Letter writer: Make downtown design guidelines mandatory

Graphic by Lori Deaton

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


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2 thoughts on “Letter writer: Make downtown design guidelines mandatory

  1. AntiStrawMan

    I had to go back and read the ‘Faking It’ article after seeing this letter of Steve’s. Nothing Steve accuses it of is actually in there. Nowhere does the article assert that we need more skyscrapers. It didn’t disparage masonry buildings or curvilinear designs. It makes zero anti-union or anti-craftsman statements. In logic, this is called a Straw Man Argument. Steve doesn’t refute the argument in ‘Faking It’. He merely tries to suggest that other arguments were made in it, and refutes those instead, but they weren’t.

    As for the new BB&T Building facade, all of Steve’s worst fears are manifest! I guarantee you there will be no stone carvings; there will be no mosaics; it will be generic; it will be cheaply made. That’s actually the point of the ‘Faking It’ article.

    This letter also shows that Steve doesn’t have a good handle on the basics of architecture. He doesn’t seem to realize that Postmodern architecture was actually a movement. Instead he seems to lump all post-Deco styles into the PoMo bin. More importantly, does he really think that Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid design buildings that require only low-skilled labor to erect? We can’t just dismiss an entire century of architecture!

    I also fear that what Steve is really advocating is authoritarianism. Architects are the true artists and craftspeople in this equation. Rather than let them spread their wings and innovate, Steve demands ‘mandatory… respectfully retro’ guidelines, but mandatory guidelines disrespect and oppress the creative people. I thought we had done away with such notions long ago.

    And who gets to decide what those guidelines are? I’m guessing it’s folks who agree with Steve, but some of us in this town want more experimentation, more artistic freedom, and more innovation. Some of us are open to new ideas. Some of us believe that mandatory design guidelines stifle creative expression. Some of us think that bureaucrats who know little about architecture should not be allowed to impose their tastes upon the professional designers who live among us.

    By the way, one of the reasons we see so little inspired architecture today is because developers have cut the design budgets to the bone. If Steve wants artful buildings, he should craft an ordinance that sets minimum percentages of building budgets to be spent on design and art. That would actually make a difference. It has been done in other cities, and works! Alternately, take a moment to consider what the likely impact might be of imposing mandatory design guidelines on architects who are already working for developers who give short shrift to design considerations. Do we really think that’s going to make our city more beautiful?

    In closing, I want to remind everyone that when the Art Deco buildings went up nearly a century ago, traditionalist authoritarians attacked them, too. I’m glad the authoritarians didn’t win then. Let’s not let them win now.

    Architecture fans, unite! Oppose bureaucratic design guidelines!

  2. ASM, I wish you had read both the commentary and my letter as closely as you claim. If you had, you’d see that you agree with me! Maybe I didn’t make the point clearly enough, though: Far from stifling architects’ creativity, mandatory design guidelines would actually encourage it by allowing them to design an Asheville-appropriate building (i.e., one that echoes and enhances its neighbors) rather than being chained to the developer’s off-the-shelf generic design.

    This is not my idea. Mandatory compliance with well-crafted design guidelines is what the Downtown Commission originally sought when it commissioned the Downtown Master Plan. But our city attorney’s office told the citizens and consultants working on the Plan that NC state law forbade mandatory design guidelines, so we all felt forced to work within those constraints. Nevertheless, a diverse committee of respected, creative architects and preservationists drew up voluntary guidelines with an eye toward eventual adoption as mandatory. Come to find out now, the new city attorney says design guidelines CAN be mandatory.

    I think if you read the actual guidelines instead of reacting to the term “mandatory”, you’d find they really do encourage architectural creativity. It’s the fact that they are currently voluntary and, thus, usually ignored by minimal-compliance developers that is giving us this rash of boring modernist slabs.

    I did make one error though — the P&Z Chairman Jeremy Goldstein is right that P&Z can review “Level II” projects only for minimal compliance. (I owe him an apology!) But they can — and should, but won’t — review and deny approval to “Level III” projects for, e.g., being way out of scale with neighbors.

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