It’s been a really tumultuous time for our country recently—and also for Asheville and Buncombe County.
So now we move forward, and while I’m filled with optimism both for our nation and for this city, I’m not ready to say “We have overcome” and forget the struggle that got us to this place. There are still forces out there that want to change the very fabric of Asheville and are just waiting for the right opportunity. That means we must now take the things we’ve learned into the new year and beyond.
While the economy may have stalled the aspirations of certain developers and business people to turn Asheville into another Charlotte or Atlanta, don’t think for a moment that they don’t still envision Asheville as a mountainous cash cow. Consider the humongous Biltmore Park minicity being built on Long Shoals Road, with its 15-plex theater, condos, shopping etc. This is our elected officials’ vision, folks; this is how they see the Asheville of the future: progress.
We must not forget that it was the voice of the people and only that voice that drove our city officials, however reluctantly, to vote against Parkside and Tony Fraga’s Haywood Park project. If it were left up to them, this mantra of “Growth is inevitable” would justify approving every project that came before City Council, as long as the developer included the carrot of some affordable housing.
But where is it written that growth is inevitable? Is there some empirical data that our elected officials aren’t sharing with the public that demonstrates the need for million-dollar-plus condos downtown or the specter that if we don’t continue to grow, somehow the city will shrivel up and become a ghost town?
So as we move into 2009, let’s not forget to keep a very close eye on our elected officials, who so far have not shown the political will to face down vested interests without a push from the people. I would love to see Asheville take the lead in attracting the next generation of bona fide green developers and manufacturers who don’t just pay lip service to the concept. This could create jobs, sustainable housing and provide support for our infrastructure.
And I would love to see the city move forward on height restrictions, so we can get past this high-rise folly. And I guess, while I’m making a wish list, why not a voter referendum on projects the size of The Ellington? If it affects us all, why shouldn’t we have a right to vote on it?
I believe Asheville can and must take a new approach to its future. The evidence is apparent all over the country and the globe: Business as usual can no longer be the order of the day. And we can start with small but significant things—like user-friendly bus signs that identify the routes and times to encourage more use of public transportation; bike lanes where possible; and requiring all future buildings of any significant size to have a genuine alternative-energy component.
Will this make the approval process more difficult? Perhaps. But these will be difficult times, and it would be nice if Asheville proved to be the model for how to get it right.
The “common good”; the “American dream”—moving forward, we may want to rethink our understanding of these phrases. What is the common good for Asheville?
Do we wait for this economic crisis to pass and then just resume what we were doing before? Or do we take this opportunity to redirect our vision and our energy toward leaving a better place for future generations?
Like it or not, the American dream is metamorphosing. Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is more relevant today than ever, and we ignore it at our own risk. I see this as an opportunity for all of us to share in the shape and future of Asheville and Buncombe County. We can’t afford to lose the momentum of the last few months and fall back into complacency by not voting or holding our elected officials to real transparency.
Lastly, I think we dodged a bullet. Painful as it is, the economic downturn has forced political and business interests to re-evaluate the landscape, and we must not let this window of opportunity slip through our fingers. Now’s the time to solidify opposition to large-scale projects and unplanned growth, and to advocate for height limits on downtown buildings. And how about term limits for our local politicians?
Those are some of the key things on my New Year’s wish list. I could be wrong—but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
[Arden resident Jesse Junior, a retired civil servant, hosts a radio show on WPVM.]