Asheville – For about thirty years, prime real estate across from Harrah’s Cherokee Center (Asheville Civic Center), has remained vacant. Nicknamed the Pit of Despair, the property had been considered for hotel development or other construction suitable to the heart of downtown.
But all those plans were defeated by activists working for a raft of cross-purposes who wanted to turn the area into a park. As the land sat fallow, the city did without the opportunity costs a huge commercial enterprise would have generated in both property and sales taxes, which support the services many of the same activists demand. The protesters even made strange bedfellows with a church, the Basilica of St. Lawrence, arguing construction could disturb the historic building’s fragile foundation and that the approach to the architectural gem was worthy of a more Eden-esque framing.
Eventually worn weary of an eyesore symbolic of negligence defining their placemaking, Asheville City Council, in 2016, formed a committee to engage a visioning process. Granting protesters a sense of inclusion would, hopefully, spare future developers another costly exercise in futility.
The group presented council with their vision a year later, and council followed up by contracting with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects to translate the vision into a professional plan. Andrew Fletcher, who had worked with both the visioning team and the pursuit group, vouched for the alignment of the professional plan with the vision. He said progress was made when the visioners transitioned from discussing either/or scenarios to saying “yes, and.” Fletcher said, “Making funding choices will be hard, but a beautiful plan will collect momentum and funding in ways that an empty gravel lot will never do.”
Landscape architect Thomas Woltz walked council through the plan, which included facts about the area’s natural and manmade history. For example, the site is in a subduction zone, and a 70-foot rock hill had to be removed to build the adjacent Battery Park Apartments. Asheville City planner Steph Monson Dahl said the absence of detail and implementation strategy in the plan was intentional. The project would likely be completed in phases, with approvals as funding becomes available; recent events have just shown how abruptly assumptions taken for granted can undergo upheaval.
Woltz said a major breakthrough in the design process occurred after public comment had suggested realigning the roads. The new alignment would straighten Page Avenue and streamline the irregular intersection in front of the civic center. The move would also grant more contiguous space for the project and larger front yards for the basilica and civic center.
The majority of the site would be public space built around an elliptical central plaza. A stairway would lead from the civic center to the Grove Arcade through the plaza. All-indigenous landscaping would include woodland gardens, community gardens, a canopy grove venue, and The Beacon, described as a space for contemplating the location’s history. All but the stairs themselves would be ADA accessible.
In addition, the site would be home to a narrow, multistory building situated away from the basilica with minimal disruption to scenic viewsheds. In front of the building would run “the public balcony to your city.”
Yuxiang Luo, working for James Lima as economic advisor for the project, presented council with a computer program that would help future leaders gauge design feasibility. Accepting as input values for variables like tax rate, building height, and building uses, it outputs projections for near- and long-term revenues. The design team had used the model on sixty-two scenarios for reclaiming the pit. Council unanimously adopted the conceptual plan, which local news outlets are estimating would cost $13-$14 million to execute today.
In Other Matters
Also passed unanimously was a Zero-Net Loss Urban Tree Canopy Policy developed by the city’s Urban Forestry Commission, originally named Tree Commission. Development Services Director Ben Woody explained the tree protection ordinance council adopted September 8th would be inadequate for “preventing the long-term loss of canopy throughout the broader community.”
The commission wanted the city to replace canopy lost in recent years and maintain coverage at 50% of municipal land by 2040, aligning the city with Asheville Greenworks’ goal. The city’s 2018 Urban Tree Canopy Study estimated coverage to be down to only 44.5%. The plan also called for the “establishment of a Comprehensive Urban Forestry Program as soon as practical that includes updated ordinances, a professional urban forester, and an urban forest master plan…” The ongoing push for an urban forester promulgates a very particular solution that hit council with a near-instantaneous groundswell of support a couple years ago.
Asheville Councilor Julie Mayfield explained, “This is a little bit like the 100% renewable energy resolution. It’s like our carbon reduction goal. It’s a stake in the ground that we don’t exactly know how we’re going to get there, and we don’t know how much it’s going to cost…but it’s important for a whole host of reasons that we all know about…” The staff report only estimated the master plan would cost $250,000. Compensation for a fulltime urban forester is $80,000 annually. Staff did not recommend setting aside funds until the 2022-2023 fiscal year, either.
When it was time for public comment, members of council were astonished that nobody was in the phone queue. Mayor Esther Manheimer remarked three hundred people had shown up for the canopy study presentation.