Ripping the heart out of Asheville

Last week, on a typical Mr. Rogers morning in Asheville, Frank Adams and I strolled over to City/County Plaza to take a look at the 0.43 acres of public property approved for sale to the Grove Park Inn by our illustrious City Council.

Arriving at the northwest corner of Market and College streets, we immediately noticed a strange odor. Our first thought was that it might be the smell of money; upon nasal reflection, however, we realized it was natural gas escaping from a vent pipe just under the trees. The pipe looks like a grill perched on top of a pole with an emergency 800 number posted on it. Buried underneath the pipe are a gas vault and a number of gas lines — which, according to PSNC Energy, will cost about $40,000 to cut off and move if the land is developed. This does not include the cost of rebuilding sewers and re-routing electric lines and traffic (due to the loss of College Street between Market and Spruce).

Because the property is so small, we were unsure of our bearings, so we sauntered over to City Hall, went up to Planning and Development, and requested a “footprint” for the parcel.

Down on the street again, we noted the hustle and bustle of pedestrians walking about, talking on cell phones, enjoying the morning, and discussing the day’s events.

“What a pleasant place to be,” I remarked.

“A city like none other,” Frank replied.

Back at College and Market, I pondered the fact that this property is about half the size of my 0.9 acres in Kenilworth — and much smaller than the area I garden. What’s more, we both noted, if a 14-story tower were erected on that property, it would cut off the view of the mountains from the Vance Monument.

“Just think,” I observed, “the condo owners will see the Renaissance Hotel parking lot to the north, the County Courthouse to the east, the Fire Department to the south, and the I.M. Pei building to the west. Some view!”

“In fact,” added Frank, “the building takes a bite out of the plaza that can never be undone.”

“Apparently,” said I, “most of the folks who developed this plan — lawyers, officials and such– have absolutely no aesthetic sense. If they did, the idea would never have been taken seriously.”

And since many of the people pushing this project appear to be focused on economics (which is pretty funny, considering that some of those same folks recently voted to stop requiring inspections of rental property, thus eliminating a small but steady source of income for inspectors), we wondered how many jobs would actually be added to the local economy once the construction was done. And how many of those positions would go to poorly paid maintenance workers, who generally don’t pay a whole lot in property taxes?

Speaking of tax revenues — those gilt-edged dreams of money flowing into city coffers — let’s just say I have my doubts. Here’s what I see as a more likely scenario:

About halfway through the construction phase (say, year two of The Great Disruption), the Grove Park Inn approaches City Council, saying: “We’ve tried to build the best of the best, and it’s way over budget — that’s the price of excellence. So we need a tax rebate for a decade in order to finish up.”

“Done,” decrees Council.

Thinking about land values, Frank and I decided that $702,000 seems just a tad too low for a building site that will not only destroy the plaza but block it off until the whole grand area crumbles into rubble.

As for Asheville’s economy, it seems to me it’s already doing better than those of most American cities.

Apparently, USA Today agrees. Their Oct. 5 edition included a lavish spread on Asheville complete with color photos, interviews with local entrepreneurs, high praise for the city’s music scene — not to mention the news that the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is one of the 10 best homes to visit in America.

And as if in response to those folks who seem to think that big-ticket development is the only way to boost the local economy, reporter Gene Sloan wrote:

“There’s no doubt the city, which has relied on tourism to help fill its coffers for more than a century, has benefited greatly from America’s shifting travel preferences in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Even as tourist business plunged at major destinations such as Orlando, tourism revenue in Asheville surged nearly 14 percent in the year after the attacks as vacationers seeking safe, drivable and not-too-expensive destinations re-discovered the city. Still, a boom was under way even before the attacks.”

After Frank left, I stood there for a while, asking myself where the Grove Park Inn was during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when I recall it represented itself as the great place to stay that wasn’t downtown?

Sloan, meanwhile, also noted tellingly that “Asheville’s mostly mom-and-pop boutiques, restaurants and bars are clustered around Pritchard Park and Pack Square. Some see it as the key to its attractiveness. So far the cookie-cutter chain stores and hotels have stayed away.”

In other words, thanks to the Mark Rosensteins (of The Market Place — the first restaurant we ate in upon our initial visit to Asheville back in 1986), the Emoeke B’Raczes (of Malaprop’s), the John Crams (of Blue Spiral I, New Morning Gallery and the Fine Arts Theatre), the Susan Rodericks (of Quality Forward), the Gordons (of The Captain’s Bookshelf), the founders of the original Be Here Now, and a host of other urban trailblazers, Asheville grew and will continue to — as long as colossal blunders like the proposed high-rise aren’t pursued.

But wait — there’s more!

Sometime in 2000, some 10 other citizens and I sat in on a design charette addressing the redevelopment of Pack Square and City/County Plaza. At the end of our discussions, the group made the following recommendations:

1) Keep the green spaces open.

2) Make the area more pedestrian-friendly (and these days, that would include getting rid of the countdown traffic light on Biltmore, adjacent to Pack Place).

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