Sometimes a vacant piece of land becomes more than just a piece of land. And the scant acre of city-owned property on Haywood Street and Page Avenue has certainly come to represent more than its area, or even its monetary value, would suggest.
For many, the “Pit of Despair” facing the U.S. Cellular Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence has become a battleground where warring visions of Asheville compete in a take-no-prisoners contest for the soul of the city. After City Council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday, March 28, to accept the recommendations presented by a volunteer citizen panel as the basis for soliciting design services, questions remain: Is this the beginning of the end of the controversy over the use of the land, or — with apologies to Winston Churchill — is it even the end of the beginning?
The Haywood Street Advisory Team presented the conclusions of a year-long process that encompassed a variety of public engagement activities and 14 meetings — with plenty of sticky notes, maneuverings, salty language, peer pressure and squabbling along the way — to a City Council that had asked the group to deliver a “community vision” for the use of the land.
The text of the final report of the advisory team is available here: Haywood AT Report-FINAL. According to Chris Joyell of the Asheville Design Center, who served as facilitator for the team, the report was finished “at the end of last week” (which would have been around March 24), but graphics still need to be added to the file.
Team chair Andrew Fletcher, who represents the Asheville Buskers Collective, summed up the difficulty of the team’s task by quoting two public comments, written by hand on sticky notes and pasted next to one another at a feedback-gathering event: One, said Fletcher, read, “Nothing but a park.” The other read, “Anything but a park.”
Council member Julie Mayfield commented that the question of whether the space should either be used for a building or a park was appropriate while the land was on the market for purchase by a private buyer. Once the parcels were taken off the market, she said, the “either/or” question could be reframed.
Reaching a 16-1 agreement among the 17 members of the advisory team, Fletcher said, represented an accomplishment that required significant compromise. Without compromise, he said, “the future looks like despair.”
“What we really want, we want a future that animates the site,” said Fletcher. “That comes sooner rather than later.”
The team’s vision of what will animate the site and create a successful public space includes a combination of uses. Active uses include community gardening, a farmers market, a play area and public art, along with “mixed use” features such as local food and retail, a business incubator, education and housing. Passive uses include shade, seating, a water feature, restrooms, views of the surrounding mountains and a sense of neighborhood identity. The slides from Fletcher’s presentation are available here.
Activist Clare Hanrahan, who lives in the Battery Park Apartments adjacent to the site and who has advocated for green space and native plantings, bowed to the inevitability of compromise, saying, “I’m realist enough to understand it can’t be all green, and it can’t all be given over to nature and the birds and the bees.” She urged Council to honor the needs of the area’s neighbors — “some of the most vulnerable in our city” — when planning the design of the site. She also called for features to “provide the opportunity for intergenerational communication.”
Artist Coleman Smith wanted to know how local artists can be involved in creating the new space. “The term professional can be quite disabling to a lot of people,” he said of the motion to solicit applications for design firms. “If you are not a professional design firm, how do local artists and designers and the incredible amount of creative energy that makes Asheville what it is, how can they be involved in it?” Coleman asked. Mayfield responded that providing opportunities for local artists to participate should be included in the process.
Dee Williams, a local business leader who has announced her intention to run for a spot on Council this year, reflected on the role of the property in the 2015 Council elections: “There were a lot of people deciding that election who wanted a park, or so they say. For whatever reason, the thing has evolved.” Williams said that she, like a lot of locals, doesn’t go downtown as often as she used to. On $8 an hour, she said, locals can’t afford the kind of $8 hamburger that’s available there.
“We have a tale of two cities here in Asheville: We’ve got an affluent, tourism sort of clientele, and you’ve got just us folks, who live like hell here and we suffer every day,” Williams said. If other uses will replace the park that many residents indicated they wanted with their 2015 votes, Williams said, those uses should at least include an “economic stimulator” to help those left behind by Asheville’s current boom.
Mayor Esther Manheimer wrapped up the discussion of the advisory team’s report, noting, “I know this has been sort of torture for a lot of people and for the community. It’s been sort of also fascinating.” Manheimer said that she feels, “like we’re at the beginning of a really long road.”
With that, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to instruct city staff to prepare a request for proposals for a design firm. Council did not address considerations of cost or discuss the criteria by which a designer should be selected.
According to City Clerk Maggie Burleson‘s action agenda from the meeting, Council “Heard presentation and motion adopted unanimously to direct staff to design and issue a request for proposals for a design firm to deliver several design options using the Haywood Street Visioning Process outcomes.”
Before 6 a.m. on the morning after the Council meeting, Council member Cecil Bothwell — long a supporter of a park on the site, and a caustic critic of the advisory team’s process — emailed to say, “The fight still looms, FWIW [for what it’s worth].”