The Asheville miracle: A startling look at downtown 20 years ago and the folks who transformed it

The Grove Arcade, boarded up and abandoned, before it was renovated in the 1990s.

About 200 people attended “The Asheville Miracle: The Revitalization of Downtown,” a presentation sponsored by the Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors (DARN) on May 25 at Diana Wortham Theatre.

Xpress reporter Michael Muller covered the meeting as it took place via Twitter, starting at 6:45 p.m. and ending at 9:05 p.m.

“Pack Square is the living room of our community,” says Leslie Anderson in her opening remarks. Anderson is talking about history of Bele Chere, the downtown design review process.

The Southwest corner of Patton & Biltmore, where the Noodle Shop and the Sisters McMullen now do business.

Anderson: “We now have the largest percentage of income-producing buildings of any county in the state.”
Anderson is talking about the hundreds of people involved in the public/private partnership whose efforts revitalized downtown.

Karen Tessier is now going through turn of the (20th) century photos of Asheville: trolleys, francy-shmancy. And now, in contrast, showing pictures of downtown Asheville all boarded up, pigeons and proverbial rats everywhere. Tessier says she could walk downtown all afternoon and “not see another person.”

Here’s the building where Malaprop’s is now located.

Tessier is showing a photo of Eagle Street. The YMI Center looks like a decrepid, burned-out shell. She’s showing shocking pictures of Wall Street, Haywood Street. No people in pictures. Tessier is talking about kids who are now in their 30s and 40s, who grew up only learning about downtown Asheville at “Discovery Day,” because otherwise they’d never come downtown.

Looking down at Wall Street, the current site of Early Girl restaurant.

Pat Whalen, executive director of Public Interest Projects (PIP), is saying: “There were more pigeons than people,” and that most buildings were covered in aluminum siding. “That will never work here, don’t even try,” was the unofficial motto. Whalen notes that there were five restauarnts downtown in ‘80s, compared to to over 60 today.

He says Mark Rosenstein, owner of the Market Place Restaurant, was a leader in Asheville’s restaurant scene.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the construction of Pack Place and redesign of Wall Street were completed.

John Lantzius and his sister Dawn renovated buildings up and down Lexington, and fought against a plan to turn a multi-block section of downtown in a mall, Whalen says.

And yet the city & county had the foresight to keep all of downtown’s public buildings, Whalen says. 

Site of the condos next to the Woolworth building on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville.

Julian Price was shy, and so many people didn’t know that he gave lots of money to nonprofits to fund revitaliztion. Price invested millions of his own money, and literally gave away his money to make Asheville a livable city. He wanted to get residents to move downtown; he believed the key to doing this was revitalizing the city. Downtown residents were “The real secret weapon,” Price said.

Patton & Coxe, now the site of Jack of the Wood.

Price guaranteed loans for businesses like the Laughing Seed, the French Broad Food Coop and the Carolina Apartments because banks then wouldn’t lend money to downtown businesses.

Julian Price literally saved downtown. The Vanderbilt Apartments structure on Haywood was beginning to fall down; and it was the ugliest building downtown. Price saved it and refurbished it.

The site of City Bakery Building, circa 1972.

Early on in the process, Chris and Margaret Kobler, John Cram started several businesses on Biltmore Avenue.

The old Penneys building was renovated into condos by Price; another downtown pioneer, Roger McGuire, redeveloped 60 Market Street.

Whalen is thanking all the entrepreneurs downtown for all the time and money they have invested.

The site where the Earth Guild is located now on Haywood Street.

Julian Price converted what was being used as an old auto-parts warehouse into what’s now the Orange Peel.

The result: Today, Asheville is on a buttload of “Best of Lists” and generating tremendous tax revenues. One acre of high-rise, mixed use buildings generates more revenue than the entire Asheville Mall, Whalen says.

Bob Carr, owner of Tops For Shoes is now speaking. Tops has been in business in downtown Asheville for 50 years. Carr says he knew revitalization would happen, although he thought it would take 20 years. He says Asheville’s worst year was 1976. Carr’s heroes are McGuire and Price. Carr says Julian Price “saw the potential” of Asheville.

The 100 block of Broadway, just north of the BB&T Building: There’s a Thai restaurant & a copy shop there now.

Carr asks the audience to stand, and then asks those who have lived in Ashevile more than 20 years to sit down; half the audience sits.

Carr says he considered Georgetown (DC) as a model for Asheville; it worked.
Carr chaired Bele Chere in 1982. The festival had only a $40k budget and he remembers it rained all weekend that year.

Car is talking about the history of his business. He got a loan in 1980 to expand the business, and bought the College Street building.

Carr says he chose to stay downtown, that he “loves this city.” He loves the new Pack Square Park and he invites people to come down on Friday for its grand opening.

New signs by the TDA are being commended and applauded by audience members.

Carr says, “We want to keep downtown full of businesses that are locally owned,” and gets sustained applause.

Contact Michael Muller at and follow him on Twitter @michaelfmuller


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12 thoughts on “The Asheville miracle: A startling look at downtown 20 years ago and the folks who transformed it

  1. Jeff Fobes

    Article in today’s Citizen-Times, by Mark Barrett, about yesterday evening’s presentation is here:

    A couple notable items from the article:
    [quote]No one thing brought people back downtown after the opening of Asheville Mall drained the area of much of its retail activity during the 1970s, speakers at a panel discussion on the rebirth of downtown said.

    “It could not be the public sector alone. It could not be the private sector alone,” said Leslie Anderson, former downtown development director for the city. “It had to be both together.” …

    Pat Whalen, president of downtown development company Public Interest Projects, said some measures were relatively small. The advent of liquor by the drink, which was once illegal in North Carolina, and a change in city rules to allow sidewalk dining helped bring back restaurants.

    Residential development in upper floors of buildings had a larger effect, he said.

    “Seeing those lights on and seeing people walking their dogs or carrying their groceries made people comfortable coming downtown,” Whalen said. [/quote]

  2. When I arrived in Asheville in ’89…downtown was barren.but you could easily see the potential in the downtown area…the unique architecture.

    It’s been a great experience to have been here for 20 years, to see and be a part of the transformation.  I was the first artisan to sign a lease with Rod Hubbard, when he has great ideas to renovate the Kress Building and establish an artisan Emporium on the ground floor.  He was not too sure the artisan market would prosper, but I assured him that if he built it, or renovated the building to establish it,  they would come. That was around ‘96- ‘97. It’s been a great resurgence…and going downtown at night as seeing the lively activity is very rewarding.

    I love our downtown, I often imagine what the builders and tradesmen who built the great buildings felt as they saw their work emerge. Their spirit endures. ….we are fortunate to have this resource to live in and enjoy.

  3. Paul -V-

    This is one of the best photo-essays I’ve ever seen. Great job.

    One observation: “That will never work here, don’t even try” is still the rallying cry among certain segments of our community.

  4. Yeah, the ole curmudgeony “status quo” folk. But they’re everywhere…not just here. It’s fun to make em eat their words.

  5. JBo

    Fantastic photo essay.

    I’ve been mulling over the idea of doing a project that compiles photos & examines the changes in Asheville from just before the first boom of the late 1800’s throughout the 20th century and into today’s prosperous times.

    I love the idea that best green building is preserving one that already exists and making it energy efficient.
    Thanks for everyone who made this presentation!

  6. firelady

    “Yeah, the ole curmudgeony “status quo” folk. But they’re everywhere…not just here.”

    Those people are called “squelchers”. Don’t let them win.

  7. PappyCaligula

    Asheville was indeed in a terrible condition. When things started to happen about 2 decades ago, like so many city renovations, it was thought a waste. “We have the malls”..”No one goes downtown anywhere, anymore”. Now Asheville is one of the hippest places on the planet, not just Western North Carolina.

    Being the cynic I am however, I’m beginning to see a reversal, almost a backlash to further spending/progress/innovation. The influx of so many “outsiders” has become as sore a point as illegal immigration to long time residents who have seen their incomes fall and their taxes rise. Sure, it’s nice to get a beer on Sunday but the slogan “Trustafarian Go Home” is starting to not sound like a joke any more. I know in the music and arts scene, “starving artist” now really means “starving”. Asheville ran out of paying venues a LOOOOONG time ago. It’s almost “pay-to-play” for musicians. I ran into some folks who are actually eeking out an existence on 200 bux a month (Money they earn late-night/early AM like Dead Heads, peddling whatever they can to late night partyers…

    AND, I think there is a native “conservative” revolt beginning to air itself. Some long-term residents do not care to have their home town called “The Little San Francisco” …It hasn’t come to withdrawing the Welcome Mat completley, HOWEVER, it’s like “Come, Visit, BUT don’t stay”.

    AND then, there is the homeless situation. One Weds evening, while jockying for a parking place, I passed the Salvation Army. NEVER have I seen such a line!. 4 deep, all the way around the block. All is not well for alot of folks in SkyCity eh?

    Conclusion: The economy is hurting everyone. It will effect tourism which I’d say is 75 per cent of what Ashevillian’s count on. Those shakers and movers are going to have to continue to innovate BUT at a much quicker pace. Otherwise, I forsee the whole “paradise” they’ve created, will crumble and fall within the next 5 years.

  8. Viking

    No one mentions T.S. Morrison & Co. LAB is sitting where Asheville’s oldest store used to be.

    Before the family from California bought the place in 1980, and except for Tops for Shoes, Lexington was one of the deadest parts of town. Later owners turned in it into a more kitsch-oriented place. But for awhile T.S. Morrison & Co. was a classy general store that locals loved.

    T.S. Morrison & Co. was the potential backdrop for a WNC Heritage Museum. No one thought of it that way. Sad. It might have been something everyone could appreciate. Tragically, the last owner just sold all the historical pieces and never asked for innovation assistance.

    Not that there are that many good ideas that get through.

    The people cited in all these news items about downtown revitalization are not always actual problem solvers. But that’s how cliques work.

  9. The Pontificator

    I left NC in 1993 and only recently have taken an interest in looking around on Google Maps and Youtube. I am no less than totally amazed at what most of downtown looks like now compared to how I remember it in these photos.

    I worked at T.S. Morrison from 1989-1990 while attending A-B Tech and cherish that experience.

    I’ve been to the LAB website and seen the renovation but somehow I’m left with a cold feeling. What can I say? It’s not the same. You could never convince me that Scully’s is any better than those long crazy nights we’d spend at Gastbys….or that the food at the Mellow Mushroom was any better than Stone Soup.

    Some of us marvel at the new…but want to hold onto the old even though the “old” wasn’t much.

  10. Carrie

    I was here 20 years ago and there was hardly anything here except the Biltmore. Just visited recently just wow on how everything is revitalized.

    On a copy editor note I do not know what is happening lately but there is no editing going on for instance restaurants is misspelled in this article. That is an awlful representation of journalism.

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