For nearly 100 years, the dream of a high-elevation park offering panoramic views over downtown has entranced yet eluded Asheville visionaries. The city’s first master plan, created by John Nolen and adopted in 1925, shows “Mountainside Park” stretching across the eastern slope of Beaucatcher Mountain in an unbroken swath from Asheville High School to the Grove Park Inn.
More recently, the dream has assumed the form of a greenway, anchored at its northern end by a small park at Helen’s Bridge and on its southern terminus by a larger park on the city-owned White Fawn Reservoir site above McCormick Field. In 2007, the city acquired much of the land that will become the greenway through a joint funding effort with Buncombe County, the state and The Trust for Public Land, according to Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons.
To secure that $2 million funding, says Simmons, the city committed to building a greenway. Designers at the Raleigh-based Stewart engineering firm, he reports, have almost completed drawings for the greenway, which will include both on- and off-road segments. The construction package could go out for bid before the end of the year. In the best-case scenario, Simmons says, construction could begin next spring.
Room tax provides new funding
On Oct. 28, the Tourism Product Development Fund — which awards a portion of hotel room tax proceeds to local projects with the potential to boost tourism — approved $1.7 million for the Beaucatcher and French Broad River greenways. Added to existing and planned Asheville greenways, the funded projects will complete an 11-mile network.
With a new funding source and a nearly completed set of construction drawings, the dream of an Asheville skyline park seems closer than ever to becoming a reality.
Or is it? Some property owners along the proposed route say the city is misinterpreting the ownership of a key connecting road — and that other stretches pose significant safety and accessibility concerns.
Trouble at the Sky Club
A so-called “pocket park” at the greenway’s northern end will feature Helen’s Bridge, an arched stone bridge built in 1909 as the entrance to the Zealandia estate. Designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith (the supervising architect for Biltmore House, who designed many other local structures, including the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village), Zealandia is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From Helen’s Bridge, the proposed greenway route follows a steep and sharply curving stretch of College and Beaumont streets, using a mix of sidewalks and a shared roadway that Stewart engineering planners call a sharrow — “pavement markings that alert drivers that cyclists will likely be present on the road,” the project website explains.
From Beaumont, the route turns left into what condominium owners at the former Sky Club say is a private driveway. It certainly looks like one today, with a motorized gate that opens only with a key code and several signs declaring the area private property.
Restaurateurs Gus and Emma Adler bought the 1890s mansion in 1935. In its heyday, the Sky Club hosted the cast and crews of many movies filmed in Asheville, counting among its famous guests Grace Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, Fess Parker and Louis Jordan. After Emma Adler sold the building in 1975, it was converted into five condominium units.
“None of us are against greenways,” notes Nancy Brown, president of The Sky Club Condominium Association. “We are opposed to the city trying to take our private driveway for a greenway.” If the driveway is a public road, she asks, “Why did the city allow us to install a gate across it?”
Meanwhile, Sue and Nick Peterson own a neighboring property that also uses the Sky Club driveway for access. Sue says the city’s preferred design option, shown in public meetings in February and July, includes a sidewalk built on her property alongside the Sky Club driveway. “The design will require removing over 100 trees and building a massive retaining wall on my property,” she explains.
The Petersons’ attorney, Al Sneed of The Van Winkle Law Firm, says litigation is likely if the city persists in its determination to use the driveway as part of the greenway. “That could take a couple of years,” he observes.
Simmons, however, doesn’t seem concerned. “The residents may see it as an issue, and they are free to challenge it, but we are not holding anything up, because we see it as a public street,” he says.
Condo owner Geoff Kemmish raises another concern: The proposed route between Helen’s Bridge and the logging road is characterized by blind curves, road crossings and steep grades. The route, he believes, “is not a greenway, it’s a sidewalk. And it’s a scary sidewalk.”
Things are calmer at the southern end of the greenway route, where 7 acres of city-owned property await transformation. Once part of the city’s water distribution system, the former White Fawn Reservoir was decommissioned in the 1950s and later used as a dumping ground for construction debris. Now home to two signal towers, the site could provide views in nearly every direction.
Asheville GreenWorks, a local nonprofit focused on community improvements, has long been involved with the White Fawn property. The late Stephen Jones, who served on the organization’s board of directors, was deeply committed to creating a city park on the site. Before his death from a brain tumor in January 2014, Jones and his wife, Suzy, donated $25,000 to Asheville GreenWorks to help fund planning for the park.
“Stephen believed you shouldn’t have to own a house on Town Mountain or a condo on Beaucatcher Mountain to enjoy mountaintop views and the serenity of the forest within the city of Asheville,” recalls Bob Roepnack, Jones’ friend and fellow GreenWorks board member.
Earlier this year, the city signed a memorandum of understanding authorizing the nonprofit to create a master plan for the property. Once Equinox Environmental, a local consulting firm, completes the master plan and a cost estimate, Asheville GreenWorks will begin fundraising to make the plans a reality, says Roepnack.
A view to the future
So how soon can city residents and visitors expect to see a completed park and greenway on Beaucatcher Mountain? The project has been under discussion for more than a decade, and prior news reports show that project deadlines have consistently underestimated the amount of time needed to clear the various financial, logistical and legal hurdles.
When it is finished, though, it will be the first Asheville greenway built without Department of Transportation or federal funds, notes Simmons. And whenever that may happen, he continues, Asheville’s signature skyline park will undoubtedly be “a real gem.”