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.