BY NAN K. CHASE
Tick, tick, tick.
The clock is counting down toward the city of Asheville’s self-imposed deadline, adopted in 2018, to have all city operations — including municipal buildings — powered by renewable energy by the end of 2030. And the city’s recent declaration of a climate emergency adds further urgency to the situation. Can we agree that Asheville needs a new City Building before then?
I’m the first to admit that my heart skips a beat every time I catch sight of Douglas Ellington’s bold creation (aka City Hall). It’s beautiful, unique — and it represents the city’s Roaring ’20s economy (1920s, that is).
But while the iconic building is an instantly recognizable symbol of Asheville, a look at the facts reveals it as a dinosaur when it comes to technology and use of space. Its heating system, modernized last year at a cost of nearly $800,000, runs on natural gas, which doesn’t count as renewable. “We have not assessed the cost of conversion to electric,” says Walter Ear, the city’s capital projects building construction program manager.
When the historic structure was dedicated in 1928, its terra cotta tiles were touted as providing “a watertight, practical and enduring roof.” But time took its toll: In 2015, the city spent $3.8 million to replace portions of the vintage roofing and drainage systems that were “beyond repair,” according to a certificate of appropriateness for rehabilitation; the lengthy process included tuck-pointing all masonry joints.
Is it any wonder that form failed to follow function? Ellington designed the building in 24 hours or less, according to a nomination form for its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and only minor changes were made before construction began. The floor plan, the nomination states, was “typical of many office buildings of the 1920s. Rectangular offices occur at the perimeter of each floor. Most of the remaining central space is filled by a large service core which contains public elevators and an enclosed maintenance stairway.”
The original three elevators, which have open gratings and require city-paid operators, are scheduled to be replaced over the next two years, according to Ear. The cost is unknown, since the design work isn’t due to be finalized till this fall. And the building’s magnificent front doors have been rejiggered with a glassed-in antechamber whose wind tunnel aerodynamics merit a warning sign.
According to Ear, the building contains over 95,500 square feet of space. But only about 60,000 square feet of that is actual office or meeting space (plus the room allocated for security screening). What was described as a “monumental” Council chamber in 1928 is inadequate now; large public hearings are often held elsewhere or spill over into other rooms.
Meanwhile, is it even worth talking about retrofitting this fossil with up-to-date communications technology and renewable energy infrastructure? According to the recently posted 126-page final report laying out pathways for Asheville’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy, the city won’t be able to reach its goal in time without purchasing renewable energy credits as substitutes for direct renewable power generation, but public input rated that option the lowest of various choices. Relying solely on solar panels for municipal buildings won’t work: Asheville would need “960 rooftop solar systems or 73 acres of land” for power generation, and according to Ear, the City Building is a poor candidate for rooftop solar.
A fresh point of view
So what’s the city to do? What other cities and counties do all the time: build new facilities and either repurpose existing structures, sell them or tear them down.
Asheville’s previous city hall lasted all of 34 years before being razed. Kannapolis, N.C., population 50,000, built a 106,000-square-foot city hall in 2015 for $28 million; Concord, population 92,000, opened a new $17 million city hall in 2016.
Booming, high-tech Raleigh has become a leader in energy efficiency, requiring new municipal buildings over 10,000 square feet to meet at least LEED Silver standards and to maximize sustainability concerns when renovating existing structures. The city has also taken steps to incorporate geothermal and solar power, occupancy sensors and LED lighting into municipal buildings.
Farther afield, Greensburg, Kan., a dying farm town that was blown off the map by a tornado in 2007, has a new lease on life. The entire town is being rebuilt as a model green city powered by wind, solar and sensible daylighting design. The new town hall is breathtaking. Columbus, Ind., internationally known for its architectural excellence, built a stunning new city hall back in 1981; the original 1895 civic building, listed on the National Register in 1979, was renovated in 1986 and later converted into a mix of loft apartments and offices.
Asheville could do something similar, using cutting-edge materials such as superinsulation and solar-generating glass sheathing, concrete and brick. By all means keep Ellington’s tower intact, but either sell it or lease it. As long as it’s not part of “municipal operations,” the city can declare victory and move on.
Symbolism matters, too. The City Building went up at the end of Asheville’s horse-and-buggy era: Antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet, women had only recently won the vote, and Jim Crow reigned. At the building’s dedication ceremony, the musical selections included “Dixie,” and Confederate President Jefferson Davis got a shoutout. Does that really represent today’s Asheville?
Ellington himself praised “the broad outlook of the officials who had the project in charge” for allowing him “to entertain a fresh point of view.” And 92 years later, Asheville should once again look to the future with a fresh point of view, instead of remaining anchored to its past. After all, innovation is renewable energy.
Nan K. Chase is the author of Lost Restaurants of Asheville and Asheville: A History. She previously served on the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County.