I was going to entitle this something like “Small Town Politics and Asheville, North Carolina” but the phrase “small town” seemed to belittle the our town and that could not be farther from the truth. One of the wonderful things about this town is how engaged everyone is, both in National Politics and in the governance of our town and state. This is by no means a homogenous society. Asheville encompasses the Far Right to the the Ultra-liberal and more than a few fringe parties as well. The discourse is often spirited but rarely mean or unpleasant and James and I had occasion to see this for ourselves last week.
If you have visited Asheville you may have remarked on the beautiful Basilica of St. Lawrence with its graceful dome just across from the Civic Center. The Spanish architect and builder of the Basilica, Rafael Gustavino, came to Asheville to work on the Biltmore (didn’t they all?). As a strong Catholic he noted the lack of a decent Cathedral in the town and in 1905 began work on the Basilica of St. Lawrence. He was a noted tile worker and the magnificent center dome of the church is reputed to be the largest free standing elliptical dome in North America. The tiled dome with its copper covering seems to absorb the golden mountain light and shine from within. It is a beautiful monument for us all to enjoy
However, if you have remarked on the Basilica, you no doubt also noticed the unkempt
parking lot and two vacant buildings directly across the street. It was these lots that were the topic of the Council meeting which James and I attended (along with about 300 other people). Asheville is booming and to many of us the decision of how to use this land, what to build or not to build, was crucial to the long-term development of our downtown.
(A brief digression: I grew up in Connecticut where the town meeting is the form of government. I can remember attending with my parents whenever those meetings revolved around the school systems so the format of the Council Meeting was not unusual to me. The township James grew up in did not have a town meeting form of governance so this was new to him. We were both curious to see how this played out in Asheville terms. Layered on top of this curiosity was the fact that we lived overseas for 27 years where we could observe local and national politics of the countries we lived in but were not invested in the outcome. And while we could follow American Politics online and in newspapers it is not at all the same thing as being here with the paid political ads, the comedy shows, and multiple commentators on radio and television. Hearing and seeing someone say something often sends a completely different message than one gets from reading the same lines.)
On Tuesday afternoon about a week ago we walked down to another landmark building, the Buncombe County Court House. Built in 1928 it is an over-the-top neo-classical building which is considered to be the finest court house in all of North Carolina. Such a fitting site for this meeting to take place! One of my favorite things about the Court House are the elevators. I think they are still the original elevators from 1928 and each of them
requires an elevator operator to open the old-style grates and take you from floor to floor. Usually we visit the Court House to meet with the Historic Resource Commission concerning the renovations of our Asheville Bed and Breakfast, the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. During the day the elevator always smells vaguely of bacon, occasioned by the snack bar in the basement! But this evening the snack bar was closed and we rode the elevator up to the sixth floor where an overflow room had been set up. People had started arriving for the 5PM meeting as early as 1PM in the afternoon and the overflow room on the 6th floor was the second to have been opened.
A large screen had been set up with a television feed which showed the curved wooden podium where our council members were seated. After rising to pledge allegiance to the flag, and a convocation speech the business of the Council was underway. It took about 40 minutes to get to the issue for which we all had come: the land in front of the Basilica. The Council had in front of them an offer from a hotel chain to buy the land for $2.5 million on which they would construct a seven story hotel. The Basilica was asking for more time to complete their plan for a smaller apartment building with retail shops along with a plaza in front of the church. And finally there was PARC (People Advocating Real Conservancy) who of course wanted the entire space to become a park but more realistically realized that wasn’t going to happen so they supported the Basilica plan.
An hour was dedicated to comments from the audience. You were limited to three minutes for your remarks and there was a green light in front of speaker’s dais which changed to blinking yellow and finally red when time was up. I had not expected so many people to have come with prepared speeches and in the end the Council extended the time for comments to one and a half hours. For the most part speakers were against the hotel for any number of reasons. (In fact the hotelier would have probably preferred this meeting to have happened before the opening of their Aloft Hotel on Biltmore Avenue with its retro 1980’s style and overly bright neon swoosh which many people find inappropriate to its surroundings). But as the meeting progressed it became clear that the big problem was that the Basilica had known about the hotel offer for a number of years and had been unable to put together a proposal.
And sure enough, after listening to all the comments the Council went ahead and voted to pursue the hotel offer. On the surface it seems like a bad idea but the Council added a number of conditions to the sale which indicated that they heard and understood the concerns of the citizenry. Among these are the inclusion of a plaza with an option towards a larger one dependent on land being donated from the Basilica; strict limitations on height of the hotel along with directions as to design input from a local firm; and finally the land will be re-appraised with the hotel company paying the higher of the two prices.
Personally, I was disappointed but not surprised. And in spite of the fact that the result was not what I wanted, I do think it was a fair hearing and a reasoned response. And you know, what? I understand there are already challenges being prepared for court because, after all, this is Asheville!