Carpe diem, Asheville!

The stars must be in rare alignment, the cosmic harmonics in a once-in-a millennium convergence, because a pair of proposals has brought Asheville to the brink of making a whole new identity for itself. I’m talking about the separate plans to make the I-26 Connector eight lanes, and to tear down the Sayles Bleachery in order to develop that site with a massive retail compound — anchored by a Super Wal-Mart.

Many local citizens have complained that an eight-lane superhighway is totally out of scale for a small mountain city and that a super sprawlmart will increase traffic congestion, ruin the Swannanoa river front, destroy the quality of life in the adjacent neighborhoods, and contribute to the city’s sprawling patterns of development. All true perhaps. But I say that — rather than acting as nay-sayers, and trying to push back the forces of economic progress and automobility — we need to grab the future by the neck, wrestle it to the ground and make our own destiny.

Let’s put aside these feeble, half-hearted efforts to create more shopping and driving options for Asheville’s residents and visitors. Why not be bold and make our future one worth fighting for? Sure, it’s nice that the DOT could find time out from its ongoing work of paving over Raleigh and Charlotte to scrape together enough asphalt crumbs to patch together an eight-lane connector, but don’t we deserve better? And maybe Wal-Mart will tease us with a 220,000-square-foot supercenter, but are we sure that’s enough shopping space? How long will eight lanes or a quarter-million square feet of shopping space hold us? Five years? 10?

I say we stop pussy-footing around and build a real road — a road we can be proud of, a road for the future. I’m talking about a 64-lane connector. After all this is the only highway link between the growing megalopolises of Johnson City, Tenn., and Spartanburg, S.C. Do we want to risk letting motorists be delayed on their travels between these burgeoning financial and cultural centers? I don’t think so. They may be small cities now, but how long before they’re the Paris and Berlin of the South? With 64 lanes of asphalt in place, we should be ready to meet even DOT’s outsized traffic projections well into the next century.

But let’s not be satisfied with just a really wide road. Remember, we want to think big here. So, instead of a tiny little median planted with pretty wildflowers, let’s lobby for a 1,000-foot paved median with mile after mile of big-box retailers. And not the typical 75,000-square-foot big boxes, like they have in every other town. Nothing under a half-million square feet, with a minimum of 2,000 parking spaces for each warehouse shed, will do. I even have a name for this combination driving/shopping extravaganza: The I-26 Connector Bazaar.

Now I admit that, after my initial excitement at the pure boldness of this plan, I began to be troubled by some of the details. For instance: Where do you put a road that big? But then, almost immediately, the answer came to me: West Asheville. Sure, paving it over would provide an undeniable inconvenience to the residents, but think what they’d gain in mobility and shopping opportunities. And imagine this: If they traded their homes for RVs, they could choose to never leave the I-26 Connector Bazaar. The possibilities are truly breathtaking!

Sure, the timid among us will question the wisdom of a 64-lane superhighway. “Isn’t that just too much road?” some might ask, adding, “What will so much traffic do to our air quality?” But be strong, Asheville. Don’t be deterred by the objections of the meek and revanchist. Yes, 64 lanes of traffic will probably not help local air quality. But our air quality is already falling like a corpse dropped off a bridge, so we won’t really lose anything. We’ll get to the same place we were already going, but we’ll get there faster. What could be more forward-thinking than that?

And let’s face up to the brutal truth here. In the race to be the place with the most poisonous air, Asheville is falling behind other cities with more aggressive leadership. Sure, we reached the code-red (unhealthy) level in early June this year, a condition normally reserved for the dog days of August. But get this: On those same days, Charlotte was code purple. I have to admit, I didn’t even know there was a code purple. But, yep, after red, it’s purple, and then code black — which means the air reaches a state of maximum pollution, with a consistency something like liquefied tar on a sweltering summer day. You breathe in, and then the air has to be surgically removed. Makes code red seem almost salutary.

By now, some of you may be having doubts about my proposal. Are we sure we want code black? Isn’t there some other way? What will that do to the children? Legitimate concerns, perhaps — but the logic behind this plan is powerful.

What are Asheville’s two major industries? Tourism and health care. Let me repeat: Tourism and health care. Until now, these industries have had little to do with each other, each going about its business almost completely oblivious of the other. Most patients in the local hospitals already live here, and most tourists visit Asheville without ever stepping foot in one of our hospitals.

You know what we need? Synergy!

First, let’s deal with the tourists. Now, everyone knows that — if we keep building a big box here and a big box there, and connecting them with boring six-lane access roads — eventually the tourists are going to stop coming to Asheville. It will look just like the ugly and depressing places they live in. That would be bad.

But a 64-lane highway??!! With a 1,000-foot median crammed with humongous warehouse sheds selling the best of the American dream 24/7??!! And 10s of thousands of free parking spaces??!! C’mon. Wouldn’t you be at least a little curious to see what a 64-lane highway actually looks like? Wouldn’t you be willing to drive a couple hours to get a first-hand taste of the thrill of swerving at full speed across 27 lanes — cutting off dozens of hapless, less adrenaline-addled motorists. Of course you would. These 64-lane highways represent the future, represent progress undeterred by restraint and caution. You know you’d want to have a look. And where would you have to go? Asheville!! Because no other city — not Atlanta, not Charlotte, not Houston, not even L.A. — has had the audacity, the leadership (OK, the sheer visionary genius) to build a 64-lane highway. The I-26 Connector Bazaar would be the Grand Canyon of suburban sprawl, the Taj Mahal of American mobility and capitalism, the Versailles of 21st-century tourism.

OK, so you see how our tourist numbers would go through the roof. But how does that help the local health-care industry? Here’s where we ingeniously transform the negative aspects of our dismal air quality into a positive thing. With a new 64-lane highway, we’d be on the fast track to code black, day after smog-choked day. Can you see the silver lining to this particular toxic cloud? Is there any doubt that some of these tourists — maybe even most of them — would succumb to the foul soup of toxic chemicals that would be our air? And where would these poor, choking souls turn for treatment? To Asheville’s hospitals, of course. Think of the increase in patients. Think of the demographics, the doubling — even tripling — in the number of paying health-care customers: children, the elderly, asthmatics — heck, even a certain percentage of healthy young people — would end up in our emergency rooms, all thanks to our new 64-lane I-26 Connector/Bazaar.

Can’t you just smell the synergy? Draw the tourists in with the superhighway/shopping extravaganza, then check them in for the inevitable respiratory work. The Chamber of Commerce could close shop and call it a day: Asheville would reign as Boomtown, U.S.A.

Let’s all encourage our elected leaders to say NO to eight-lane highways and mere 220,000-square-foot supercenters. We want better. We deserve better. We demand economic development with real teeth.

[T. Bone lives in a bunker in Asheville, fully stocked with bottled oxygen and gas masks, ready for the future. He writes under the motto: res ipsa loquitur.]

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