Asheville residents are apparently adding height to the list of divisive issues we can fight about. Certainly we all have a right to our opinion on the best way for this city to grow. But one way or another, it will grow.
Where each of us now lives was once virgin forest. Most of us choose to live here because we recognize what a wonderful place it is. But we’re not alone: The most e-mailed article of any kind on The New York Times Web site recently was about the many splendors of Asheville. This month’s Florida Trend magazine has a feature on all the Floridians who’ve moved here or want to. Hurricane warnings are up for the entire Southeast coast, and the Southwest is running out of water.
So the question isn’t whether or not we’ll grow, but where we should put all these new people. And unfortunately, the choice is pretty stark: We either allow smart growth at the center, where density makes sense and local businesses flourish, or we add even more suburban sprawl.
The current dispute about The Ellington conveniently encapsulates much of the sprawl-vs.-density debate. When Public Interest Projects started working on revitalizing downtown 17 years ago, much of it was still boarded up; we’ve renovated more historic buildings, developed more middle-class housing, and brought in more small businesses than anyone else I’m aware of. We also provided the land for The Ellington.
When the Grove Park Inn approached us about selling our property, we asked them to help us create a positive model for future large projects. They generously agreed to: make it a green building; make a significant contribution to affordable housing; eschew chain stores; make it beautiful; and, however tall, make it pedestrian-scale at the sidewalk. And though The Ellington seems to be the issue of the moment, the arguments for and against it have already been recycled a number of times and will be again as our city continues to grow. Here they are, with my responses:
• “It doesn’t fit into our historic downtown. It doesn’t represent the essential Asheville.” My essential Asheville is a vital, dynamic city that welcomes all kinds of people who want to add their energy to the mix. My essential Asheville honors its history, but it’s not a museum or a quaint shopping enclave for the wealthy. Much of our claim to fame is the eclectic, artistic, urban energy that was drawn here in the early 20th century. Early on, that translated into taller buildings rising out of blocks of shorter ones. The Jackson Building became the first skyscraper in the state west of Charlotte when it was erected in 1924. That year, we had two of the six tallest buildings in the state. By 1929, we had six of the 25 tallest buildings in the state—each rising above its shorter neighbors. Today Asheville, the state’s sixth-largest metro area, has no buildings in the top 25. It just doesn’t seem that extreme to grow six stories taller in close to a century.
• “It’s just too big for that block. It’s too tall. It’s out of scale.” What does that mean? Compared to what? One of the Downtown Commission’s primary focuses is safeguarding downtown’s vitality and wonderful pedestrian experience by considering how buildings relate to the sidewalk and surrounding structures. We encourage developers to provide pedestrian-friendly spaces at sidewalk level and to step buildings back as they go up, to soften the impact of different-sized structures while allowing light and views of the sky to reach the sidewalk. Though far from perfect, this process has resulted in 60 N. Lexington adding green space next to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the new Hotel Indigo adding a primary street entrance on Haywood, and The Ellington stepping back all three façades instead of just plunking down a somewhat shorter but much blockier building on Biltmore. Unlike the blocky, 15-story building the city recently approved on Coxe Avenue in an area of mostly one-story structures, The Ellington will sit within 200 yards of three other tall buildings: the BB&T, the Jackson Building and 12 S. Lexington.
• “It’s like a vertical gated community for the wealthy. It causes gentrification.” The first point is a little silly: Every residential building has a door that locks. The Ellington’s residents are no more obliged to open their building to the public than people living in the Vanderbilt Apartments, The Battery Park Apartments, The Griffin or your house. And while gentrification is a serious issue, limiting density is the surest path to it. As long as downtown space is in short supply and high demand, rents and prices will climb, and no one but the wealthy will be able to live there. Look at Charleston and Savannah. Our downtown remains by far the most economically mixed part of this community, with poor, wealthy and middle-class people living next door to one another. Saying someone should build affordable housing downtown without providing a source of funds creates no housing. The Ellington’s contractual agreement to donate $1.5 million to $2 million to support work-force housing downtown was intended as one model for dealing with the problem. That amount is roughly double the city and county’s combined annual contribution to affordable housing for the entire area.
• “It will be the tallest building in town.” The BB&T Building, with its adjacent 125,000 square foot parking deck, is currently downtown’s tallest, but it wasn’t necessarily meant to be an icon for the ages—and it will remain the most massive structure with the greatest pedestrian impact.
Density generates governmental efficiencies while increasing the tax base. On its half-acre parcel, The Ellington will generate more local property taxes than the 73-acre Asheville Mall, and more than the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Swannanoa River Road, the entire 2,400-acre Biltmore Estate and the Southridge Shopping Center near the airport COMBINED—without all the traffic that requires 200 acres of parking. Used to pay the debt service on tax-free government bonds, the $1 million-plus in local property taxes The Ellington will produce could generate enough money to enable City Council to fix the Civic Center or provide a $30 million fund we could use to actually make a dent in our affordable-housing problem.
Small downtown businesses need a regular influx of customers. The Ellington and the GPI’s shuttle will bring a steady stream of visitors with disposable incomes downtown. And they’ll come to enjoy Asheville, not to shop for the lowest prices at the same chains they can drive to back home.
Even if you’re still persuaded by the “too big/too tall/too gentrifying” arguments, you’re left with that same stark choice between density and more sprawl. It’s certainly OK to oppose what you don’t believe in, but don’t we all also have a responsibility to honestly consider the broader effects of too narrow a focus? Do we want to be a quaint little tourist town for the rich? Or do we want to be a real city, growing smart and providing jobs and homes for anyone who wants to contribute, wealthy or not?
Are we, as a community, serious about smart growth, affordable housing, the environment, global warming and protecting local businesses? Or is all our talk so much hot air pouring out of our tailpipes as we drive to the new gated subdivisions we’ve caused to be built out in the county, or to the acres and acres of parking at our next new big-box shopping center?
If I’ve offended anyone, please understand that 17 years of sometimes obsessive immersion in downtown revitalization has made me passionate about our progress and protective of our potential to be a model for urban livability.
[J. Patrick Whalen chairs the Downtown Commission and is president of Public Interest Projects.]