For the past fifteen years, the vacant acre on Haywood Street between the historic Basilica of St. Lawrence and the U.S. Cellular Center in the heart of downtown Asheville has been a bleak eyesore, known locally as ‘The Pit of Despair.’ According to Chris Joyell, Executive Director of the Asheville Design Center (ADC), that moniker seems to have as much to do with the decade of public bickering over the best use of this city-owned, fenced-off gravel lot, as with its dismal appearance. When, in 2016, the Asheville City Council commissioned Joyell’s non-profit organization to conduct a ‘visioning process’ to stimulate a solution, the Land of the Sky Association of REALTORS® (LOTSAR) offered its support and partnership. It brought the strength of the REALTOR® Party with it.
Two REALTOR® members serve on the Advisory Team created by the City Council to represent stakeholders in the issue, and LOTSAR used a $15,000 Smart Growth Action Grant to contribute to the visioning process. Says LOTSAR 2017 President Terry Horner, “We’re just thrilled to be a part of this process, helping to find a Smart Growth answer to the question, ‘What’s the best use of this property?’, while maintaining all that is good about Asheville.”
David West, CEO of LOTSAR, notes with pride that the association has always been involved in the community, working with organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and Habitat for Humanity; it has also become a valued source of information for the city of Asheville, providing information, analysis and advice on various properties and neighborhoods. “So, while involvement on the Haywood Street project has been an opportunity to fulfill one of our Core Standard requirements for the National Association of REALTORS®, it’s also right in line with our normal practices and values,” he says. “We’re very pleased to be doing all we can to move this project forward.”
LOTSAR’s Government Affairs Director Mike Butrum says that an informal poll of the membership had revealed clear priorities for the Haywood property, and its role as a prominent piece of public land: it should offer some public green space; and it should generate some kind of income stream. As reasonable as that seems, forging a vision that would be accepted by the notably divided City Council would still be a steep challenge. “There was a lot of pressure on the Advisory Team to reach a consensus, and speak with a strong, single voice that would convince the Council to adopt a plan, and implement it” says Butrum, adding, “They worked hard to achieve that, and it’s really paid off.”
Over the course of the past year, the ADC conducted an in-depth study involving four separate public ‘listening sessions’ that collected more than 600 comments on sticky notes. An additional 1,400 were submitted online, and in-person interviews generated 125 additional responses. In a city of 91,000 people, Joyell points out, input from more than 2,000 is a powerful sample. The grant from the REALTOR® Party enabled the ADC to have this body of raw data processed by a graduate class at a local university. After more than fourteen meetings, the Advisory Team agreed on a formal recommendation to transform the lot into a public park with ‘active edges’ of mixed-use development. This solution includes provisions for sidewalk dining, residential space and retail operations, while affirming the value of a public park that is central to the plan.
Late in March, in a rare unanimous vote, the Asheville City Council accepted the Advisory Team’s recommendation. The Council directed its staff to issue a Request for Proposals for a design, and in the meantime, it will implement temporary installations to continue the visioning process. A farmers market, food trucks and community garden will be put in place over the summer, says Joyell, immediately activating the site and engaging the public while a permanent design is developed. He adds that the city is very grateful to the REALTORS®, whose grant also supports these temporary installations. “Without a doubt, we couldn’t have achieved this tremendous progress without the partnership of the Land of the Sky Association of REALTORS® and its national organization.” For the first time in 15 years, the ‘Pit of Despair’ is showing some promise.
To learn more about how the REALTORS® are helping Asheville find the best Smart Growth solutions for its long-vacant Haywood property, contact Government Affairs Director Mike Butrum at 828-275-2422; or Chris Joyell, Executive Director of the Asheville Design Center, at 828-782-7894.