Asheville – Is it creating active space to foster equality and inclusion, or just rearranging chairs on the Titanic? At their last pre-meeting briefing, the Buncombe County Commissioners heard an update on the Pack Square Plaza Visioning project. For those unfamiliar with the area, Pack Square is in the very heart of downtown Asheville, and, marked by the Vance Memorial obelisk, it used to be a gathering spot for demonstrations. When, during the Black Lives Matter movement, the obelisk was rebranded as an icon of white supremacy, it was taken down, and the City of Asheville and Buncombe County issued an RFP for reimagining the space.
The successful bid is now working its way through the design review processes of both the city and county. The project’s timeline is significantly governed by a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. It will fund the development of places that don’t seem welcoming and inclusive, the creation of a storytelling space to celebrate black history in the area, and community planning and design for a cultural corridor in the historic black business area known as The Block.
Once the grant funds are expended, the project will rely on funding from sources like the Tourism Development Authority, the City of Asheville, and Buncombe County. Project Lead Mitch Silver recommended creating a Municipal Service District wherein property owners would be charged an extra tax to pay for maintenance, management, and programming. He wanted the city and county to be involved in programming to make sure all activities were inclusive and equitable.
Silver reviewed the recommendations. In general, the consensus of mass community input was to create a paved, people-oriented gathering space. They did not want monuments, buildings, lawns, or outdoor fixtures.
Contingency plans were necessary because it was uncertain whether the Vance Memorial would be there or not. Silver said those participating in the public input sessions considered the monument to be “painful,” and they did not want it back. In response to a request from Commissioner Parker Sloan for a 30-second explanation of what was going on with the Vance Memorial, Asheville’s Planning and Urban Design Director Steph Monson Dahl said that about 10 years ago, the city accepted a donation from a group to restore the monument. The courts are currently trying to determine if that group has standing to require the city to put the monument back up.
Other plans concerned the landscaping around the Biltmore Company’s building, which now consists of well-kept lawns. It was recommended that the lawn on the south side be torn out and the space be excavated to the basement level to create somewhat of an open-air commercial underground with shops and restaurants. If the Biltmore Company did not like that idea, then the area could just be leveled and paved to support ground-level kiosks.
The lawn on the east side of the building is actually owned by the city. Public input called for ripping this out and paving around the trees to create a meditation grove. The architectural rendering showed the grove at night, decked out with lit balloons that told the history of the area. To the west of the building, the street would be closed to automobile traffic. Contrary to conventional wisdom of traffic planners, who consider crosswalks safer when they are distanced from major throughfares, the visioning group wanted to move the crosswalk next to Biltmore Avenue so it is aligned with the sidewalk.
Also, as the city is moving more toward making roads downtown one-way, the visioning group wants to make College Street two-way. South Pack Square, in front of the Jackson Building, would then become a two-way, multimodal, cobblestone road, with delivery vehicles allowed to weave among the pedestrians and cyclists, except when the road was closed for special events.
Next, the group had big plans for The Block and South Market Street. “Today, it looks more like a parking lot than an active space,” said Silver. So, the group wanted to replace parking spaces on one side of the road with permanent kiosks and pedestrian space. The group also recommended widening the sidewalks. They hoped private property owners’ “purses would be open” to commissioning murals with culturally significant and historical messaging for their buildings and otherwise converting nondescript buildings into active spaces.
Lastly, the group wanted to repurpose the Municipal Building, which serves as the downtown headquarters for the Asheville Police and Fire departments. A photo of Denver’s shabby-chic Empire Collective was shown to illustrate this building’s potential.