Now we know another reason downtown Asheville is being blighted by so many of the same generic buildings that make most other urban business districts so drab and depersonalized that their cities’ residents flee them to visit or move here.
It isn’t just that our out-of-touch Planning and Zoning Commission is chaired by a commercial developer, Jeremy Goldstein, who’s claimed no downtown building is out of scale and whose distorted interpretation of the Unified Development Ordinance leads him to announce before every review of a proposed downtown development that P&Z is required to approve it.
But also among its members is an architect, Laura Berner Hudson, who insists we need more, not fewer, skyscrapers designed like the hated BB&T building, and who wants to gut the hard-won historic-fabric recommendations in our city’s Downtown Design Guidelines [“Faking It: Why Asheville Needs New Design Guidelines,” Feb. 17, Xpress].
You might think that the only other fans of “modernist” architecture’s relentlessly boxy outlines, rectilinear window grids and featureless surfaces as exemplified by the BB&T, the Indigo, et al., would be art-school professors and the occasional bar-stool contrarian. But when I served on the Downtown Master Plan committee that hashed out the details of our design guidelines — whose overall, consensus-agreed intent is to ensure our rare gem of a historic downtown retains its walkable, intimate, human-scaled quality — I learned from talking to experienced architects that it’s actually big developers who are the main drivers of this style that fetishizes 20th-century values of impersonal mass production.
Modernism, you see, is cheap. You can ship your components prefabricated from China, throw them up fast with machines and low-skilled labor, then move on to the next instant building. No need to cut into developer profit margins by giving skilled local craftspeople jobs like the 1920s creators of Asheville’s “heavy, load-bearing masonry buildings,” which Hudson so disdains — those bricklayers and stonemasons with their pesky unions, sculptors and artists who take weeks to carve cornices and inlay mosaics, visionary architects who diminish your rentable square footage by insisting on curves instead of cubes.
We could ensure the socially and environmentally sustainable mix of imaginatively postmodern and respectfully retro new building designs most Ashevilleans say they want — but only if we require it, by making compliance with our current Downtown Design Guidelines mandatory instead of voluntary. Otherwise, our underregulated market will continue to dictate an endless assembly line of could-be-anywhere modernist boxes for disregardful P&Z commissioners to rubber-stamp.
– Steve Rasmussen