The good old days that never were

Greedy developers are raping the land for money. Ax murderers are cutting down urban forests; big-box stores are polluting the landscape and destroying small businesses.

“Why can’t Asheville be like it used to be?” whine the so-called progressives (who might better be labeled regressives). They might be shocked to find out that Asheville was not the same as it used to be after George Vanderbilt cut down thousands of acres of trees to build an opulent mansion and conveniently constructed Biltmore Village in a floodplain.

Asheville was not the same as it used to be after E.W. Grove excavated a huge gash in Sunset Mountain to build an enormous rock hotel with a garish red roof. Then he went downtown, razed a fine resort hotel located on top of a high ridge, cut the ridge down and pushed millions of tons of dirt into a gully now know as Coxe Avenue. He then constructed the completely out-of-proportion, modern high-rise Battery Park Hotel and a sprawling, monstrous indoor shopping center known as the Grove Arcade. Not satisfied with these incursions on the local landscape, he cut down trees and built many fine residences in the Macon/Kimberly area.

The only way Asheville will ever be the way it used to be … is for the last 20,000 of you who have moved here to tear down your houses … and move away.

Asheville was never the same as it used to be after the building boom in the 1920s, when avaricious developers like Jake Childs cut down urban forests to build new neighborhoods such as Kenilworth, Montford and Beaver Lake. Asheville was never the same after those two international conglomerates — the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. — built big-box stores that put all the mom-and-pop grocery, dry goods and hardware stores out of business.

I am sure you understand by now that the only way Asheville will ever be the way it used to be in anyone’s living memory is for the last 20,000 of you who have moved here to tear down your houses and businesses, replant the trees that were cut so that you could live and work here, then donate the land to the Nature Conservancy, take your kids and move away. We would no longer need parking garages, eight-lane interstate highways or traffic calming, including those groovy roundabouts and bicycle paths. (Before all of you got here, only children rode bikes — the adults were too busy working and keeping house.)

The progressives need to understand that real-estate development is not a nonprofit enterprise. If it were, then they would all have to live in the housing projects, because no for-profit housing would be built.

An interesting incident took place at a public forum during the primary campaign for City Council. I asked all the candidates two questions: How many of you support affordable housing? How many would support affordable housing in your neighborhood? Every hand went up in answer to both questions; then every hand went up again to get the attention of the chair so that they might qualify their answers.

They were quick to point out that they wanted to make housing affordable for policemen and schoolteachers. Everyone wants these people in their neighborhood. Then they said they wanted to bring in jobs that pay wages that would allow people to afford housing. No-brainer there.

But not one person said they would welcome low-income people (which often translates as “minorities”) in affordable housing in their neighborhood. It appears to me that these progressives would oppose single-family homes built by Habitat for Humanity, the Asheville Housing Authority and Mountain Housing Opportunities in their neighborhoods.

These people also have to understand that Western North Carolina — including Asheville — is timber country, and landowners have the legal right to harvest all the timber on their property if they choose to do so. And after all the screaming about cutting trees at such places as UNCA, Campus Crest and the proposed Kenilworth housing development, there was nary a whimper from the arbor addicts about cutting the old-growth trees in front of City Hall and the courthouse. Apparently, when it comes to tree cutting, acceptability is in the eye of the ax-beholder.

I thought the reason the Grove Park Inn was denied its proposed high-rise project adjacent to City/County Plaza was to keep the area undisturbed for future generations. Now they are spending millions of dollars to tear up and fix a park that wasn’t broke. You wonder where their priorities are when that money could have been better spent toward rescuing our aging Civic Center — which remains standing only because the termites are holding hands.

Progressives’ outrage about the Staples on Merrimon Avenue is a case of their personal aversion to big-box stores in general — and to getting what they wished for. The last time the progressives were in charge, under the Sitnick administration, they passed the onerous Unified Development Ordinance, which required that all commercial buildings be built right on the street, with parking in the back. That makes these buildings loom much larger and the handsome, broad thoroughfares look much narrower (as typified by the new Chamber of Commerce building on Montford Avenue and the UBS building on Charlotte Street).

But don’t despair: In 75 years when the DOT wants to widen Merrimon Avenue and tear down Staples, your great-grandchildren will be out there protesting that Staples must be spared and restored as a quintessential example of the incredible architecture of the big-box era.

Progressives like to talk about walkability and bicycle paths, disregarding the fact that many community residents are too old or don’t have the time or ability to get to work on foot or bicycle while trying to care for their family. But these do-gooders are so focused on their own personal interests that they seem to be disconnected from the real problems in the community, such as low-income housing, poverty and loss of industrial jobs.

Basically they are antiestablishment and anticapitalist. This could be an example of the gag reflex triggered by having that silver spoon (provided by their capitalist-generated inheritances and trust funds) lodged in their throats.

Well, progressives, be aware that since the last city election, you are now the establishment. And you have much on your plate, including the Civic Center, water-system infrastructure, traffic and a limited supply of money. Are you going to stop the influx of hordes of newcomers?

It will be interesting to see how you handle the attendant problems and keep Asheville the way it used to be — or even the way it is now.

[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years.]

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