Let’s move from ‘Pit of Despair’ to Asheville’s ‘Red Brick District’

Allan Fedor Photo courtesy of Allan Fedor

BY ALLAN FEDOR 

Like statesmen and stateswomen, we need to take a long view of the proposals related to Asheville’s “Pit of Despair” — the city-owned lot across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence.

It is commendable that people want to help promote green spaces, but that is not always the most rational and reasonable approach. Life requires reflecting on the likely results of one’s actions and using those considerations to differentiate between “nice to have” things and those things that are necessary for the good of all. This column is directed to the politicians and city staff who deal with the city land across from the basilica and to those citizens who favor a new downtown park above all other considerations.

The running political controversy over what to do with the Pit of Despair has resulted in numerous letters to the editor, guest columns, petitions and the questionable results of a robocall poll. Should the “Pit” become a green space park with no revenue and continuing maintenance, or should it be transformed into some structure that brings tax revenue to the city?

To those purely in favor of a park, be careful what you ask for. The idea of a park across from the basilica is wonderful. However, there are very substantial downsides that are being completely overlooked in the dialogue. First, many commentators and petitioners probably do not even live in downtown Asheville. Second, there are issues with the travelers and “mopes” who frequent downtown Asheville that need to be rationally addressed and weighed against a “nice to have” — though not necessary — park. For the record, we do live downtown.

There is a significant underlying controversy over the rising number of travelers, panhandlers and “mopes” who are seen occupying Pritchard Park and the benches, overhangs and nooks and crannies throughout the downtown area. Many of these people are streetwise. They toss their belongings in and around the benches and the spaces that they occupy and, using their streetwise purported knowledge of the law, challenge the Asheville police and park rangers. In general, the downtown businesses do not like these people hanging out near their premises.

Recently, a group pulled knives on a busker and stole his cash. I also recently witnessed someone pushing a woman panhandler away because she had become overly aggressive. Unless the city clamps down, it is just a matter of time before some traveler or street person commits a heinous crime in broad daylight in front of a tourist with a smartphone camera. If a serious criminal act were to be instantly broadcast on social media, the result could be devastating to the revenue stream of our downtown shops, restaurants and businesses. Jobs would be lost.

The travelers and mopes are not necessarily the same people as the homeless. To differentiate, many travelers and mopes have cellphones because they can afford them. They charge them using the outdoor outlets available in the city (often near trees and benches and in Pritchard Park). By contrast, the homeless do not have cellphones because most of them cannot afford them. Therefore, this column addresses the problems created by the travelers and mopes and not the issues of the homeless.

We often pass by the Battery Park and Vanderbilt apartments and the basilica during our walks into Montford above Interstate 240. We almost always see people hanging around smoking and tossing their cigarette butts on the ground. The butt-tossers will most likely move across the street if a park is created.

A fantastic group of volunteers regularly cleans up Pritchard Park. They find lots of butts despite a city ordinance that precludes smoking in city parks. How many of the green-parks petitioners are going to regularly volunteer to pick up the butts and to regularly clean up a new Pit park?

Many Montford folks (who, incidentally, do not live downtown) displayed basilica park signs in their front yards during the election season, obviously in favor of a new green space for the Pit. Someone has probably already written down all the Montford addresses with the signs.

What will happen if someone who has already collected the Montford sign addresses also prints out the basilica park petition — complete with the petitioners’ names and addresses? What if he or she makes numerous copies and then passes them out to the travelers and mopes, inviting them to stay at the petitioners’ houses, in the petitioners’ yards and under the petitioners’ porches? Will the petitioners and Montford sign purveyors be there with open arms to welcome the new folks who will bring their tents, blankets, backpacks, food and trash? Will petitioners and Montford residents open their homes and bathrooms for public use? Will the well-intentioned, nondowntown residents welcome the travelers’ dogs? How will the petitioners react when the traveling dogs injure their neighborhood dogs or cats — or heaven forbid, their kids?

Think carefully. A new park in the Pit will exacerbate unwanted downtown activity by the travelers and mopes. If you are willing to tolerate the people who might occupy your yards, then by all means keep your names on the petition and keep your signs posted in Montford. If not, then seriously consider the other rational alternatives for the Pit of Despair – such as a business, apartment complex or hotel that will bring needed tax revenue to the city.

There are numerous green parks in the core of the city within less than a mile of the Pit: Montford Park, Montford Recreation Complex, Pritchard Park, Pack Square Park, Martin Luther King Jr. Park, the area around the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, Aston Park and the Reed Creek Greenway along Broadway. Just over a mile away are Mountainside Park, Murray Hill Park, Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, Choctaw Park, Herb Watts Park and Kenilworth Park.

Beautiful red brick buildings already surround the Pit of Despair, including the basilica and its rectory outbuilding, the Battery Park and Vanderbilt apartments, the adjacent Sister Cities building on Page Avenue and the 60 Haywood St. condo. The U.S. Cellular Center even has a partial brick façade.

How about the City Council and planners mandate that any new structure on the Pit must match the architectural beauty of these surrounding buildings, including that its façade be of red bricks, perhaps resurrected old red bricks? We can then call the area Asheville’s Downtown Red Brick District, a much more attractive name than the Pit of Despair.

Allan Fedor is a securities arbitration attorney who lives in downtown Asheville.

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28 thoughts on “Let’s move from ‘Pit of Despair’ to Asheville’s ‘Red Brick District’

  1. bsummers

    I kid you not, this is the most seriously f***ed up commentary I have ever seen in Mountain XPress. I am profoundly disappointed.

  2. NFB

    If this column is some sort of parody it is absolutely hilarious. If it is meant to be serious it is deeply disturbing.

    • The Real World

      bsummers and NFB — Granted I didn’t read the commentary on a granular level, otherwise I might know what you each meant. But, even so, would you please explain yourselves. Thanks….

      • bsummers

        I could make a laundry list, like for example the author trying to diminish the opinions of those who don’t live downtown, calling people “mopes”, etc. All that is bad enough.

        But suggesting that he (or some other vindictive actor) might publish the home addresses of people advocating for a park, in the hopes of sending the “mopes” that he disdains to go invade their neighborhoods?

        “…or heaven forbid, their kids?” This is way over the line.

        When did it become acceptable to be so casually mean and vindictive? And XPress – why would you publish this attempt at bullying people for expressing their views?

        • Lulz

          LOL, rich people like you can afford to pay higher taxes for it lulz. And this person has the balls to call it like it is. Probably because he’s tired of seeing bums urinating in his front yard lulz. This isn’t bullying. Being given the myriad of labels that the left likes to do for expressing one’s views in order to shut down speech is though LOL.

          There is no mandate for a park there. And to waste money on it and such things as a fountain in Grove Park while lying about the impact of tax changes to corporations like WalMart as a way to raise property taxes is the real horror story. And supported by a lame brain who got a DWI because he was too drunk and too stupid to realize riding around with a tag on his car is a huge sign that says pull me over.

          • The Real World

            “supported by a lame brain who got a DWI because he was too drunk and too stupid to realize riding around with a [temporary] tag on his car is a huge sign that says pull me over.”

            That was a really idiotic decision. Frankly, given this is a person making decisions for our city, I feel justified to inform that I was surprised to see this councilman (Bothwell) totally hammered at an afternoon party at the Aloft Hotel this summer. He could *sort-of* stand, walk and dance but it was completely apparent that he was utterly smashed at about 4PM.

            I truly thought to myself, upon witnessing this, ‘I hope he’s not driving.’

          • Lulz

            LOL, unsurprisingly no one in the local media reports these things lulz. That speaks to personal issues and a public figurehead who drinks excessively after being convicted of a DWI and the associated cost of having to pay for the counseling, doesn’t seem take things seriously, Nor does he comprehend that raising taxes to the point of forcing people out of their homes or deeper in debt is not a game lulz.

  3. chad

    the writer is unabashedly square, but the man is right.

    build a park there, it will become a bum habitat and a hang out spot for traveling crust punks with dogs on ropes (ie: mopes)

    no one crying about how great a park would be will ever actually spend time there, as it will be full of shady vagrants and the grass will be trod to bare dirt within a matter of months

    I guess on the upside, will be a great place to smoke weed and chug a 40oz before shows at the civic center.

    any public park built there will initially cost taxpayers $5million ++ to build… plus ongoing maintenance and loss of possible tax revenue from a business that could be put there.

    you people are aware that there are plenty of businesses that are not hotels who would like to purchase that property for its prime downtown location?

    I predict in a matter of weeks or months after the parks completion that the residents of the two apartment buildings that overlooks the site will be crying to the city to provide police presence at a cost of overtime to monitor this future bum habitat

    do you understand there is literally a park 2 blocks from this lot? are we going to have dueling drum circles on Haywood St?

    it’s called the central business district for a reason

    • henry

      Chad and the writer in the suit are right. Do we need to duplicate Pritchard Park? The die maybe cast with the election of 3 new city council members supporting a new Pit Park. Such a park will not be a benefit for downtown residents or anyone that lives in Asheville. Unfortunately, the Pit of Despair name will stick as those wandering in despair will claim it as their own. Some type of business that fits in would seem to be a no brainer.

    • bsummers

      will initially cost taxpayers $5million ++ to build

      No it won’t. The City estimate was $4 million (not 5), but that included the $2.6 million that the City already spent on the land, and was further inflated by including things that wouldn’t necessarily be paid for by a commercial developer – sidewalks, stormwater runoff, water lines, etc. And it ignores the potential to have a lot of the cost defrayed by public participation. Think of all the local businesses, non-profits, hotels, etc. who would love to have their names on a plaque showing that they helped build the thing.

      As for the fact that people you don’t like might wind up enjoying a park, you don’t not invest in your City’s future because of something petty like that. We’re talking about planning for an Asheville generations from now. If we just chunk another corporate glass-brick hotel on that extremely important piece of land, future generations will go, “Why on Earth did they think that striving to be a mini-Atlanta was a good thing?”

      • CWar

        The issues raised by the author and some of the commenters are not “petty.” I too live downtown and regularly volunteer to help keep Pritchard Park clean (please come by any Friday morning at around 8:45 if you’d like to pitch in). Many others donate money for flower boxes, landscaping, building and maintaining the waterfall, etc. The Asheville Dowtown Association (also private) has spent a great deal of time and money sponsoring regular events there, from the drum circle, to local musicians, etc. The point is, many who live and work downtown have a real vested interest in the parks and contribute a lot to their maintenance. Why then would many of these same people be skeptical or outright opposed to the new park proposal? Answer: Like the author, they have first hand, daily experience with the issues and potential problems.

        As recently as last year, there was a very ecumenical feel to Pritchard Park, and it was usually a pretty welcoming place for all. A number of resident homeless and poor used the park regularly and were also invested in taking care of it. However, the writer is accurate in the distinction he makes in observing that so called “travellers,” who have little or no vested interest in Asheville, have pretty much overwhelmed things. Many residents (regardless of economic status) no longer feel comfortable or even safe in the park. Volunteer crews have gone from picking up the odd candy wrapper, to more and more used condoms and drug paraphernalia. And for reasons I do not understand, the City has stopped enforcing its own ordinances which prohibit sleeping, camping, and other troubling behavior in the parks — assuming a “hands-off” posture toward enforcement.

        It is for these reasons that many (I believe “most”) downtown residents are opposed to a new, similar sized park, just a block away from Pritchard. Where yard signs promise a soothing and tranquil green space, the residents and businesses downtown, who might reasonably be thought to be the primary beneficiaries of such a park, know that the most likely outcome is far less ideal. So yes, for those of us for whom Pritchard does serve as something of a front yard, the question of whether supporters of the park would want travellers camping in their yards seems quite on point in that it cuts through what seems to be the overly idealized naiveté of many of its supporters.

        • NFB

          “It is for these reasons that many (I believe “most”) downtown residents are opposed to a new, similar sized park, just a block away from Pritchard. ”

          Then why have they been silent all this time? Why have they sat passively by while proponents of a park continue flood the letters to the editor of the ACT and MX insisting on a park and while they made it such an issue in the recent election that it overshadowed more compelling needs like affordable housing? Why have they done nothing to counter the claims made by part supporters that a majority — even the absurd statistic that 86% — of the people want a park?

        • The Real World

          @CWar – Very well articulated. And, indeed, the vantage point of someone who LIVES the reality of downtown is very relevant. I don’t, but am frequently there so I feel my view matters. However, not to the degree of those who experience it daily.

          You guys need to organize yourselves to help ensure that no matter what is placed on that property, it’s done effectively and intelligently. Particularly for the residents and businesses of downtown.

      • chad

        ok Barry, the ‘city estimate’ for the Pack Square/courthouse project was how much?? I think it came to around 25% of what actually ended up being spent there?!?!

        also you can scream ‘corporate glass. box hote’l all you want, but the truth is… no one opposed to the park is advocating for a hotel there.

        what SHOULD be there is a business that creates jobs and provides tax revenue for the city. it is THE CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICTS after all…

        I’d say you and the park pushers are the ones pressing is in the direction of ATL… how do you think it became a sprawling nightmare of strip malls and highways? white flight and ‘undesirables’ downtown pushed all development out into the burbs because land was cheap, zoning was lax, and planning was non existent.

        in this case, anti biz and anti tourist rhetoric like the park-pushers are spouting will lead to the same outcome for us… doubt me? take a look at long shoals, airport Ed, and Arden as the models for what will come of shutting down in-town development in Avl

  4. bsummers

    many (I believe “most”) downtown residents are opposed

    I’m suspect you know that many of the most ardent supporters of a park do, in fact, live nearby. PARC’s headhoncho Charlie Thomas lives next door, BTW. They get attacked for selfishly promoting a park there. Does the flipside of that same critique (NIMBYism?) apply to you & Mr. Fedor? You both chose to live downtown, in an urban environment. You can take the good with the bad, move to the suburbs, or work with the City govt. to address those concerns.

    With all due respect, however, your personal likes or dislikes should not take precedent over shaping the nature of the downtown for generations to come. IMHO, plopping another highrise there simply to keep the riff-raff out is hardly visionary thinking.

    • NFB

      I wonder if Mr. Fedor has a brother named Richard in Fort Lee, New Jersey?

      • bsummers

        I wonder if Mr. Fedor actually “lives” here. His law practice website lists two addresses in Florida, along with the one here in Asheville. And according to the NC BOE, he’s not registered to vote here, but does appear to still be registered down there. Hmmm.

        If a person were so concerned about issues like this in the town they “lived” in, one would think they would register to vote so as to exercise their preference for candidates who thought like they did.

    • CWar

      Since you bring up the name, and it is a matter of public record and media reporting:
      I assume you mean the same Charlie Thomas (we won’t get into the entire history of his rather inglorious “political career”) who owns a condo overlooking the proposed park? Who would benefit from an improved view? Whose property value would increase if a park were there? And who is the top financial contributor to the whole endeavor? Maybe he is the one who needs to be reminded he chose to live in an urban environment, and that as a downtown resident the City and its people do not owe him an unobstructed view from his condo. Does it really advance your argument to invoke him in the same paragraph in which you accuse others of selfishness and NIMBYism?

  5. Jason

    The man gave his perspective (likely as a nearby tenant). But this city’s economy depends heavily on tourism. Tourists love our downtown parks! They associate Pritch. Parks with drum circles, hippies, and hipsters. They’r here for the weirdness of it all….

    • Shlomo Shekelstein

      The tourists don’t have to put up with and clean up after the park mopes 24/7.

  6. Wow. Veiled threats in the form of a Letter to the Editor. Paraphrased: “Nice Montford you got there. Shame if something happened to it.” Does the letter writer also write screenplays for gangster films?

  7. FRED

    This would unlikely be a hot button issue if there weren’t 8 high rises currently being built in Asheville as we type…. Anyone who’s been here for a few years is besides themselves at how dense downtown Asheville is becoming; I appreciate tourism, but the money they generate is going straight to the top. I’ll support a park to stick it to the MAN!

    • The Real World

      I can’t speak for Savannah of the last decade or so, but in the dozen or so times I was there from around 1994 to 2004 the answer would have been, ‘no’ their park squares were not full of mopes.

      However, that is because there are VERY nice homes around those squares and I feel SURE that local ordinances about loitering, sleeping, camping, etc are actually enforced. Understandably, the homeowners would see to it. For reasons I don’t understand, our ordinances about such things don’t seem to be enforced.

      • ron ogle

        My Google Earth research shows that the downtown parks in Savannah have no homes around them.

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