By now, it’s a familiar image: the red-brick facade of the Basilica of St. Lawrence framed by a blue sky, an emerald green lawn and leafy trees. Seen on countless yard signs all around town, this idyllic depiction of a future park on city-owned parcels at the corner of Haywood Street and Page Avenue has loomed large in the grassroots campaign to persuade city officials to halt the search for a commercial developer for the site.
Now that City Council has agreed to move forward with a planning process for the area that will include public input, though, that picture-postcard scene must confront some cold, hard realities: a steep slope, a mishmash of vehicular and pedestrian activity, and a complex web of lot lines, not to mention different constituencies’ conflicting wishes.
Those issues plus a lengthy history of wrangling over this prominent piece of real estate formed the backdrop for the Planning and Economic Development Committee’s Jan. 26 discussion of how to structure a planning process to determine the area’s future.
Presented with an outline for a design competition, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler — who chairs the three-member City Council committee — remarked, “I think the idea of a competition is fun.” Nonetheless, she proceeded to put the brakes on the idea, at least until a representative sampling of the community can weigh in through what she called a “visioning process.”
“I’m not sure we do have a vision yet,” Wisler explained.
Hold on there
Chris Joyell, executive director of the Asheville Design Center, agrees. “To just jump into a design competition right now,” he maintains, “would be setting the participants up to fail. There is no clear charge from the city of what we, as a community, would like to see happen on that property.”
The Design Center, Joyell continues, has been part of discussions about how to use the site since 2012. “At this point, we’ve met with over 60 stakeholders,” he notes. “As a result, we know that there are a number of different options for where this process could go. So, really, we’ve only just begun.”
As one of only a handful of independent, nonprofit design centers in the country, Joyell maintains, his organization is uniquely positioned to facilitate such a visioning process. “We don’t assume anything,” he explains. “We let the community define the problems we are trying to design for.”
Adrian Vassallo, chair of the Downtown Commission, concurs. And at the Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, he scolded the city for proposing a design competition that didn’t include Joyell’s group.
“Two weeks ago, we delivered a recommendation asking Council to consider engaging the ADC to bring us through a public visioning process. That came out of months of conversation in this room through the Downtown Commission, where Brian Haynes is City Council liaison,” Vassallo noted. Appointed by City Council, the commission is charged with advising the city on issues concerning the city center.
What’s more, continued Vassallo, at the Asheville Downtown Association’s Jan. 20 State of Downtown Luncheon, the ADA had pledged $5,000 toward a Design Center-led community planning effort.
“I found out about this city staff recommendation on Friday after 5,” Vassallo said at the committee meeting the following Tuesday. “So I’m wondering why city staff are not incorporating recommendations from a city-appointed commission into a recommendation to PED and, furthermore, to Council.”
Setting the record straight
The Design Center, stresses Joyell, wouldn’t participate in any such design competition, so the group doesn’t stand to benefit from any financial awards for the winners. He also wants to dispel some misunderstandings about his organization’s relationship to the effort to determine the site’s future.
Council member Cecil Bothwell, notes Joyell, has publicly stated “that the ADC will only be involved if the whole site is used as civic space.” Meanwhile, Joyell continues, Council member Julie Mayfield has asserted “that ADC will only be involved if private development is part of the project. Well, they are both wrong and they are both right.”
“We have no dog in the fight,” Joyell explains. “Our volunteers are able to separate their personal opinions from their professional responsibility. We have no right to guide people to an outcome for that site, but we know there will be commonalities. We can find areas of agreement, and those will be the strongest foundation for a design solution.”
And whatever the arrangements, his group comes bearing gifts. John McKibbon of the McKibbon Hotel Group, which terminated an agreement with the city to develop the site in 2013, has offered the Design Center the temporary use of the plaza-level space in the former BB&T Building on Pack Square as a public engagement center, Joyell reports.
In addition, he told the PED committee, “We have soft commitments of about $14,000” to contribute to the planning process.
Council member Gordon Smith seemed to find those incentives compelling.
“I’m a big fan of having the ADC lead this initial process,” said Smith. “The fact that they’re willing to bring money to the table, that they could have a public engagement center in the center of town, seems to me to be a really attractive proposition.”
For his part, Haynes, the committee’s other member, said he’s focused on ensuring maximum public input. “I basically just want to see as much public involvement as possible — as early as possible and all along the way.”
Defining the scope
One big unknown is exactly which properties will be part of the planning effort. In addition to city-owned parcels at 68 and 76 Haywood St. that total about 0.55 acres, a 0.1-acre city-owned surface parking lot at 37 Page Ave. will probably be included. There are also public rights of way along Haywood Street and Page Avenue that, together with an alley off of Battery Park Avenue, add up to another 1.6 acres. At the committee meeting, PED members agreed that the alignment and design of those roadways should be part of the process.
But several questions remain: Will a city-owned building at 33 Page Ave., the former home of Asheville Sister Cities, be included in the planning effort? Will the city look at adjacent private property? Should the function of nearby Pritchard Park be considered?
At the PED meeting, Bothwell, who doesn’t serve on the committee but has a long history of involvement with the site, suggested interim uses for the Haywood Street lots while the planning process unfolds: demonstration garden beds, temporary art installations, a downtown tailgate market, a temporary performance space and an adult playground.
Wisler asked Joyell to develop a written proposal for the Asheville Design Center’s role. “You’re the horse, and there’s your mouth,” quipped Wisler, explaining that she’d heard many conflicting accounts of the nonprofit’s recommendations for the site and how it might participate in a planning effort.
Joyell agreed, saying, “There needs to be transparency for this whole process. For the last dozen years, it’s been shrouded, and people mistrust the process as it is.”
In an email after the PED meeting, city Planning Director Todd Okolichany wrote that city staff aims to present the committee’s recommended process to Council in February.
“If this process is approved by City Council, one of the first steps would be to form the stakeholder committee, consisting of a broad cross section of the community,” he explained. “The committee would work with the Asheville Design Center on developing the public engagement process” and would also address questions pertaining to the project’s scope.
“Asheville Design Center,” wrote Okolichany, “would conduct the public engagement component,” which would help formulate a vision for the area.
For his part, Joyell thinks the public’s voice is what’s long been missing from the conversation. “When the city decided to purchase that property, it took on the responsibility for stewarding it for the public and for the greater good of the public,” he argues. “So now 90,000 people have a right to weigh in on how this property is to be developed.”
And despite the conflicting positions evident at the committee meeting, Wisler called the discussion “forward progress.” Still, it remains to be seen what recommendation the planning staff ends up presenting to Council, based on that discussion.