It’s time to replace Asheville’s City Hall

Nan Chase

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.

Energy-inefficient

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.

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About Nan Chase
Nan Chase is an author and freelance writer.

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15 thoughts on “It’s time to replace Asheville’s City Hall

  1. bsummers

    I’m assuming we all know that tearing down Asheville City Hall is not an option (aside from Tim Moffitt, that is).

    So whoever takes over the old building, they’ll spend the money to make it energy-efficient? I’m doubting it. IMO, the City is likely the only entity that will maintain the building and gradually make it more efficient. Building a whole new City Hall would just create a white elephant for someone else to deal with.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    yep, blow it up and build a new HUGE skyscraper that is totally amazing…because this one is totally functionally obsolete…tiny council chamber is embarrassing…right?

  3. D Moore

    And the courthouse, and the schools, and the libraries, and……. Let’s just level the city and call it a day.

  4. Vince Barco

    Could be Asheville’s version of the Green New Deal. Plus Infrastructure Week!

  5. Bright

    This suggestion is for the city that has no money??? Yes, this suggestion is for the city that has no money. Wasted words.

  6. Curious

    ” . . .By all means keep Ellington’s tower intact, but either sell it or lease it . . ”
    Ms. Chase’s thoughtful and thought-provoking article would be helped by having more than just the one sentence suggestion for what to do with the Ellington landmark. She has clearly researched this issue. I’m curious if she, or perhaps the folks at the Asheville Design Center, could offer some practical ideas of what to do with the Ellington building, other than “sell” or “lease.” NFB’s notion of a a hotel was apparently facetious, but isn’t that what has happened to the Flat Iron Building? Could Ms. Chase speak to local architects and get their suggestions? Good article, but it didn’t go far enough.

    • Nan Chase

      Thanks for those comments. Yes, By all means throw open the “what to do with it” question to the community. Readers might to take a look online to see the range of recent projects in municipal architecture.

        • Nan Chase

          One challenge is that the inside space is chopped into small rooms. I could see a bar or lounge on an upper floor. The rest might lend itself to medical suites or artist work spaces.

  7. Jerry Hinz, CE

    The writer expresses the amounts of money being spent the last few years to bring this building to a better standard..
    Maybe if it was never improved her case would be a bit stronger. I was a confused: The article: ”
    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,”
    Any time you convert from one energy to another there is loss of energy — so the Duke energy plant – run on Natural Gas-
    loses energy in converting that gas to electricity. Duke, of course, wants to make a profit on the production of the electricity.
    Then , the line loss can be up to 30% – as the electricity travels on wires
    to where it will be used. Those touting electricity as efficient sometime think only of the end use..and like to say it is 100% efficient
    and do not consider the losses. Natural gas for heating in a newer furnace at a high SEER – probably above 14.5 and with natural gas
    is a good choice for many years. The building is exceptionally beautiful – an attraction to Asheville. It is special and if the city needs more room-
    they certainly can build – off site and still be very functional. The building should stay — for a very long time.

  8. Stan Hawkins

    Perhaps your article serves to lift the spirits of Asheville citizens and surrounding interested parties. In a time of juggling many issues confronting the population of those who occasionally enjoy Asheville, many would welcome lifted spirits. If this is your purpose, my kudos to your efforts – although honestly out of touch. Perhaps leaving out the dig about “symbolism” may garner you greater merit. Thats just me though.

    The reality is the proposal is not proven to be realistic on many levels. Currently the city and county are suffering from a significant shortfall in revenue. See Mt Xpress articles –

    https://mountainx.com/news/asheville-wrestles-with-grim-covid-19-budget-projections/

    https://mountainx.com/news/covid-19-recession-squeezes-buncombe-budget/

    Just a cursory review of WLOS stories about the suffering currently experienced by the citizens, small businesses, employees out of work, along with comments from our City / County political leaders – suggest that a deep recession may ensue. A city and county with so much dependence on tourism, travel, and the tax revenues created by the same – can take some time to recover from our current hardships. With recent declines in the Municipal Bond markets, declining state revenues, and local government shortfalls all may prove difficult for maintaining municipal credit ratings which effect borrowing costs to the taxpayers.

    Your words: “Can we agree that Asheville needs a new City Building before then?” The answer should be an emphatic NO. The political will, the economic means, the priority of the suffering citizens, and the raised eyebrows at even the suggestion will undoubtedly tell the story as to why. There is much we don’t know about what we are facing locally.

    Thanks.

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