Asheville’s Downtown Commission will vote Friday morning on the proposed demolition of the Hayes & Hopson building by developer Stewart Coleman. Activists are opposing the move, asserting that it would destroy the nearby magnolia tree as well as a historic building.
Some of the same activists that came out in opposition to the proposed Parkside condominium project are also readying to fight the demolition. Coleman’s previous project is currently in legal limbo after an September Superior Court ruling found that Buncombe County’s sale of adjoining parkland was illegal. Coleman has appealed the decision.
The city’s Planning and Development Department has signed off on the demolition, and the commission’s vote is technically a formality, but, in an e-mail to the commission, local activist Steve Rasmussen wrote that “thanks to ‘mandatory review, voluntary compliance,’ your vote to approve or disapprove is only symbolic. But that symbolism is very important to the city of Asheville for a number of reasons.”
He cited an Aug. 5 letter from Coleman (before the court ruling) in which the developer wrote that “as part of the site preparation, the magnolia tree will be removed.” That previous demolition plan was tied to the construction of the Parkside building. The magnolia tree had become a rallying point for Parkside opponents.
Coleman has expressed confidence that the ruling against his project will be overturned, and told Xpress last week that “we are trying to get all our ducks in a row.”
Rasmussen’s e-mail also said Coleman’s move “would be a purely speculative destruction of a large, historic, still-usable building” and that the county should look at preserving the building, which is over a century old.
The commission’s meeting takes place at 8:30 a.m. in the Economic Development office, located at 29 Haywood St.
The full e-mail from Rasmussen is below.
— David Forbes, staff writer
Dear Downtown Commission members,
As one of the “tree sitters” who lived for nearly three months last summer under the famous magnolia tree in front of Asheville City Hall—and as an active participant in the Downtown Master Plan sessions—I am writing to urge you to vote against the speculative demolition of the historic Hayes-Hopson building between City Hall and Spruce Street by Stewart Coleman’s Swag Holdings when you meet to review the application this Friday.
I recognize that, thanks to “mandatory review, voluntary compliance,” your vote to approve or disapprove is only symbolic. But that symbolism is very important to the city of Asheville for a number of reasons:
* If carried through, this demolition would cause the destruction and removal of the Pack magnolia tree, as Stewart Coleman specified in an August 5 letter to me that was released in a press conference two days later: “As we discussed last month, I [Stewart Coleman] am writing to let you know that we plan to apply for a demolition permit for the Hayes and Hobson building and, as part of the site preparation, the magnolia tree will be removed sometime after 35 days from the date of today’s letter.” (See attached copy of original letter.)
* There is no plan attached to this demolition—it would be a purely speculative destruction of a large, historic, still-usable building. The demolition application was filed August 27 as part of Mr. Coleman’s plans for the Parkside Condominiums—before Judge Marlene Hyatt ruled on Sept. 12 that the portion of his property Buncombe County sold him (where the tree stands) must remain public, thus putting an end to the condominium plan. The UDO may well lack a ban on speculative grading in the downtown business district, but this is an unacceptable oversight that should not be tacitly supported by the Commission’s vote.
* This city would be left with yet another large, ugly mud hole in front of City Hall for years to come—even after the Pack Square remodeling is complete. For reasons including lack of parking and restricted footprint, it was infeasible to build a private residential or commercial building on the Hayes-Hopson site even before the current recession put the brakes on big new building projects for what could be a very long time. That is why Mr. Coleman stated that he acquired the controversial parkland adjoining the Hayes-Hopson in the first place. Even if he wins his appeal of the Hyatt decision nearly a year from now (the soonest it’s likely to be heard, legal experts say), the County will have carried through its stated plan to condemn and reacquire the parkland parcel long before then; and there are no guarantees that the economy will have recovered—or that citizen opposition will have abated—sufficiently for him or any private developer to proceed with any viable building on this site.
* As stated publicly by Buncombe County Commissioner—now Chairman—David Gantt, the county wants to acquire the Hayes-Hopson through eminent domain, and is cooperating with state preservationists and private citizens who are pursuing additional funding to preserve this century-old building. (Mr. Coleman has also expressed his desire to sell the building to the city, county or both.) One possibility that is raising a groundswell of interest and excitement is to renovate the Hayes-Hopson into a much-needed downtown museum of local history. “Heritage tourism” is a cornerstone of Asheville’s economy—as attested by the ever more popular and numerous tours being conducted of our historic downtown—and this building is ideally suited to be a museum that would serve as a center for heritage tourism. It is next to the frequently visited City Hall and County Courthouse, and directly across Marjorie Street from where the Performing Arts Center will be built. It is large and can serve multiple purposes alongside a museum.
* Local preservationists have pointed out many times to City Council, the Planning and Zoning Commission, et al. that, although the Hayes-Hopson does not itself have “historic landmark” status like its newer, flashier neighbors such as the Jackson Building, it is a key part of downtown’s historic fabric, and one of downtown’s oldest buildings. It was built by W.H. Westall, uncle of Thomas Wolfe, and its northern half—which pre-dates 1905, and was probably built in the 1890s—is a unique Gilded Age survivor from the era before the “Nolen Plan” removed the thriving shops and homes that once lined Spruce and College Streets. It is in the state so many of our now-vibrant downtown historic buildings were in just 15 years ago—a drab paint job disguises the unique architectural ornaments and other attractive features of a building whose shell has been determined by local preservationist and county planner Jim Coman to be perfectly sound. As the site of Bill Stanley’s Bluegrass and BBQ, the building also played a historic role in the revival and popularization of the folk music for which our mountains are famous.
* Perhaps most important is the bigger picture, which is so often neglected in technical development-review discussions but which is so critical to Asheville’s continued economic growth. President-elect Obama has promised to jump-start local economies with funds devoted to green and sustainable projects and public works. Historic preservation and renovation (known internationally as “heritage conservation”) is the greenest and most sustainable kind of public works—consider, for example, that one fourth of the material in most solid-waste facilities is construction debris that comes in large part from building demolitions, and that one study shows that demolishing a typical small downtown building 25 feet wide and 100-140 feet deep wipes out the environmental benefit of recycling 1,344,000 aluminum cans.
But best of all, heritage conservation can put local people back to work. Our area is uniquely rich not only in old, historic buildings, but also in currently out-of-work carpenters, contractors, and masons who either already have or can easily be trained in historic-renovation skills. 60-70 percent of the cost of rehabilitating an old building goes into local labor—in contrast to a new building, where at least half the money goes into materials like plastic and aluminum that are manufactured and shipped from faraway places. (Statistics courtesy of Preservation North Carolina.)
Owners of historic buildings—which I know includes some of you on the Downtown Commission—are eligible for sizable tax credits for preserving and rehabilitating their buildings. In the case of the Hayes-Hopson, according to an email I received from Jennifer Cathey of the State Historic Preservation Office:
“Because the building contributes to the historic and architectural significance of the Asheville Downtown Historic District, an owner or developer could utilize rehabilitation tax credits to repair or remodel. State and federal rehabilitation tax credits may provide a 40% reduction in qualified rehabilitation expenditures, and are incentive for downtown businesses to preserve heritage while upfitting a building for modern use.”
Let’s set an example with the Hayes-Hopson—and with other underutilized historic treasures in Asheville—that will reverberate from Asheville to Raleigh to Washington, D.C. Heritage conservation and heritage tourism are two of Asheville’s greatest strengths—and if we stand up and do what’s right by them, our old buildings could begin renewing our economy as soon as next Inauguration Day.