Council vote could mark new phase in struggle over ‘Pit of Despair’

MOVING FORWARD: Asheville City Council voted March 28 to solicit requests for proposals for design services for city-owned property at Haywood Street and Page Avenue. Photo by Virginia Daffron

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].”








Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

27 thoughts on “Council vote could mark new phase in struggle over ‘Pit of Despair’

  1. The Real World

    Wait. Virginia….I read the entire article and looked at the slides link and am still not clear on what SPECIFICALLY they decided would be done with that lot? So, what is a design firm going to be designing?

    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. Is this supposed to be the conclusion? All of that on a 1 acre lot??

    • Virginia Daffron

      It’s a lot to fit on about an acre of land, is it not? And those potential programmatic elements don’t include pedestrian or vehicular circulation.

      Yeah, I can only report what actually happened which, from my chair, looked like a vote to create an RFP for a design process that would be informed by the team’s conclusions. It’s pretty hard to imagine that all of those elements could happen on any site the size of the one in question, so how that gets hashed out is the work of the next however-many years in city politics.

      • The Real World

        Well, I know you are a good reporter and writer so if there had been more clarity you would have said so.

        This is not encouraging. It sounds like a bunch of money will get spent to create a formal proposal of something that is not nailed down. If so, that’s a sure way to waste taxpayer dollars.

        If Cecil Bothwell would like to chime in and provide some clarity about what happened, that would be great. We already know where he stands on the issue, I’m interested in what exactly was voted on this week…..and what happens next? Thanks.

        • luther blissett

          I agree with TRW here. No, really.

          A whole year to come up with a fuzzy vision statement that gets passed over to a designer? The study group report reads like the design spec for the Homer-mobile. I appreciate the effort to get local residents involved, but it’s been done in a way that encapsulates so many stereotypes about how politics gets done in Asheville. David Forbes wrote about the “cult of nice” last year, and though the Pit o’Despair stuff wasn’t always nice, the report conveys a lot of undeliverable accommodation than practicality and pragmatism about that space.

          Any designer who tries to take the report at face value and accommodate the “and a… and a…” stuff will either reignite the dispute over priorities by having to cut things out to fit the space available, or end up dumping a hot mess on the city that technically satisfies all of the criteria but does so incoherently. There’s a reason why “designed by committee” is a pejorative shorthand. There’s a reason why designers or architects really don’t like taking on projects with dozens of people looking over their shoulder, all of whom are going to focus on whether “their thing” is included, not on the design as a workable whole.

          As it stands, I suspect plenty of architects will not want to touch this project with a twenty-foot pole, given the list of criteria and the emotional investment of the stakeholders who contributed to them. Judge those who are willing to do so by whether they feel tightly bound by the report or state up-front that they’ll use it a lot more loosely.

          • Lulz

            Sell the damn land and be done with it. Bothwell and his fake survey is a farce. By no means should any city that claims to need extra funding via bonds be debating this kind of crap. If their economics are in such dire need of money then sell it. Otherwise Bothwell and the rest of them are liars, cons, and thieves,

  2. John Penley

    As I have done in the past, I would like to suggest that if any buildings are done on the site they include housing for homeless Veterans. Asheville politicians are on the record about ending Vets Homelessness and I say put your money where your mouth is. With the new Administration ramping up combat operations around the world Asheville will have many more Veterans coming home with no affordable housing and ending up at the Mission, ABCCM Vets shelter or living in tents in the Arts District next to the French Broad River.

    • Lulz

      LOL a pipedream. Ain’t no clown who lives in the downtown bubble gonna give a care about no vets. They’re too busy being elitist tourist gimmicks.

    • Angie

      Yes John! Maybe stacked shipping containers?? With a garden for the residents to tend…perhaps they could exchange work for housing. Or maybe co-housing similar to what is so popular in Denmark? Lots of ways to make this land a community plot, not a corporate one.

  3. Deplorable Infidel

    decades of such city council control and domination are the very reasons WHY we have to ‘live like hell here and suffer daily’, Dee Williams…you know that already! decades of progressive democrackkk NON leadership by stupid people affects us daily.

    • Alan Ditmore

      Kudos DI and Dee. Decades of gentrifying elite NYMBY liberal elites determined to cause homelessness and upstage contraception with environmental distractions. PARKS DISPLACE HOUSING AND CAUSE HOMELESSNESS AND GENTRIFICATION!!!! IF YOU PICK UP LITTER, THEY WILL RAISE THE RENT!!!

  4. Gordon Smith

    Hey, all – More info:

    The Haywood Street Task Force Final Report:

    Andrew Fletcher’s powerpoint presentation to Council:

    (Beginning at 48:02) Video of my comments and motion to proceed with a Request for Proposals for a design firm to present design using the Task Force’s outcomes, which include passive green civic space, active civic space, and commercial building(s) (I’m rooting for housing):

    • The Real World

      “a design firm to present design using the Task Force’s outcomes, which include passive green civic space, active civic space, and commercial building(s)” —- with all due respect, Councilmember Smith, that reads like bureaucratic non-speak. I double-down on my comment above about this not being encouraging.

      I’m sure some will appreciate your links but why should we have to take the time to study all that when a person in your position should be able to provide a basic 2 to 4 sentences of what the words in quotations above actually mean. It’s utterly vague and sounds like the council is asking the design firm to DECIDE what the specific components of that lot should be.

      If you will, please: 1 – WHAT did the council decide should be built on that land? 2 – Don’t you think the design firm is not being utilized correctly if they aren’t being informed of exactly what they are supposed to design and what proportions of each component? 3 – WHO pays to build-out the lot and who pays to maintain it in the future? 4 – WHAT is the budget for the overall project (in actual dollar numbers)? Thank you.

      • Gordon Smith

        Thanks for your questions. The report clearly stipulates (1) green space with places to sit (trees, grass, bushes, benches); (2) hardscape (for things like performances, public art, food trucks); and (3) commercial building(s) with uses like restaurant, education, and/or housing. I hope this is helpful.

  5. cecil bothwell

    Actually, Councilman Smith’s motion was this (from the draft Council minutes):

    “Councilman Smith then moved 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. This motion as seconded by Vice-Mayor Wisler.”

    There is nothing in the motion concerning which design elements are to be included. What the Haywood Task Force delivered was a vision statement together with a list of POSSIBLE uses. If you read through those lists there is NO WAY that all of them could be incorporated, so nothing has been decided on that score. I and others on Council will insist, once we have a design firm identified, that among the several plans they suggest will be the possibility that the entire property is a park, perhaps with restrooms, perhaps with a food kiosk like the one the City operates at Carrier Park – but entirely PUBLICLY OWNED. Of course there will be other designs that have other options. But the decision on which of the many ideas offered by the Task Force lies ahead. (And truth be told, while I know the participants were sincere and met a lot of times, the list they returned to us was the list we started out with … oh, 12 years ago.)

    • The Real World

      Ok, that was confirmation of what I had perceived….that the components are not nailed down and too many are being considered. Thanks for the info.

      I disagree that the entire lot should be a park. First, why load the taxpayer with all the cost of build-out and ongoing maintenance when we could get private enterprise to share in that burden? Imagine, revenue-generating, taxpaying business(es) who would be required to contribute to the cost of park/plaza build and maintenance. How is that not a win-win?

      Second, the “pit” part of the property really lends itself to a short building, maybe 5 or 6 stories, that can be accessed from both Haywood at street level and Page Ave into the second or third floor (maybe that’s where the bathrooms could be). The Page Ave side is the flattest part of the lot and that could be the green plaza, similar to Pritchard Park.

      If it does remain completely city-owned and becomes entirely a park, I don’t think a food concession makes sense given there are restaurant/take-out places nearby. Why should the city compete with those? (Carrier Pk is different in that regard…more remote.)

      My view — there is entirely too much emotional group-think in this town and this project is emblematic of that. If the crowd that claims to value open-mindedness and diversity actually practiced what they preach then we’d have a politically-balanced city council and a citizenry willing to consider ALL facets and the big picture instead of so much defensive, line-in-the-sand, “I need the other guys to lose” mentality. It feels like 8th grade all over again.

      Lastly, Councilmen Smith and Bothwell, just think: if you had sold that property a few years ago when you had the chance then the money and huge amount of time spent by heaps of people could have been directed toward more productive efforts and the city would have had a couple million dollars in it’s coffers from the sale. Some people might have been irked at you….for about 10 minutes….but then it’s on to the next thing. Most people I chat with have little to no interest in what happens to that lot. It seems as if a vocal minority managed to convince Council this was a make or break issue for the city. Please…….

  6. Deplorable Infidel

    City had NO business buying this property to begin with. THAT is the problem.

  7. cecil bothwell

    RealWorld, yeah. Anytime you sell pubic property you exempt yourself from responsibility.
    I don’t swing that way.

    • Gary Woods

      Cecil, your theatrics is the epitome of being irresponsible. The “way you swing” is a perfect example of a self-serving, impractical and unsustainable agenda with a twist of hyperbolic commentary. It completely amazes me how a city pushes a bond to finance improvements to their current parks and assets, while at the same time certain council members continue advocating for more in close proximity to another one. How much longer must we endure this senseless mindset? Yes Cecil, keep swinging. Those of us based in reality will reclaim our city this upcoming election to ensure a more reasonable and grounded approach in how our taxpayer money is spent.

      • Huhsure

        Hmm… what about the report from a couple of years back that showed that the pit-o-despair location was perfect for a park, when population/walking distance/etc were taken into consideration?

        Financing “improvements” to current parks and assets isn’t the same as financing maintenance of current parks and assets. The bond referendum is not evidence supporting your claim.

        Are you in possession of information that the addition of a park in the pit-o-despair would be unsustainable financially by the city? If so, please share.

        • Gary Woods

          A “study” from a few years ago sounds really convincing. A park on evey block within easy walking distance would ideal but completely unrealistic. So sorry but not buying into your “study.”. You guys will not stop at nothing to advance your uncompromising agenda. The city needs to operate within its means and focus on its current inventory.

          Common sense and the unfortunate state of our existing parks is enough for those of us that realize that a public private approach would be a win win for all of us. So please don’t try to convince us to subsidize your preferences. There is a park down the street. Make the most of it.

          • Huhsure

            It wasn’t “a park on every block,” but whatever, you lost outright when you decided to say that I was just lying to advance an “uncompromising agenda.”

            So much for civility, Mountain Xpress. Do better.

  8. Don

    I’m a big supporter of parks…. urban and otherwise….. but this is a tiny parcel of land that, well, has no business being a park…. sorry Cecil, but that’s the bottom line. You expended way too much capital on this quixotic quest…. but of course, you can’t/won’t be moving on past it anytime soon…. sigh.

  9. Cecil Bothwell

    HuhSure you are beyond right. It wasn’t “a study from a few years ago” it was the Downtown Master Plan that identified the site as a future park.
    As then-candidate Gordon Smith wrote in May 2009, “[The Plan is the] creation of consensus and compromise. Dedicated people from every cranny of our community devoted 5,000 hours of their time to hammer this thing out.”
    Yes, thousands of hours and this was identified as a park.
    But commercial interests have fought it every inch of the way.

  10. Eric Laurila

    Hi everyone! I have been a resident of Asheville for about ten years and spent most of those years on the streets as a spiritual pilgrim. It has been a wonderful. And rewarding experience. Mr. Bothwell, I had the privilege of meeting, as I visited with the folks during the Occupy movement at the encampment under the Lex street bridge. I found Mr. Bothwell to be very open and welcoming to the people there as well as having seriousness in addressing the concerns of the group. One thing that I have enjoyed about Asheville is the progressive willingness to include everyone who is willing to join in community. I have an idea for the so-called Pit of despair. For starters Palace of Design might be more encouraging. A park and United Nations of Asheville conference center would work. Christo style triangular sails embracing a Buckminster Fuller glass and steel dome would be a perfect botanical garden setting for public gathering. Perhaps a prayer wall ala the Western Wall could be included as well. Love you all. Thanks for. Your time. Eric

  11. Alan Ditmore

    Parks are murderous elitist gentrifiers that displace housing and cause homelessness where hotels provide human needs like shelter, such as the Battery Park HOTEL!

  12. Alan Ditmore

    Also the Windsor HOTEL and interstate HOTEL provided critical human needs while preventing gentrification.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.