BY LAURA BERNER HUDSON
Drive through North Asheville these days and you can’t miss the bright red yard signs urging passersby to “Save Charlotte Street” or vaguely saying, “This is a terrible idea.” Upon closer inspection, you see that the signs are sponsored by the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, which is leading the charge against a proposed development at the northeast corner of Charlotte and Chestnut streets.
Frantically waving its red-feather logo across Grove Park lawns, the Preservation Society is sounding the alarm: Our city’s very identity is changing as developers offer a “new vision” of Asheville.
Perhaps they’re right. Asheville is continuing to grow, with the 2020 Bowen Report projecting 3,254 additional households in the city by 2024. This will put measurable pressure on the existing housing stock and drive increased urbanization, requiring sociocultural changes if we’re to accommodate our new neighbors.
Asheville is changing, and since affordable housing is already in short supply, every neighborhood has a responsibility to accept its share of new, denser residential projects, despite the inevitable protests by vocal citizen groups.
Progress vs. preservation
Much of the new multifamily housing built here in recent years has been blandly suburban and located on the city’s periphery, especially in South Asheville, along Brevard Road or clustered near the interstate exits in Weaverville. With limited access to public transportation, this decentralized development makes households increasingly car-dependent, exacerbating traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions amid a global climate crisis. Additionally, low-density expansion requires extending municipal services into rural areas, destroying natural habitat rather than upgrading the city’s current infrastructure.
The academically accepted counterpoint to this type of urban sprawl is building more units per acre along established transportation corridors close to the urban core. Private developers are essential to increasing the housing supply, because they have the resources to build close to downtown, where land costs are higher. Urban density actually reduces traffic congestion by promoting walkability; it also creates the critical mass needed to support better transit options. This lowers carbon emissions and fosters the face-to-face social interaction and engagement that Jane Jacobs championed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. These positive planning goals build social capital and local resilience, reconnecting people with one another and with the place where they live.
The proposed 101 Charlotte St. development would occupy a prominent corner in the Chestnut Hill Historic District. A partnership between the Killian family and RCG, it envisions a series of mixed-use, three- to five-story buildings spread over 7 acres purchased by Dr. Killian in the 1980s. Located a half-mile from downtown, the site offers easy interstate access. The project promises about 180 new residential units (18 of which would be deeded affordable), roughly 45,000 square feet of office and retail space, structured parking for 400 cars, and rehabilitating 56 existing workforce housing units in the admittedly banal Asheville Arms Apartments.
Mindful of the neighborhood’s present character, the new building facades respectfully take their architectural cues from the adjacent older brick buildings, with just enough contemporary detailing to declare their 21st-century provenance. The expanded streetscape would provide pedestrian connectivity and opportunities for social interaction where an impassable 5-foot-high wall now sits.
The Charlotte Street Corridor Plan, written over 20 years ago, calls for mixed use, an improved pedestrian experience and medium- to high-density residential development. The current project proposes structures taller than the plan’s suggested two-story height limit in order to provide 35 units per acre while preserving 1.3 acres of open space in the form of pedestrian plazas.
In exchange for mixed-use, multifamily housing, activated streetscapes, ample parking and increased economic investment, however, 12 aging, single-family houses built at the turn of 20th century would be torn down.
So begins a battle between progress and preservation, where the need for increased urbanization collides with a historic district that sees this type of development as an “inappropriate” intrusion into an established neighborhood — or, worse, an existential threat to Asheville’s alleged “character.”
Blending old and new
Over the last 50 years, historic preservation has evolved from a special-interest group formed to protect specific, architecturally significant structures such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal into an entrenched cultural institution that seeks to influence all aspects of the built environment. Thanks to local preservation efforts, exceptional buildings in Asheville have been granted protected status, safeguarding their long-term cultural legacy: Douglas Ellington’s art deco City Hall, Charles Parker’s Grove Arcade and Richard Sharp Smith’s YMI, the heart of Asheville’s African American business district.
But today’s preservationists no longer focus on simply saving such treasures. Instead, they fight to protect entire districts whose mishmash of low-density development patterns reflects a world that no longer exists. More troubling, this inclination to preserve the past now extends to the design guidelines for new buildings, imposing an architectural hegemony of revanchist nostalgia, comfort and imitation to impose a static “character” on a place that, in reality, is continually evolving.
While not as ornate as the Victorian and Queen Anne confections in Montford’s historic district, the existing houses along Charlotte Street are well-proportioned and illustrative of Asheville’s early 20th century building boom. The Preservation Society advocates leveraging available tax credits to restore them, at least aesthetically. Federal rehabilitation standards provide guidance on how to renovate such structures while preserving their historical, cultural or architectural value, but those repairs are costly.
Inevitably, these houses would be sold or rented at a much higher rate than what current tenants pay. This is precisely how historic districts drive up the price of housing, often turning them into exclusive enclaves of the wealthy, educated and white. With so much of the Chestnut Hill district already protected (including the Von Ruck House, which was previously restored by the Killians), isn’t there room to weave contemporary ideas into the existing fabric, marbling the old and new into something that honors history while acknowledging the present?
A more inclusive vision
Cities must be allowed flexibility to adapt to broad economic changes, which may be incremental or abrupt. The oldest neighborhoods are typically located closest to the urban core, where equitable transit-oriented development is desperately needed. By arguing that large mixed-use projects destroy those neighborhoods’ character, preservation is often used as cover to stop development altogether. But limiting development hinders cities’ long-term success, which is why Portland and Minneapolis have completely abandoned low-density, single-family zoning.
Asheville’s leaders should not support policy that prioritizes the needs of the few who already “have theirs” at the expense of those who don’t. Allowing historic districts to protect their interests without regard for nonhomeowners and renters directly conflicts with an inclusive commitment to localism.
In economist Edward Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City, he reminds us, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. We must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”
Let’s consider a new vision of Asheville that balances preservation with progress to create a more inclusive and sustainable city, ensuring that we aren’t preserving the past at the expense of the future.
Asheville native Laura Berner Hudson spent 15 years on the West Coast before returning home in 2014. She’s an architect and the former chair of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated from the print version to reflect that the developers’ plans now call for tearing down a dozen houses as part of the project.