The early ’90s was an interesting time. So much work had been done in the ’80s, particularly by the city, trying to bring downtown back, but it was still pretty much a ghost town, particularly after 5 o’clock. The buildings on the corner where Malaprop’s and Mobilia are now had stood empty and boarded up for years. The Fine Arts Theatre was empty and boarded up. There was a tree growing in the building where the City Bakery is now. A new group of restaurants, like Café on the Square, had opened on Pack Square. But people said business owners who tried to make a go of it downtown were crazy, particularly in thinking they could get people to come downtown to eat.
You could park anywhere at night because all the spaces were empty. What little downtown residential space there was the early ’90s was low-income housing. And the few people who lived in upstairs spaces kept a low profile because many of those spaces didn’t meet code. Julian Price was one of the pioneers in living downtown. He converted a space upstairs on Battery Park Avenue into a residential apartment. People making a racket, cruising around the bricked-up Federal Building (the Grove Arcade) used to drive him crazy at night.
Julian invested in lots of downtown properties through Public Interest Projects, calling it just enlightened self-interest, since he lived there. But he also believed a downtown in which people wanted to live would provide the community with big environmental and economic benefits. We had great entrepreneurs with energy and ideas, like Bob and Ellen Carr at Tops for Shoes; Emoke B’racz at Malaprop’s; Marc Rosenstein at The Market Place; and John Cram at Blue Spiral 1 and the Fine Arts Theatre.
But in the early ’90s, banks were not lending on downtown development. When Public Interest Projects was trying to help get the Grove Arcade reopened, we approached a local bank for some financing help. The bank said it would help if we not only put up as collateral the other buildings we’d already renovated and filled, but also deposited with it an amount equal to the loan we were seeking.
Public Interest Projects helped businesses open storefronts and bought some of the boarded-up buildings to convert the upstairs into residences. We turned one of those spaces into the Laughing Seed with Joan and Joe Eckert. People told us it would never work, that Asheville would never support a vegetarian restaurant. Twenty years later, it’s still going strong. Because people were, in fact, waiting for the chance to live downtown, every apartment building we renovated was fully rented before we finished it. Talented local entrepreneurs and the pioneers who opted to live downtown, together with brave investments by people like the Armstrongs, McGuires and Lantziuses, turned the tide.
By the late ’90s, the change was striking. Sitting outside Mellow Mushroom one weeknight in April in ’98 or ’99, I couldn’t get over the number of people on the sidewalks. Downtown was coming back. The naysayers were wrong. Downtown Asheville was clearly coming alive.
Pat Whalen has been an Asheville resident since 1976. He has been president of Public Interest Projects Inc. (founded by Julian Price) since 1991 and active in downtown revitalization efforts since 1984. He is a former chairman of the Asheville Downtown Commission.