St. Lawrence Green no litmus test for voters

Blake Esselstyn Courtesy photo

by Blake Esselstyn

The yard sign troubled me from the first time I took a close look at it.

If you live in Asheville, you’ve probably seen the one I’m talking about. It bears a sunny image of the Basilica of St. Lawrence — but instead of a gravel lot in front, there’s a grassy expanse fringed by plants. It’s an imagined scene designed to promote the idea of a park on that site.

Let’s set aside the question of how much of the publicly owned and church-owned land should become a park; I’m not here to take a stance on that. But I do have concerns about the sign itself that might be instructive as we approach an election.

The image on the sign pleases the eye, and the photo manipulation is well-executed. But to me, the vision is unsettling, for a number of reasons:

     • It doesn’t look like a city. The image artfully makes this site, which is indisputably downtown, look like it’s set on a bucolic, suburban college campus.

     • Where are the people? Perhaps the college is on a holiday break? Or there’s been an apocalypse?

     • Have vehicles been prohibited? There’s no trace of cars or trucks, buses or bikes, scooters or strollers.

     • Important context is missing. I reckon someone from out of town looking at this image would be surprised to learn that the church sits within a stone’s throw of two high-rises and an interstate highway.

     • The composition seems designed to downplay any buildings other than the Basilica. It’s even hard to make out the building immediately to the left of the church.

In short, it appears more likely that a deer would wander into this scene than a pubcycle. The visuals don’t match the vibrant, complex, richly textured, multicellular organism that is downtown Asheville.

So when I encounter this sign, what I see is a carefully circumscribed viewpoint that’s oversimplified, dismissing context and the big picture.

Can anyone guess where I’m going with this?

With this image as a rallying emblem, some in the community have urged that a willingness to embrace the “St. Lawrence Green” concept should serve as a litmus test for City Council candidates. But making this a wedge issue coarsely divides the field into two halves, doing a disservice to all those running for office. And the greatest disservice may be to those whose names often appear next to this image: Their identities are now associated with a symbol.

As we’ve recently seen with the Confederate flag near South Carolina’s Capitol, and the rainbow flag on Asheville City Hall’s facade, symbols can represent vastly different things to different people. And when I see someone displaying a symbol, I confess I might — wrongly — ascribe an entire agenda to that person.

A tangle of complex challenges awaits our region on the other side of this election. To address them, we can choose three souls from a multifaceted bunch of candidates with varied backgrounds, work experience and public views on a wide range of topics.

Relying on the single-issue test is like looking at the panorama of the election through a drinking straw. But another much more appropriate tool is close at hand: the voter guide in this very publication. Readers, I urge you to take the time to study it, then use it to determine which candidates will be the most effective advocates for the causes (plural!) that you care about.

Asheville resident Blake Esselstyn is the founder of the FrontWater consultancy.


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27 thoughts on “St. Lawrence Green no litmus test for voters

    • NFB

      This context of which, of course, is a false choice. The same false choice of either a park or a high rise hotel that those advocating for a park have been disingenuously proclaiming during this whole process and is getting really tiresome.

  1. Divide and over simplify is what is the norm for the founders of the St. Lawrence Green project. But Asheville is a small town and word does eventually get around as to this type of tactic.

    • The Real World

      “Divide and over simplify is what is the norm” – yes, you are right about this. They have borrowed from the national political playbook that regards the two primary political parties like high school football team rivalries. It’s juvenile but, unfortunately, it works!! B/c people can be SO EASILY duped.

      Fortunately, many are waking up — as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of independent and unaffiliated voters. Those folks get the game being played.

      And, yes, the over-simplification is irritating too. Across our political spectrum, options are provided as only 2 choices; as either/or situations. Give me a break — I can normally think of at least 3 or 4 relevant solutions to anything. Wake up voters!

      Great bumper sticker: “If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.” This is very true but America seems to have forgotten that.

  2. Paul Wilczynski

    Whichever side of this issue one is on, it is clear that this single issue – or any other single issue for that matter – should not be used to substitute for an analysis of the total qualifications of each person running for Council.

    • Grant Milin

      Thanks for getting into this perspective many share, Blake.

  3. Unfortunately Blake ignores the same information that the Citizen Times and other advocates for sale of the property intentionally ignore.

    The campaign for St. Lawrence Green does not insist on a park, or any other particular outcome.

    What we have sought is public input. The City routinely seeks public ideas for greenways, bikeways, recycling, the Downtown Master Plan, and much more. Why has it resisted public input on this land for more than a decade?

    That’s why this single issue is not a single issue. The question we have asked of Council members and candidates, over and over, is “Why won’t you listen to the people?” And if you won’t listen to the people on this issue, what other issues are you treating the same way?

    My experience on Council has been that my colleagues ignore the people over and over and over again when it comes to big developments. When Marc Hunt voted to sell this land to the Mckibbon Hotel Group he announced in public session that that was the ideal use of the property and that the people of the city agreed. (Right.) When earlier Council members tried to wrap a multi-story parking deck around the Battery Park Apartments and install a high-rise on the currently contested parcel, they were voted out of office.

    Casting the campaign for the green civic space as single issue is to intentionally dumb down the argument and ignore the people of this city.

    • NFB

      “The campaign for St. Lawrence Green does not insist on a park, or any other particular outcome.”

      The petition on the St. Lawrence Geen’s web site read, in its entirety:

      “We, the undersigned, hereby request that Asheville City Council preserve the city-owned property in front of the Basilica of St. Lawrence for future use as public green space, and vote against the sale of that property for commercial development.”

      • North Asheville

        It would help Bothwell’s point about soliciting citizen input, if the poll he pushed forward had greater choice. So, to help him, I will put forward this poll: Citizens may chime in.
        Opposite St. Lawrence historic church on city-owned land, which do you prefer?
        A. Public park, no private development
        B. Private development , no public park
        C. Private development plus public park.

        • The Real World

          Option C …..if designed and executed intelligently (city council’s responsibility to ensure) is a no brainer!

          • Rich Lee

            I wrote this some time ago, but it still seems applicable:

            “The short version of all this is: The odds are against the city demanding a very good public plaza if it sells the land. The odds are against it getting a significant profit, and those profits will be contested between affordable housing and other priorities. Once the land is built on, it’ll be that way for all our lives. The time for smart planning is now, and the same goes for similar spots all over the city.”

            If you’d like some reasons why, click the link below. But to say the people advocating for a park have an unrealistic view of city finances and the political landscape around this property is itself misleading. I sit on the Greenway Committee currently overseeing tens of millions of dollars of new greenway development. I actually read the budget, attend budget committee meetings and, what’s more, do long-range financial planning for a living. I like talking about literally any other issue besides this one, but I hate hearing one oversimplified side of this debate complaining about the other side’s oversimplification. Again, read the article below for more, or any other position I’ve taken.


    • Gary W

      Cecil, you really like to attack Marc Hunt and proclaim that this particular issue is about “citizen input”. Based on the comments raised on this commentary alone, people are coming to the realization that there is an agenda. – “The campaign for St. Lawrence Green does not insist on a park, or any other particular outcome.” – Obviously not true as noted below by NFB. Our taxes were raised because of the loss of revenue. The city may take another hit if unsuccessful with the lawsuit challenging the loss of the water dept. Cost of services on the rise and more expenditures. I can see how a reasonable person would agree with Marc Hunt or anyone that would seek balance to generate revenue and possibly install a park as well. Here is a question, did we achieve our AAA rating through parks or fiscal responsibility? I love parks but I also love lower taxes. Good leaders know how to make tough choices. Some which may be popular and some not so much. Again it’s called effective governing.

      So let’s call this show for what it is. A demand for “citizen input” as long as you support our agenda of course. A St. Lawrence Green campaign that has been completely disingenuous from day one. A group that does not care how the expenditures of this park will affect the city’s bottom line and it will. Their definitely not interested in any type of compromise. The end result is to achieve a suburban setting in the city’s core for a select few. We’re just not supposed to be smart enough to question their motive because it’s what the “people” want. The plan – Start a campaign with the vision of a nice green space in front of the beautiful basilica (which it is) Prey on people fears of the evil developers taking over the city. Push a poll that would suggest that doomsday scenario. Endorse a select group of candidates who share our agenda to form a majority on council and we get our park. Uh oh, just did not count on the people being just a little smarter than that.

      I urge everyone to vote Tuesday to reject these shenanigans and those that would support it, and send a strong signal that there are consequences to intentionally mislead your constituents.

      • Rich Lee

        The Haywood St. lot, if fully developed, would pay something like $50,000 tax revenue to the city a year. The latest tax increase raises about $1.7 million for the city a year. It seems unreasonable to say the park is the reason for the tax increase.

        • Gary W

          Rich, I did not say that the park was the reason for the tax increase, however I would imagine it was to maintain our basic services at current levels. I find it very disconcerting that any one would advocate for additional expenditures when the city is faced with such uncertainty, one being the possible loss of another revenue source. Is there a dollar threshold to be fiscally disciplined? How about the city’s current commitments to planned greenways and other competing interest? Where does this area fit in on that priority list? Revenue of about 50k compared to the alternative of the cost to develop, maintain the park and possibly employ a park warden, as I am sure it will experience the same challenges as the one right down the street. should be enough to give a reasonable person pause. The argument of it would only result in an increase of 50k in increased revenue is shameful. It must be nice to look at it from that vantage point. I can certainly think of a lot of worthy causes that would benefit from 50k annually.

          • Rich Lee

            Gary, those are very good questions. As a member of the Greenway Committee who tried to get a $250,000 line in this year’s budget for very preliminary studies on the East Asheville corridor from Biltmore Ave to Azalea Park (the line got cut in the last stages of drafting), I’m cognizant of what goes into big multimillion-dollar capital works. Let me ask you this: Which of these following items in the current year’s budget had noticeable, active public support, or was questioned as intensely as the St. Lawrence Park proposal?

            1. Craven Street/New Belgium reconstruction ($6.147 million)

          • Rich Lee

            2. Azalea Road reconstruction ($2.6 million)
            3. Beaucatcher Greenway, Carrier Park river access ($1.7 million)
            4. Azalea Park Soccer Field resurfacing ($1.1 million)
            5. Carrier Park Bicycle Speedway repaving (about $1 million)

          • Gary W

            Rich, good points. Honestly, I would suspect that they were not part of a strategy to divide the electorate or support specific candidates, were not within blocks of another park or maybe did not provide an opportunity for a public private partnership. The intense scrutiny may also be the result of an overzealous group that has made this specific piece of property a focal point of this election cycle. It is naive to think that issue will not sway a minority group of voters. For anyone to suggest otherwise would demonstrate an unrealistic grasp of reality. As a result of these efforts, this land is now under the microscope. The larger conversation may suggest that we become more active and inquisitive participants in this process, and scrutinize spending considering the current state were in. I am huge advocate of quality of life amenities however, there has to be balance.

            You listed 5 parks that provide a benefit to the community in some way, but where does it end? Do we support more parks and figure out how to support them later? Does this prepare us for the next downturn in the economy? The city cannot be the begin all end for everyone.

            One additional thought. can this property be divided up into two parcels, one for development and another for a park?

      • Curious

        Mr. Lee says, “The odds are against the city demanding a very good public plaza if it sells the land. ” Why are the odds against the city asking/demanding a good public plaza from the buyer? If a good public plaza is a condition of the sale, won’t buyers who don’t meet that requirement be eliminated.?Of course, what is a “good public plaza” has to be determined.
        Does Mr. Lee mean that he council lacks the will and the vision to require an appropriate public space in a privately developed project? Does he mean that private developments won’t adhere to the conditions of the sale? Does he mean the city won’t enforce its requirements? What determines those “odds against?”
        The previous RFP had only mild requirements (below). Why can’t those be strengthened in the next go round?

        Goals and objectives for the redevelopment o
        f the site:

        Demonstrated Asheville context and awareness

        Consistency with the
        Downtown Master Plan

        Consider opportunities for potential public space within development site

        Create sustainable jobs

        proposals must clearly identify types of jobs to be
        created, salary ranges and employee benefits

        Green design and application of sustainability principl
        es and techniques

        Generate tax base enhancemment

        Redevelopment of subject site complete in the next 2

        3 years

        Pedestrian connectivity and activation of the street level

        Potential public art created by local artists

        Possible limited improvements to the city

        owned civic center

        Respect and involve local business interest in design, construction, investing and

        • Rich Lee

          Going by a lot of conversations, both in private and in public, I believe political will is the first hurdle. But it’s also worth looking at the market and what a buyer will be willing to pay. Some council members have expressed that they’d like a million dollars or more in proceeds, after repaying the parking fund, to find affordable housing or other priorities. But could the city both clear a million dollars profit AND impose some serious requirements such as most people probably imagine it when they hear “significant public plaza?” Consider that the former sheriffs office down Haywood Street just sold for $4 million without any restrictions. As you start to say, you can’t build a hotel and you have to build this big plaza at your own expense, the sale price starts to come down.

          • Gary W

            So let’s start the process and let the market actually answer those questions? We all have our own beliefs on what the market will support so why assume? Didn’t parking pressures help drive that 4 million cost for the former sheriff’s office purchase? So more out of necessity. Who would have thought that Mission would agree to pay up to 30k for a bus shelter as a condition for approval for their proposed tower? There was certainly political will in that situation. Who would have thought that anyone would be interested in naming rights on an aging structure that is the civic center? The Haywood st property is a high profile and prominent area with tremendous exposure value. A value that may be appealing to a developer where that is crucial even as a mixed use. My argument would be for all parties to come to table and let’s see what comes of it absent of any preconceived ideas or thoughts.

          • Rich Lee

            All good points, Gary. I’ve said all along that the city should take the initiative to really think through how that space should turn out (I honestly believe a corporate headquarters will never, in a million years, buy it in its current configuration) and then we should make it happen, realigning Page Ave and Haywood/Flint, for starters.

            Can you believe that’s actually a legitimate difference between the candidates, not normally reflected in this constructed PARC-vs-Sierra, Development-vs-Antidevelopment dynamic?

  4. OneWhoKnows

    single issue voters in AVL are the least qualified to vote …

  5. Simplistic framing always deserves to be called out, wherever it appears.

    Those who consistently elevate the conversation in the broadest and most relevant context, in politics…are to be given our eternal thanks and gratitude. Such a path is not easy.

    For his part, since taking a financially-minded and urban planning-minded position back in January on this concept that appears in the Downtown Master Plan, also engaging Marc and Julie in productive dialogue…Rich Lee has been campaigning very hard on a whole range of important issues that matter greatly to Asheville’s future.

    Those interested might start here:

    It would be a shame if thinking people continued to take the bait to latch onto this single issue, without doing their homework or performing the common courtesy of referring to the candidates own statements on the issue.

  6. John Morris

    Mr. Esselstyn, by the time the votes for city council are counted, there’s no doubt that many will have been cast by voters who have been influenced by a yard sign depicting what you refer to as a symbol, from the SLG “imagine” image to the Sierra Club logo atop the yard sign for Hunt, Mayfield, and Simerly. I agree with you, of course, that voters should rely on more than a yard sign to determine whom to vote for; but I’m surprised at your suggestion that they rely instead on the Xpress voter guide.

    Here’s why.

    In past years, I paid very little attention to local elections, and instead followed, without question, the endorsements of the Sierra Club. However, this year, I was so intrigued by the SLG “imagine” yard sign popping up all over my neighborhood that for the first time since I moved to Asheville in 1990 I was motivated to read and listen to the candidates’ policy and public debate statements, consider their lists of contributors and endorsers, pay attention to the voluminous discussion of the issues available both online and in the local print media. I decided that my dissatisfaction with the direction in which council has been leading our city these past years not so coincidentally led me to support the three candidates–Haynes, Lee, and Young–who unequivocally support the agenda of SLG, and, even more importantly, who on the all the issues are advocating for the well-being of Asheville residents before those of developers and the tourism industry.

    As for the Xpress voter guide that you recommend, it suggested, in contradiction to the conclusions derived from all of my research, that I vote for, you guessed it, incumbent Marc Hunt. Tells me something about the Xpress, perhaps, but not much else.

    • Blake Esselstyn

      Mr. Morris, your point is well taken about not relying exclusively on one voter guide.

      My intent was to promote a voter guide as a better tool than a yard sign or binary litmus test. But in hindsight, of course I should have encouraged folks to do research with other sources too.

      And in addition to news coverage, candidate sites, and other online resources, I might have suggested the separate nonpartisan voter guide at

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