and it all just sat there until after the war.” Hilliard and his wife moved to the area in 1954; together, they’ve watched the gradual development along New Haw Creek Road.

These days, Beverly Hills is kept company by the Spruce Hill Apartments, the Haw Thorn Town Homes and other such clusters. As the pastoral scene gave way to rows of houses and neatly manicured lawns, many residents developed an interest in preserving the remaining pockets of rural land. That’s where the Haw Creek Association comes in. The neighborhood group, which was started in the 1980s, had all but fizzled out until the proposed expansion of the Haw Creek Mews Apartments sparked renewed enthusiasm in 1995. Concerned neighbors began questioning developers’ methods.

Last year, the group set its sights on acquiring a unique 5-acre piece of property located close to the Haw Thorn Town Homes. The parklike parcel, formerly the homestead of Ethel Briggs (who died in 2001 at age 95), boasted a meadow and a well-maintained log cabin; there was even a creek running through the idyllic scene. Haw Creek residents hoped to buy the land and turn it into a park — an idea many felt Ms. Briggs would have approved of. Association President Chris Pelly, a local realtor, approached the Briggs clan, who admitted that developers were already trying to buy the land. But the family was partial to the idea of Ethel Briggs Park.

“The willingness of the Briggs family to make this opportunity available is heartening,” Pelly wrote in his autumn 2001 newsletter. “Our association spends an awful lot of time talking about growth and its effects on our community. Creation of the Ethel Briggs Park will be an important step forward in the effort to balance growth with grace.”

Before the neighborhood group could come up with the $215,000 needed to buy the land, however, the Briggs family had a sudden change of heart. They struck a deal with Mayfair Partners, who bought the property for $250,000 on July 29 of this year. Part of the problem was that the Association, dependent on grants and funding from the city and the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, simply wasn’t in a position to move quickly.

The Weaverville-based Mayfair Partners, known for the 18-unit Water’s Edge development adjacent to Lake Louise, planned to build about 30 apartments on the Briggs property. Hoping to persuade the developers to resell the land, the Haw Creek Association called a meeting with Greg Phillips of Mayfair Partners on Aug. 7.

That day, Association members gathered at the Haw Thorn Town Homes clubhouse to wait for Phillips, who arrived late. In the meantime, Pelly told the group: “At [the nearby] Spruce Hill Apartments, they have over 140 children and no park or playground. The message we want to convey is that we’d like Greg Phillips to sit down and talk to the community. We have a beautiful piece of property and we’re going to lose it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Former city Planning and Zoning Commission member Barber Melton added: “My family was one of the three founding families in this valley, so I know what this loss means. You start to look around and wonder where the grandkids are going to play.”

Phillips, however, defended his company’s plans, saying: “We’re just like you folks — we have to have a place to work. We try to fill a need that’s already there. I’m assuming some of you people live here (indicating the Haw Thorn Town Homes), and I wonder where you’d be if this hadn’t been developed. I’m not saying that it makes what we’re doing right … it’s simply business.”

Phillips went on to lay out the details: The city had determined that the water and sewer lines would support a 30-unit complex. Mayfair Partners planned to start the project within six to eight months.

“I would love to protect the big trees on the property,” he said; “it would make a beautiful surround for a community. But I won’t kid you — some big trees will probably end up coming down.” Mayfair Partners say they intend to preserve some part of the land, leaving natural space for walking trails — though with 30 town homes on 5 acres, one has to wonder how much nature will remain.

“Our product is aimed at empty nesters,” Phillips explained, hitting the mark in a roomful of seniors. He added that the units will go on the market in the $160,000 to $195,000 price range. “It’s something to keep the — for lack of a better term — undesirables out,” said Phillips.

Sharing a bit of his own story, Phillips described growing up in rural Weaverville. “Sometimes I want to leave Weaverville, because it’s getting a bit crowded,” he admitted. “I have to realize I’m the one who’s causing that. Everyone moved here and destroyed what they moved here for. … I’d equate it with the national parks problem: We’re loving it to death.”

“Is there any way you’d consider not developing the Briggs property and selling it to us?” asked a Haw Creek Association member.

“We don’t have any interest in letting go of the property,” Phillips replied. “There just aren’t that many developable properties, and I’ve got to make a living.”

On that note, the meeting adjourned.

Even though the Association decided not to put up a fight for the Ethel Briggs Park, Pelly considers the meeting an eye opener. “We weren’t ready to act,” he points out. “We need to become more proactive and create an inventory of land like this that might become available in the future. We also need to begin raising funds now, so we can go head to head with developers. We need cash, or we’ll lose.”

And while residents of Haw Creek will soon see one natural landmark fall to the bulldozers, the hope for a community green space isn’t lost. Roy St. Vincent, a Florida transplant with a background in construction and entertainment, is busily developing the former East Asheville Hardware and adjoining properties into a shopping-and-recreation complex. “We’ll have a creekside market and deli, an ice-cream store and several restaurants. The Feed & Seed (located across the street from where the hardware store once stood) will have an interactive toy store to help educate kids,” promises St. Vincent. There’ll also be miniature golf, bumper boats and a water park with a sunken pirate ship, he says.

“It’s just thinking out of the box,” St. Vincent insists. When he moved to the Asheville area and set his sights on the East Asheville Hardware site, he attended a meeting of the Haw Creek Association to introduce himself. “I started with the community and worked that way, instead of just coming in with all my own ideas,” he explained. “There are 7,000 people back here, and it keeps growing. We represent 10 percent of the population of Asheville; we’re family-based rather than job-based.”

While increasing population in the area is undeniable, Pelly and others pin their hopes on conscientious developers like St. Vincent. “More people are coming than leaving,” Pelly reasons. “We live in a capitalist society, and companies like Mayfair are allowed to make money. They did more than a lot of developers do; some of them just blow off the community.”

Never underestimate the power of community, however. “We had a real knock-down, drag-out when Haw Creek Mews tried to expand” about seven years ago, Pelly recalls. “The developer wasn’t good to the people who live here, and in the end, he had to walk away because the neighborhood was so against it.” These days, the Association’s victory in that fight is marked by the small park on Avon Road.

Win or lose, however, more battles clearly lie ahead. “This is symptomatic of what’s going on all around Asheville,” Pelly muses, adding, “We need to preserve something for the future, or it will all be built over.”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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