Development and preservation were key topics in Asheville’s recent City Council and mayoral races. In that spirit, Xpress spoke with heritage-development consultant and six-year Asheville resident Tom Gallaher about his adopted home and about how to evaluate and preserve a community’s heritage.
Gallaher, who is president of the Heritage Directions consulting firm, assisted the volunteer task force that helped develop a new zoning classification for Asheville, the “neighborhood corridor district.” Adopted by City Council in November 2002, it blends smart-growth and heritage-development principles. Gallaher is also a founding general partner of the Community Corridors development company, which broke ground in April on the first three buildings complying with the new ordinance.
Gallaher holds a master’s degree in urban design from Harvard and has almost 40 years’ experience in historic preservation, downtown revitalization and heritage tourism in both the United States and Canada, including recent projects in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. He is past president of Neighborhood Housing Services of Asheville and is an incoming board member for HandMade in America.
Mountain Xpress: Could you talk about the impetus for preservation and what’s been involved in some of your projects?
Tom Gallaher: We call it “heritage development,” which is almost an oxymoron. It is using the sense of place that so many communities have and so many more communities lack. It sort of began with pride of place and is now called “place-based economy,” where you use the history or heritage that created a particular type of place — like steel in Pittsburgh, automobiles in Detroit, arts and crafts in Asheville, the redwoods in Humboldt County, Calif. … and [you] build on that as a resource for economic development.
That leverages tourism, because if it’s a good place to live, a city is also a good place to visit. And part of that culture is reflected in the architecture. … Downtowns become the center of activity for celebrating that culture of place. And communities have now realized, OK, they’ve preserved a lot of their heritage, they have recognized the culture that created that heritage, and now they want to celebrate it. And part of that is heritage tourism.
MX: What do you mean by the word “heritage,” and how do you go about assessing a location that you’re going to be working with, in terms of heritage?
TG: Often, if you live with something all the time, you lose sight of the fact that you’re living in it. [Take] Jamestown, N.Y., which is a lovely little community in far southwestern New York state. The whole place is built around teaching the teachers who teach, starting with Chautauqua Institution, which was originally a Methodist summer camp to teach Sunday-school teachers how to teach children. Then there’s the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Peterson was born in Jamestown and became sort of a 20th-century Audubon. The institute now teaches the teachers who teach environmental literacy. Or the Robert H. Jackson Center: Justice Jackson was born in Jamestown [and] was one of the justices on Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, and went on to become the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. And his institute is dedicated to teaching children justice and fairness, and they do that by teaching the teachers. And I’m thinking that in our assignment there, we’re going to end up with the same sort of thing — teaching the people.
[But] the people in Jamestown have lost sight of that connection, and it takes somebody from the outside, often, to come in and say, “Did you realize that A equals B equals C … and you put the whole thing together and you’ve got a scheme for economic development. And then you look at the various institutions and what they can do together — the foundations, the individuals, the nonprofits, the for-profits — and sure enough, you come up with something that is the heritage of that community. It just requires some digging and some talking and some patience to begin to drag it out of people, and all of a sudden they say, “Oh, good heavens!”
MX: What are some observations you have made in terms of Asheville, in the context of preservation?
TG: That’s well-documented long before I got here. Asheville has a tradition of being a vacation destination — a place to escape the heat, to “re-create,” in that sense of the word. That, of course, occasioned people coming in who were musicians and artisans of all kinds — people who served the people who were recreating and vacationing. And that’s really the mountain heritage — the music, the crafts — which HandMade in America, among other organizations, is now turning into the heritage trails.
Asheville has done an incredible job of preservation, rebuilding their downtown over the last 15 years [through a] collaborative effort [with a] lot of energetic people, a lot of very good money coming into the community. It’s at that point — where you become so used to it that you take it as a matter of everyday life — [that] you lose sight of those things, and you say, “Now’s our opportunity to grow bigger and higher and better.” And is that going to help preserve the very reason that you are here?
We have to constantly remind ourselves about how lucky we are that others that went before us have done such an admirable job. We have to remember that as we carefully, sustainably add to what we now have.
MX: How do you see Asheville moving forward in as admirable a way?
TG: If one could wave a magic wand — and mine is in the repair shop — I would try to position Asheville to become the test case in smart growth. I was lucky enough to serve on the [City Plan Advisory Committee] and learned some astonishing things. Asheville is one of the most land-constrained cities in the United States, [and] because of the geography, 80 percent of our local traffic is on interstates. That is an extraordinarily high number.
Greater density of both residential and commercial is part of smart growth, which means you are using the infrastructure that’s already in place — the utilities, the sewer, the water, the gas. … [Development] has to be done within the guidelines that were very carefully put together by about 200 citizens. And you can’t say, “Well, this is a separate situation, and maybe this is an exception.” You have to say, “No, this is what we agreed on, and by golly, this is what we’re gonna keep to — those rules and regulations, and the spirit of those rules and regulations.”
MX: Can you describe the spirit of those rules and regulations?
TG: I think they very clearly [speak] to smart growth, affordable housing. That’s one of those dichotomies in Asheville. It’s one of the original service-economy-based cities, so affordable housing for the people who are providing those services is extraordinarily essential. And those people, to the extent possible, have to be able to live close to work, so that maybe they don’t have to have an automobile, so that they can bicycle to work. And that calls for a mix of housing. And as soon as you create a more dense residential environment — and I’m certainly not arguing for anything like New York City — then you have the opportunity for the smaller-scale retail establishments that are necessary to serve the residential population, which in turn creates more opportunities for more entrepreneurs.
MX: There are discussions in the community about preserving the ambience of Asheville; what I would call “design protection” and “viewscape protection.” How would you see those elements in terms of Asheville’s particular situation?
TG: Design protection is reasonably well taken care of because of the historic districts that we have, Montford being a prime example. Protections for the streetscape are pretty much in place, and I think citizens’ reaction to some recent proposals have helped inform the developers that these are both written and heartfelt attitudes within the city’s population.
Viewsheds are quite a different thing, and this is a fairly new phenomenon in planning and in architecture — how you perceive a place as you are driving. The pedestrian will sense an environment one way; [but] if you’re in an automobile, you will sense it another way. Historic districts have done a very good job of helping the pedestrian sense the streetscape: one shop and another shop and signage and the brick sidewalks and the street furniture, and all those nice things which downtown [Asheville] is rife with — and that’s terrific.
[But for] the automobile driver — and let’s remember that 80 percent of us have to use the interstate system — our major roadways and Interstate 240 present a different kind of image of the city. … Coming on 240 the other way on the rise in Beaucatcher Mountain, all of a sudden, boom, the city is there. It’s sort of like going through one of the tunnels in Pittsburgh. You have absolutely no idea why you’re going through this tunnel, and all of a sudden the tunnel ends and there is Pittsburgh. Or coming onto the Golden Gate Bridge from the north, you come through the tunnel and, boom, there is San Francisco. That is a thrilling thing, and it’s an emotional thing.
So it would probably be a good idea if we started to chart those view-from-the-road points in Asheville. And one of them is that vista through Beaucatcher Mountain at 240. Another one is coming out of Beaucatcher Tunnel toward downtown. Another one is coming over Merrimon Avenue at Gracelyn. And sitting around a table with a couple of people, you could come up with 20 more.
What is that image? What does it say about our community?
MX: So how would you make sure those viewsheds are protected?
TG: Well, first you have to identify them and then begin to plot out what views you want to preserve. What are the central landmarks? Certainly City Hall, the county building, the old Biltmore Hotel, for better or for worse BB&T Building — because it’s there. How do you want to see those buildings, and from which direction, and where does that mean you can either build something to emphasize that image, or block it out — one or the other?
I think one of the arguments about the replacement for the World Trade Center is that even though the buildings themselves were not that attractive, they became icons on the skyline. They became the exclamation point at the end of Manhattan. … I’ve been following that, in particular, because I worked on the World Trade Center many, many years ago. [And many people feel] that exclamation point is important for New Yorkers, and they want something to replace that. It’s symbolic from many points of view, but it is that exclamation point at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.
What do we want? There’s no reason to think that there couldn’t be a 20-, 30-, 40-story building in downtown Asheville, as long as it becomes the exclamation point. If we have this history of design quality … wouldn’t it be just wonderful to have a world-renowned set of architects doing buildings for us?
A wonderful example of that is Columbus, Ind., [where the] Cummins Engine Co. [was] having a tough time attracting employees, because Columbus was a rather dowdy-looking place. The Cummins Foundation offered to pay the architectural fees for anybody and everybody who wanted to do anything. … [Now] they have one [example] of everybody who is a name in modern architecture. Well, that has turned into a tourism attraction: It’s a one-day architectural education.
So wouldn’t it be wonderful if Asheville had a situation where architectural fees, or something or other, were somehow subsidized so that we could attract absolutely stellar-quality architects? Then the local architects — which happen to be very good here — have another high point that they must achieve, or overachieve. And that’s a way of keeping that going.
MX: What do you think about height restrictions as a design requirement here?
TG: If you’re going to have density, you’re going to have greater height. If a building works and helps the community, I’m not a strong advocate of height restrictions per se. One of the better examples of that may be Denver’s airport, which has 14 beautiful peaks for its roof, and that was built in an area staunchly against any such height at all. But in fact, the design of the airport has helped the surrounding communities just from an image point of view. … All around, you can see these 14 beautiful white peaks. That’s a symbol of Denver now, and that’s contrary to any sort of height restrictions. So how can you take what many see as a negative and turn it into a positive?
MX: Do you think that Asheville has all the design-and-preservation tools it needs, or would you recommend putting other things in place?
TG: With the Historic Resources Commission, with the various community boards, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods and various other loosely organized community groups, there seems to be enough citizen activism from the real patriots of the city to help prevent anything awful from happening.
But as far as official mechanisms, we now have a very good … comprehensive [city] plan. City Council has been good about considering new zones … and talking about urban edges. I don’t know that regulation is the way to approach it. Perhaps community education, going back to what we were talking about earlier: A citizen has to become aware that this environment evolved over a long time with a lot of community input and a lot of community opposition. But it’s there, so let’s live with it, let’s recognize it, and let’s make sure that the next steps that are taken are the right ones.