Asheville: A Model for Others to Follow

( ASHEVILLE—The transformation of Asheville’s downtown over the past 25 years has been organic and incremental, seemingly one building and one street at a time.

It ultimately found a synergy with developers, independent businesses, and a burgeoning arts community.

Meanwhile, architectural landmarks that avoided the wrecking ball long ago now stand as integral parts of the landscape—the structures maintaining Asheville’s sense of place against the backdrop of this beautiful mountain region.

Courage and vision brought Asheville’s downtown back to life from a time in the 1970s when four of its five department stores left and there was a 70 percent vacancy rate in downtown stores, Councilman Carl Mumpower said.

“We’ve kept our heart,” Mumpower added. “We haven’t torn down Asheville. … Our architecture makes a tremendous difference.”

Harry Weiss, urban projects director for Public Interest Projects Inc., said a watershed moment came in the ’70s when a developer made a $40 million proposal to tear down a historic six-block area in the inner city for an enclosed mall.

Residents voted down the referendum connected with the project by a two-to-one margin, and city leaders refocused on making downtown Asheville a place to live, work and play.

Judging from the people on Asheville’s streets, it seems to be working.

But there’s always resistance. Weiss said the de facto motto for Asheville and any other city could be, “That will never work here — don’t even try.”

“It takes a lot of effort to overcome that inertia,” he said.

Downtown Salisbury Inc. chartered a bus last Thursday to make a second out-of-town trip in two weeks — this time to meet with Asheville officials and walk the downtown.

A similar Salisbury group also traveled to Greenville, S.C., April 23.

With those trips now under their belts, the downtown Salisbury stakeholders will meet at the Rowan Museum May 28 to share some of their impressions — things they saw in the two cities that might work in Salisbury.

It’s all part of DSI’s update of its 2001 Master Plan.

“This is the start of the process,” DSI President Dick Huffman said.

Huffman, an attorney, said one of the things he liked about the trips to Greenville and Asheville was that it reinforced for him how far Salisbury has come in building a strong downtown.

The trips showed him the importance of public art and the need for ongoing events. He also came away envious of Greenville’s Falls Park and Asheville’s developing Pack Square Park and wishes Salisbury could have more green space downtown.

The trips left strong impressions with Huffman on the value of having places for people to congregate.

The Asheville region has two significant drawing cards—the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate—but through the years its downtown has become a destination point by itself.

And in that time, Urban Planner Stephanie Monson said, the downtown has seen some $400 million in new investment.

As part of their Asheville tour, the Salisbury group saw and heard discussions on places such as the Grove Arcade, Flat Iron Building, Asheville Civic Center, the Fine Arts Theater, Pritchard Park, Wall Street, The Orange Peel nightclub and Pack Square.

They walked past and visited strong independent merchants such as Tops for Shoes, Malaprops Bookstore, Chocolate Fetish, Laughing Seed Cafe, Tupelo Honey Cafe, and Barley’s Taproom.

As with Greenville, the sidewalks outside of restaurants were filled with diners. Musicians took spots along the streets to play for money.

The Salisbury group heard of successes experienced by Public Interest Projects Inc., a for-profit entity established by philanthropist Julian Price, who wanted to see some of his capital invested locally in business and real estate projects that benefited the community.

The Salisburians also viewed the continuing construction of the 6.5-acre Pack Square Park, a $20 million project that will establish a mostly green gathering spot in the heart of the city.

The park project has been plagued by delays.

Residential living downtown keeps growing. Officials Thursday judged the downtown core’s population in this city of 74,000 to be about 1,500 people. Weiss said there were seven residential projects in 1990 compared to 32 in 2007.

The sight of people attracts other people, Weiss said, adding that having residents and visitors in the downtown create energy and have a multiplier effect. They help give a feeling of safety and comfort by having more eyes on the street around the clock.

Weiss told the Salisbury group that downtowns have to encourage walking. “The pedestrian experience is the key,” he said. “Anything that discourages walking to the next block is treated like a public enemy.”

Weiss said small but important elements in downtown Asheville’s success were passing liquor by the drink, approving sidewalk dining and building public parking garages despite opposition.

Cities have to address parking almost like a public utility, according to Weiss. Some downtown housing projects have zero parking available, so working out arrangements with the city are paramount, he said.

Monson, the urban planner, said a perception persists that no parking is available downtown, even though parking garages often have plenty of spaces.

“The city always gets slammed on parking,” she said. “People can’t find it.”

Many of the downtown parking spaces also are tied up in privately owned lots, and the towing of cars has become a public-relations concern.

The downtown still relies heavily on on-street parking meters, seen as important in making sure spaces keeping turning over.

Cathy Ball, director of engineering and traffic, said Asheville has discussed offering a parking reservation system in which a person coming to the downtown could go online, pay for and reserve a space and print out his parking pass.

The visitor could display that pass in his car when he arrived and claimed his space.

Better wayfinding signs also will be a great help in the future in getting motorists to the city’s parking garages, Ball said.

The Asheville hosts took time Thursday to point out some of their other challenges.

Monson described problems with vacant, city-owned properties; panhandlers; graffiti; art trail maintenance; an aging civic center; newspaper boxes; finding a balance between tourists and residents; and drug dealers and public urination in Pritchard Park.

Asheville’s history and art trail was a model for Salisbury’s.

“Everybody’s copied everyone’s urban trail,” Monson said.

Though the 35-year-old Asheville Civic Center may be a bit tired looking and has delayed maintenance issues, it’s always booked, according to Monson. Some outside consultants have said, “It’s so ugly that it’s cool — keep it,” she added.

The city has placed several “Spare Change for Real Change” collection boxes in the downtown, encouraging people to drop their coins there instead of giving them to panhandlers.

The boxes collect about $400 a month, and proceeds are directed to homeless initiatives.

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