Let’s make the city’s pop-up parks permanent

Bill Branyon
Bill Branyon


Recently I was traipsing through the spring grass of the temporary, pop-up park that is the Killian-family-owned property on Charlotte Street. What a sumptuous permanent park it would be!

According to WLOS, this 6-acre green space is the result of developers demolishing “about one dozen” dilapidated houses. The Killians’ original plan was to replace them with “180 residential units and 50,000 square feet of commercial space” according to a 2022 article in the Asheville Citizen Times. Now, however, perhaps because of the impressive protests of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, they’ve changed their goal to building only 19 upscale townhouses. Or was it because building costs and interest rates are so high?

Regardless, they haven’t begun building anything yet. That fact, coupled with the information that, according to another Citizen Times article, Asheville City Council is considering a $75 million bond referendum for this November (and a second $75 million bond referendum for 2028), means there’s a theoretical chance of making the area a permanent park. Since the bond package’s purposes include an allocation for parks and recreation, Council could assert eminent domain, and then the bond could easily cover what the property is worth. Call it the Preservation Society Protest Park.

And what about that de facto, pop-up park that is the ghost of Fuddruckers? The city could buy it for its roughly $3.6 million valuation as well. We could crassly call it Cow Carcass Park after that actual side of beef Fuddruckers used to display there, but thanks to our downtown library’s Special Collections, I discovered that Thomas Wolfe’s mother and uncle had houses there. Yep, that’s Julia Wolfe, made famous by Thomas in his book Look Homeward, Angel for her extreme acquisitiveness, but also for her probably deeply affordable Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse, whose current address is just off Woodfin Street.

In her entrepreneurial zeal, she is rivaled by the land’s current developer, Tyler Kassinger of Kassinger Development Co., who plans to shoehorn 186 living units and 4,500 to 5,000 square feet of retail into the lot, according to a March story John Boyle wrote for Asheville Watchdog. So name the proposed permanent park Julia Wolfe of Woodfin Park instead and let those displaced from their Killian property apartments be coldly comforted by her son’s most famous quote, “You can’t go home again.”

There’s another Wolfe quote about the 1920s building boom in Asheville that might be even more appropriate today: “A spirit of drunken waste and wild destructiveness was everywhere apparent: the fairest places in town were mutilated at a cost of millions of dollars.”

Maximized profit meets eminent domain

But wait! I can almost hear the groans from pragmatic Ashevilleans expressing that we must have more affordable housing and that this involves cramming infill development into as many urban green spaces as possible. Another of their concerns is that the desperate unhoused will dominate both parks, making them uninhabitable for everyone else. Let’s examine these beliefs by taking a tour of other pop-up parks around Asheville.

Of course, the most famous pop-up park in Asheville is the downtown, concrete Pit of Despair, now more than 10-years-of-despair old. In 2020, City Council unanimously approved a plan to build a $13.2 million park at the site across from Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, but that got shelved by the pandemic. Unshelve it now!

Like the Pit, many of Asheville’s pop-up parks are the result of activists fighting developers to a standstill and City Council realizing that supporting either side is too big a political price to pay. But some other such neglected properties are due to the Urban Centers Initiative, Council’s innovative vision of building a more walkable city. It involves requiring that, in certain areas, housing units be included anytime a property owner plans to replace a large commercial development, such as a big-box store, with some other development.

According to a Citizen Times article, five companies, all owned by The Necessity Retail REIT Inc., or Ingles Markets Inc., are suing the City of Asheville over this initiative. On Merrimon Avenue, this zoning initiative covers the asphalt, big-box pop-up park of the former Stein Mart property (Stein Park?). Ingles alleges that the city’s UCI is “essentially forcing the landowners to break federal law by not providing the maximum possible profit to stakeholders,” according to the Citizen Times.

In that allegation lies the heartless heart of the matter. Asheville’s green space defenders are fighting an American economic system that has made it illegal for publicly traded corporations like Ingles to seriously consider factors other than maximized profits — and other businesses have followed that ideal. With the city bond proposal and some rigorous assertion of eminent domain, we could fight back against this myopic system and turn all these properties into permanent, beautiful parks — or some other development with big green spaces and little crowding.

Keep holy our highest hopes

Much of America has been developed with this maximized profit mandate. One of the few cities that has challenged it is Savannah, Ga. There, in 1733, according to the book Oglethorpe in Perspective, founder James Edward Oglethorpe banned slavery and rum, gave freed indentured servants free land and established 1-acre parks in every neighborhood to prevent the scourges of urban crowding. Thus, Savannah now has 22 downtown parks. Asheville could strive for something similar.

But first, we need to explode the developer propaganda that urban infill will prevent rural sprawl by taking a quick drive around many of Asheville’s lower- and middle-income neighborhoods and rural Buncombe County. You’ll find that many of these in-town areas have become greenless jigsaw puzzles of chaotic crowdedness, while rural forests and green spaces have been displaced by giant housing, apartment and commercial complexes that gobble green spaces like some environment-crunching monster. And yet, according to a February Blue Ridge Public Radio story, the estimated cost for a one-bedroom apartment has increased nearly 90% since 2019. And homelessness is still rampant!

Virtually boundless private development has not lowered housing costs, preserved surrounding county green spaces or solved our housing crises. I believe occupancy tax money, bond issues, federal and state housing money, community-based housing efforts and other sources of revenue and effort can — without trashing our environment or crowding our neighborhoods.

Keep holy our highest hopes! A first step is to crusade for, and then vote for, the November bond initiative. The second step is to lobby City Council to use the bond money to assert eminent domain and preserve as many of the still extant, brave little Asheville neighborhood green spaces as possible. That might make humane ol’ Oglethorpe and genius Tommy Wolfe proud.

Bill Branyon is a freelance historian whose Thomas Wolfe-like book effort is titled Asheville NC, Circa 2000 AD. It contains over a hundred, thinly disguised Ashevilleans.



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2 thoughts on “Let’s make the city’s pop-up parks permanent

  1. luther blissett

    Isn’t the bare lot opposite City Bakery on Charlotte also owned by Ingles? There’s truth to the joke about it being a property speculator with a sideline in groceries.

    But I can’t get behind the initial idea. Such small parks would essentially “belong” by proximity to the (usually affluent) neighborhoods that successfully lobbied to prevent infill development. If you NIMBY hard enough, you get a free park? Talk about perverse incentives, given how the right to NIMBY is distributed so unequally in this town. If Charlotte Streeters really want parks in those spaces then they can all chip in to buy those lots and donate them to the city.

  2. Batman

    Don’t reward the NIMBYs that kept us from getting a mixed use development. Don’t feed the trolls with an upscale park.

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