Reclaiming Pritchard Park

By the time the next Bele Chere rolls around, this little downtown park might just be the prettiest old hog wallow in town.

In December or January, Asheville City Council members will take their first look at the latest proposal for redesigning the 66-year-old Pritchard Park, which, most recently, was used as a transfer station for the city’s bus system, until the buses were moved a few months ago to a new facility next door to the downtown post office.

If Council members like the proposed changes, they’ll give the go-ahead — depending on how much redesigning the city can afford to do before Bele Chere 1999, the target date for completing renovations.

Says Council member Chuck Cloninger, who has taken an early gander at the plans, “I hope we don’t have a champagne design when all we’re going to have is a beer budget.” He expects Council members will approve renovating the park in stages.

Any way you look at it, the park’s design — crafted by the Genesis Group, a Florida-based consulting firm — is nothing short of ambitious for a quarter-acre plot of land that housed the city’s post office from 1892 to 1932 — and served as a hog wallow for livestock being transported through town in the early 1800s. The plan calls for:

• nearly doubling the size of the park;

• planting more trees;

• reclaiming old bus lanes for park-and-sidewalk space;

• replacing the fountain with a mini-amphitheater (complete with mountain rock work and a small waterfall);

• closing one lane of Patton Avenue near the park, to gain more parking spaces;

• making College Street a two-way, east-west corridor through town; and

• replacing traffic lights with circular “roundabouts” at the College/Haywood and Patton/Coxe intersections, adjacent to the park.

It’s a busy design, chock full of details that might prove expensive, say some who’ve had a look at the drawings. Expanded sidewalks will sport benches, built-in tables and fancy brickwork. The trickling or misting waterfall is described on the drawing as an “intimate fountain of subtle water effect emanating from rocks.” The mini-amphitheater will be adorned with boulders and rock work. Traffic around the park on College, Patton and Haywood streets will be routed around bulbed-out sidewalks that give pedestrians a shorter distance to cross when heading toward the park.

And, fine points aside, what about the park’s existing features — its sugar maples, sweet gums, birches and ornamental cherry trees? Most will remain, says Asheville Parks and Recreation Landscape Planner Alan Glines. In particular, the biggest tree in the park — a sugar maple — will be left standing, for the time being. With a split inner trunk and its great limbs held in place by a system of cables, the tree will remain “as long as God will let it live,” Gline asserts. So will at least one of the white-barked birches, whose leaves shine bright yellow each fall. “By all accounts, the birches shouldn’t even grow here in downtown Asheville,” says Gline. Western North Carolina is the southernmost range of the tree, which doesn’t like hot weather or urban environments, he explains.

Saving the park’s trees pleases Quality Forward Director Susan Roderick. The environmental group began planting trees in Pritchard Park as early as the 1960s and ’70s, back when then-Council members were considering the park’s last redesign (it took nearly 50 years to get the fountain built; it was first proposed by Biltmore Estate landscape architect C.D. Beadle in the early ’30s). Roderick figures that the big sugar maple was planted in the 1950s or ’60s. “It’s one of the biggest trees downtown,” she says, noting its spacious canopy of leaves. Most people don’t even know the tree is ailing, until they get closer and see its split trunk and cables, she points out.

As for the rest of the park face-lift, Roderick observes, “With this design, we have a park that emphasizes the businesses around the park, takes into account the traffic, and invites more pedestrians to this downtown green space.” She notes that the proposal could be phased in, “so we don’t have to raise the money all at once.”

How much money are we talking about? “That’s what we’re anxious to find out,” confides Gline. City staff are considering funding options — such as partnering with the three major banks, other businesses that front the park, and Quality Forward. What’s more, staff are still reviewing the details of the Genesis Group’s proposal, which was unveiled to the public on Nov. 9, Glines points out.

That’s when local architect Jackie Schauer got her first look at the proposal. Though she supports the project and has been involved in a series of brainstorming work sessions, Schauer remarks, “I’m most concerned about what it does to the traffic.”

First of all, she’s not convinced that the roundabouts will be safe for pedestrians: At the College/Haywood intersection now controlled by traffic lights, vehicles routed around a circular median might slow down, but would never have to stop when turning left or right. “Drivers in Asheville are not pedestrian-friendly,” says Schauer pointedly, noting that city drivers don’t usually stop at the crosswalks downtown, either. Reducing College Street to one lane — instead of Patton — “would make the park more accessible [and] more like a park, instead of an island,” argues Schauer.

“It’s a transportation and a park plan,” replies Gline, acknowledging that Pritchard remains a small urban green space wedged between busy streets. But just because roundabouts have never been used downtown doesn’t mean they won’t work: It’s only 12 feet from the curb to the roundabout’s median — about one-third the distance pedestrians now have to cover when crossing the multi-lane streets bordering the park, Glines emphasizes. And according to Genesis Group’s traffic engineer, roundabouts would cut pedestrians’ waiting time from 40 seconds to only 10 seconds, on average.

Still, Schauer hopes City Council will push for close review of the traffic issues. Her Wall Street office overlooks the park, and she’s observed how people use it. Even with the bus riders gone, users tend to congregate on the College Street side, which has the most benches and gets the most sunlight throughout the day, Schauer reports. “That’s the nicest side, with sun year-round. The Patton Avenue side is cold and shaded almost all year,” she notes.

But that may be one reason to make that side of the park more inviting. Mike McDonough of Asheville’s Streetscape Committee comments that closing Patton to one lane and installing angled parking on the bank side of the street “makes it more pedestrian-friendly and connects it to the park.” It will also give pedestrians a better view of the Vance Monument and City Hall, at the other end of Patton, he points out.

McDonough also likes how the plan “re-emphasizes the pedestrian link to Wall Street,” making a now-hidden pedestrian access between College and Wall Street more prominent, and linking it to the park with a crosswalk, he mentions. The plan would also reduce visual clutter around the park by replacing traffic signals and the accompanying wiring and poles with roundabouts, decorative lights and small trees.

Admittedly, it’s a different kind of plan, he observes. Roundabouts, a traffic-calming method used in other cities (such as Paris), may be new to Ashevilleans, “but this is probably where urban planning is going in the future, with more pedestrian-friendly elements. We can take pride that we’ll be one of the first cities to go with something that’s innovative.”

Copies of the new Pritchard Park plan are available at the city’s Community Development office (55 Haywood St.), at Quality Forward (29 Page Ave.) and the Parks and Recreation Department office (4th floor, City Hall). For more information, call Glines at 259-5800.

Park trivia

• The Buncombe Turnpike was built in 1827, providing a route for livestock to be herded through town, en route to markets farther south. The land now called Pritchard Park was used as a hog wallow.

• The Asheville Post Office and Federal Building were built at the park site in 1892, on land donated by WIlliam Johnston, who once owned most of what is now downtown Asheville.

• “Several [people] have suggested that we call it Pritchard Square, but it’s a triangle, so it can’t be a square — and then the place is too small to be called a park,” said former Asheville Public Works Commissioner Harry L. Parker in the 1930s, after the old Post Office was torn down.

• The base of the hill once called Battery Park (a Civil War battlement leveled by E.W. Grove in 1926, to make way for the new Battery Park Hotel) determined the College Street curve that made the Pritchard Park parcel a traffic island.

• It might not be a square, but the park was named for “beloved judge” and former state Sen. Jeter Pritchard. His son, George Prtichard, secured passage of an act of Congress that deeded the land to the city in 1931.

• Until the late ’50s, school buses stopped at Pritchard Park.

• In 1974, Tennessee Valley Authority planners recommended a Pritchard Park renovation that included tearing down the Tench Coxe building (whose Art Deco facade faces the park) to make way for a pedestrian bridge linking Pritchard Park with Wall Street. They also proposed turning an alley beneath Wall Street into Asheville’s version of Underground Atlanta.

• The fountain, first recommended by Biltmore Estate Landscape Architect C.D. Beadle in the early 1930s, was finally built in 1975.

• In 1980, the bus shelter was built. Pritchard Park subsequently became known as the “wino Hilton,” because of the large number of street people who increasingly lingered at the park.

• The Downtown Commission presented plans to revitalize Pritchard Park and move the bus station in 1989.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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