King Cecil’s serf city

The Asheville City Council recently spent $15,000 on a survey to determine residents’ priorities for the city’s future. According to a Nov. 23, 2008, Asheville Citizen-Times article, two of the top three priorities stated were: “Get a handle on development” and “Don’t move here.” Go to the city’s Web site, search for “Asheville Citizen Survey” and click on “open-ended questions,” and you’ll find anti-development tirades by more than 100 city residents. They’re laced with such shrieks as: “rape of the mountains,” “uncontrolled, greed-fueled development by amoral outsiders” and “population growth!!! Yikes!!”

According to Mountain Xpress, however, “Council members feared the survey might have been skewed by certain high-profile events … notably the Parkside/Pack Square drama” (see Asheville City Council, Nov. 26, 2008 Xpress). And that was that. The costly survey was ignored, no Council member protested significantly, and the people’s apparent wishes were completely dismissed.

True, the Parkside project was a particularly odoriferous example of manic development. But when hasn’t there been a big development controversy here? How about the elephantine Ellington, Tony Fraga’s twin towers, the gated earth-sore on Reynolds Mountain, I-26’s catastrophic connector, Staples’ Great Wall of Merrimon—the list goes on and on. Face it: If the survey had been taken anytime during the last five or 10 years, the results would probably have been similar.

When it comes to development, however, could it be that City Council isn’t really the least bit interested in what the majority of Asheville residents want? Or has the depressing recession made such concerns irrelevant?

From spec houses to spec McCities

To answer these questions, let’s take a little field trip to view the astounding new growth in south Asheville’s Biltmore Park, including a new YMCA, a cineplex and even a university. It’s a whole new city comprising well over a million square feet (roughly equivalent to five super Wal-Marts).

Jack Cecil is president of Biltmore Farms, the megaproject’s developer. When I interviewed him recently, he contended that “way more” than half the people moving to Biltmore Park come from Buncombe County, though hard figures aren’t available. And these denizens, he noted, can serenely stroll to places meeting most of their needs, thus reducing our county’s burden of car-related air pollution.

But that’s just the start. Motor south to Biltmore Square Mall—another Cecil project that’s now a 500,000 square foot ghost town. Take a right and you’ll soon encounter Biltmore Farms’ magnificent Biltmore Lake development. Journey roughly north and you’ll find The Ramble. According to their literature, the Lake is a pastoral mix of 800 high-priced, often eerily empty homes, hiking trails and a big, beautiful body of water that’s aggressively off-limits to its blue-collar Enka neighbors. The gated “Bramble” has so far completed more than 120 of its planned 500 houses, plus three large parks and miles of hiking trails.

Mr. Cecil is building spectacular spec cities. And even if only 30 percent of his housing units are bought by out-of-towners, that’s still about 1,000 new families crowding into Asheville, spewing exhaust and adding to the frenzy!

An audience with a king

Talking with the handsome Mr. Cecil, I likened Biltmore Park to Paris. “Oh, yes,” he replied with easy charm, “and look at the trees near the roundabout. When their branches grow together, they’ll form a pleached tree canopy like those of the Champs Élysées.”

I was enchanted and then humbled when he said they’re already employing 300 people to build the development, and plans call for up to 850,000 additional square feet of office space. Mr. Cecil appears to be one of the crashing WNC economy’s few hopes!

He said he plans to harness Biltmore Park’s “triply redundant,” high-capacity bandwidth to enable a “place-based, community-building” development. It will utilize the local population’s “indigenous assets” and unparalleled “biotechnological potential” to grow a “knowledge-centered, vital urban fabric” with a quality of life rivaling Boston.

It all sounds great. But is his jargon merely a re-branding of the same old exploitation of our matchless mountain environment and artistically intelligent people?

Mr. Cecil’s family lineage includes a number of powerful aristocrats who played key roles in running the mighty British Empire at various points in its history. Then there was robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt (once perhaps the richest man on the planet) and even Jackie Kennedy Onassis, whose first cousin married current Biltmore House owner William Cecil. Nonetheless, shouldn’t the collective decisions of us common folk have more power than those of one admittedly amazing family?

Overthrowing Asheville’s oligarchs

Given these and many other rampant-growth realities, it’s become as plain as the 175,000 square foot Biltmore House that Asheville is an omnipotent oligarchy of large landowners and big money. With a few high-profile exceptions, ordinary residents’ concerns about growth get about as much attention as medieval serfs begging their overlords for consideration.

Meanwhile, though the city’s recent survey was revealing, I suspect that if Asheville did hold a comprehensive growth referendum, the fast-growth proponents would win. Most folks believe it’s the only way to create jobs.

To restore any kind of environmental balance, however, we need a flourishing but equilibrium-based economy that meets everyone’s basic needs. Then, Asheville would grow only if we—a majority of an economically secure people—wanted it to.

The current recession provides a great opportunity to implement this approach, since a purely profit-based economy is pretty hard to defend these days. And the transition would be quickly ensured if Asheville’s many investors joined Mr. Cecil and devoted their collective good taste, grace and wealth to helping make it happen.

[Asheville author Bill Branyon is working on his latest book:
Liberating Liberals. Contact him at]

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6 thoughts on “King Cecil’s serf city

  1. hauntedheadnc

    Developers in Buncombe County are the absolute rulers of Asheville, because when Asheville chases them out of the city, that’s where they will go instead. And then, rather than getting thoughtful urban development downtown, we will get suburban subdivisions. And won’t we be proud then?

    Frankly, it infuriates me to hear this kind of smug “I’ve got mine and I’m here so now you go away” commentary. You’d think that Asheville as a city would realize the benefits of growth — more customers for its businesses and more demand for its artistic outlets and venues most notably — and would thus be doing everything it could to make developing inside the city as attractive an option as possible. But no. We fight and squeal and think that if we chase it out of town, it will just go away. Obviously, as this very article proves, it will not. It will just got out to the county where someone will slap the Biltmore name on it and sell it at an inflated price.

    You know what we should be doing? Embracing the fact that Asheville is already a city, demanding dense urban growth with an adequate mix of parks and greenery, requiring developers to build a portion of their projects as affordable, and then letting in the people who want to live here and spend their money here. We should be making it easy to do the right thing rather than plugging our ears and closing our eyes and shouting “Lalalala NO GROWTH Lalalala” and thinking that will actually accomplish something.

    Economies are cyclical, you know. When the economy improves, we will be growing again. How will we grow though? If we don’t face the facts, we’ll just get more sprawl while downtown stays exactly the same, down to its wide selection of weedy, cracked parking lots.

  2. I looked at the survey, I agree with council it looks like a waste of $15,000. These statistics are based on a total of 402 completed surveys.

    “ordinary residents’ concerns about growth get about as much attention as medieval serfs begging their overlords for consideration”

    I am not sure how you define ordinary citizens, but I suspect it is defined in your world as people who think like you do ie “Don’t move hear”

    I think that “ordinary citizens” in Asheville probably fit more in the middle. I think most are against bad development and for smart growth.

    “How will we grow though? If we don’t face the facts, we’ll just get more sprawl while downtown stays exactly the same, down to its wide selection of weedy, cracked parking lots.” HH

    right on HH we should not have a single surface parking lot downtown. It should be Building or Park.

  3. hauntedheadnc

    Precisely, JMAC. Surface parking is a grotesque waste of downtown space. It should be parkland or there should be buildings on it. Even parking decks — provided of course that they are either screened with housing and retail, or are at the very least architecturally interesting.

    Good growth is not difficult to envision or achieve once you open your eyes. Asheville is open-minded and that is one of the reasons I love it so, but when it comes to growth it has yet to learn that open minds, like open windows, need screens to keep the bugs out.

  4. AvlResident

    Is this not so veiled attack on Jack Cecil, which seems to center mostly on his ancestry, warranted? Has Mr. Cecil been a poor steward of the land his family owns and is now developing? Or of land he has purchased for development? Why are Mr. Cecil’s views called “jargon” and thus not sincere? Can the writer give some evidence?

  5. hauntedheadnc

    I don’t hold Jack Cecil blameless. As head of Biltmore Farms, he seems determined to develop every last acre he owns, and the vast majority of what he has built thus far has been suburban garbage. Call him out on that, fine.

    I will say though that Biltmore Park, which is also attacked in this article, is quite a sight better than the status quo. If we’re going to let Asheville’s suburbs grow like kudzu — and we are, since we’re driving all the growth out of the city — then Biltmore Park is the way to grow. It’s better in any case than The Cliffs at Some Place Name Jim Anthony Pulled Out of His Rear. It’s better than any single-use sprawling subdivision, actually.

    However, filling those empty lots and parking lots downtown and inside the city would be better. However again, as any good Ashevillian will tell you, to allow the city to grow in an urban fashion is to invite the very torments of hell itself upon us. Especially if that growth involves a building more than two stories high.

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