Development always seems to be controversial in Asheville, and with City Council elections looming, that goes double. One particularly hot topic is whether to allow chain stores and “big-box” retailers downtown.
Candidate Elaine Lite took a controversial position early on, proposing that the city prohibit so-called “big box” retailers in the downtown area, and also ban or strictly limit chain stores. And across the political spectrum, Council candidates have had sometimes surprising views on the issue (see sidebar, “The Candidates Weigh In”).
The Asheville Downtown Association is also taking a close look at the question, says Dwight Butner, the group’s president. The ADA, he notes, is drafting a city-funded master plan for the central business district. (Butner is also running for City Council; see sidebar for his comments as a candidate.) In addition, chain stores will be the focus of an Oct. 18 forum organized by the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods.
Lite, however, doesn’t want to wait. “We have a unique downtown,” she maintains. “And what’s unique about it is that there are all these local businesses. That needs to be the basis of the economy downtown.”
Lite worries that places like Coxe Avenue or Broadway Street, as well as increasingly urbanized corridors such as Merrimon Avenue, could start seeing proposals for big-box stores—something she feels is inappropriate.
“Stores of that size in an area like downtown are completely outrageous,” says Lite. “The average store in downtown is about 3,000 square feet; the average Home Depot is 140,000. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
To some extent, a de facto ban on big-box stores already exists. Much of downtown is currently zoned Central Business District, which does not allow such large-scale retailers. But Lite points to the controversial Merrimon Avenue Staples, located just on the other side of Interstate 240, as an example of how close to downtown such stores can come.
The issue has not escaped the notice of Council member Brownie Newman, either. Newman says he sent a letter to his Council colleauges several months ago urging them to consider a “formula for chain stores in downtown. It wouldn’t prohibit them, but it would limit how many in a certain area and make them customize the store to be in keeping with the surroundings.”
To date, the only chain stores downtown are much smaller-scale businesses—so much so that people often don’t even realize they’re chains. Still, chains can run the gamut from national giants such as Subway and CVS to smaller regional businesses like Mast General Store and Doc Chey’s.
“I really like Mast General,” says Lite. “There are chains like that or Mellow Mushroom that put a lot back into the community and really have a local flavor. It is going to be tricky, and we’ll need some very creative wording. Any ordinance would have to incorporate the size of the chain as well as how invested it is in the community.”
The Subway sandwich shop near the Grove Arcade, notes Lite, is one example of the kinds of challenges any such ordinance would face.
“If you look at that, it’s not that intrusive, but it’s still a national chain right in the heart of downtown,” she says. “We do need an aggressive ‘buy local’ campaign [that speaks] to the character of the city; we don’t want to end up looking like ‘Anywhere, U.S.A.’ Whether it’s a ban or some strict limits, we need to do this before that happens. We’re running into the problem that the cost of coming in here is getting so prohibitive that chains are the only ones who can do it.”
Lite maintains that such a policy would also provide economic benefits, because considerably more of the money spent at local businesses remains within the local economy.
Another issue is how to define the borders of Asheville’s “downtown,” especially since the city has been encouraging downtownlike development in other parts of town. “Ideally, I would like to see this extended into some of those areas, as well as the urban villages that are being planned,” she explains. “We’re going to have to be very careful on the wording and definitions, but it can be done.” To that end, Lite says she’s been looking at similar ordinances enacted in other parts of the country, including several in New England.
One such example is Nantucket, Mass., where the arrival of a downtown Ralph Lauren store in 2006 prompted town residents to ban retail chains having more than 14 outlets from opening stores in the downtown area. The measure, enacted in a town meeting, specifically exempts gas stations, grocery stores, banks and service firms.
Barring chains from a downtown is an unusual measure, says Philip Berke, a professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. In North Carolina, he notes, “Asheville and Chapel Hill are about the only places … that would consider it. In both places, you have people concerned with things other than just cheap goods, which is perfectly valid. But usually a place will make it tough on chains with requirements for design and the like.” Any such ban, he notes, would “need a very clear rationale, because it’s going to run into issues of commerce and the free market. It’s hard to make a legal argument for favoring one business over another.”
Still, Berke says he understands where these concerns come from. “There’s a real sense of place in Asheville—that’s part of why it’s beautiful—and people really care about that.” Chains, he says, “don’t necessarily reflect that, and they are more likely to pull out. We’ve had that problem around here, where a chain will pay its lease, leave, and then the business space is just sitting empty.”
Judging by continuing discussion on the Xpress Web site, local opinions on the matter are divided.
“I would hate to see Asheville become another clone city. I love it here because it is UNIQUE!!! not because it has stores you can find anywhere else,” wrote a reader who identified herself as “Emily.” “While I would still have to do some more thinking on the issue, right now I wouldn’t really mind a ban on chain stores.”
Then there is “lokel,” who sharply disagreed, writing, “I would hope that any business would be a welcomed change from rundown, empty lots and crumbling buildings from days gone by. National chains are what made downtown even exist to start with. … Almost all of the ‘anchor’ stores in the Asheville Mall used to be downtown.”
Many expressed views falling somewhere between those two positions. “There are many franchises that have also confronted this situation before and in fact have become sensitive and adapted their signage, image and renovations in a way that [has] helped the downtown areas to rejuvenate in a good way,” “ronyvee” wrote. “We need to be open-minded and deal with the franchises on a one-by-one basis and see what they may be willing to do to become a part of Asheville, rather than Asheville becoming a part of them.”
Reader “robclose” concurred, citing CVS as a positive example of a downtown chain. “Their presence downtown seems to be serving a tremendously useful function. Then again, we don’t need a huge store here downtown. But that’s obvious, and anyone who approved that should be run out of town. Blanket laws seem like naive knee-jerk reactionism.”
Reader “Don Mak” argued that Asheville needs both chain and local stores. “There are ways that these chain stores can adapt to the vibe of downtown Asheville as well. I think of the McDonald’s in Biltmore. They went the extra mile to blend in, and I must say it is quite nice, even though I am not a McDonald’s fan. Decatur, Ga., has a nice mix of both local and chain stores and seems to be prospering well.”
Public Interest Projects, a local developer, has played a significant role in downtown development. Chain stores, says staffer Harry Weiss, can have “an effect that’s a lot like a pebble in a pond. Even if they don’t compete directly, a high-credit, well-funded national chain can pay higher rents than a local business.”
“Structurally,” notes Weiss, “downtown spaces are generally small and irregular—not a good fit for national chains.” In addition, he says, “local businesses are what give this city a lot of its flavor.” But Weiss maintains that some needs will be hard for local businesses to meet.
“A grocery store in the heart of downtown will be a sign that we’ve arrived,” he asserts. “But it’s 99 percent likely that’s going to be a chain.”
The key, says Weiss, is to keep in mind that “downtown is still changing. People think that downtown is finished. It’s not. We’re heading into a new phase. Downtown can still be more vibrant, more dense, more thriving.”
But in charting the way forward, “I would be extremely cautious,” Weiss warns. “There’s a lot of stuff that still needs to be defined here. What’s the ultimate goal [for downtown]?”