A controversial parcel of city-owned property in downtown Asheville could be the focus of a park design competition, but first there needs to be an over-riding vision for the space, members of an Asheville City Council subcommittee said Tuesday.
The property (some call it the “pit of despair”) along Haywood Street sits across from the U.S. Cellular Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence. It has been the center of contentious debate on and off for 15 years as various proposals for private development and public parks have come and gone. Asheville City Council’s desires have also ebbed and flowed with political tides. (Right now, the property includes surface parking and a staging area for a hotel construction site at the corner of Page and Battery Park avenues.) But following last year’s City Council election, in which the future of the property was a key issue, it appears the land will developed as a park.
During Tuesday’s meeting of Council’s planning and economic development subcommittee, Councilman Gordon Smith said a majority of City Council “appears to be in favor of a park designation,” although there’s been no formal vote. Still, Smith and fellow committee members Councilman Brian Haynes and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler moved ahead with hearing out plans for turning the property into a public park and taking public comment.
Todd Okolichany, director of the city’s planning and urban design department, laid out a potential park design process. City staff suggested a public engagement process and the establishment of a stakeholder committee. A park design contest could be modeled after Boston’s Public Space Invitational, he said, or The Connected City Challenge in Dallas.
The city could issue a request for proposals and structure the park design contest by awarding three design teams $8,000 each to come up with a park design that met specific criteria, Okolichany said. City Council could choose a winner and award a $16,000 prize. With another $10,000 spent on public out reach materials, the contest would have a $50,000 total budget, he said.
City staff recommended that the park planning process include nearby Pritchard Park, Okolichany said, to be sure park programming is aligned. He also said that city staff wanted direction about whether to include 33 Page Ave. in the park planning foot print. The location is the former home the Asheville Sister Cities project and it, too, is city owned. The nonprofit moved out in December after the building was deemed dangerous and unfit for occupancy. The lot is adjacent to the “pit of despair” Haywood Street property.
Wisler said she liked the process, but added that she wanted a “community visioning process” to give guidance to the overall project before the start of a park design competition.
Adrian Vassallo, chairman of the Asheville Downtown Commission, tersely reminded the City Council subcommittee that his organization had already advised City Council to engage the Asheville Design Center in the visioning process, and openly wondered why the subcommittee appeared to be ignoring that advice. Vassallo announced last week that the Asheville Downtown Association had pledged $5,000 toward the visioning process.
Chris Joyell, executive director of the Asheville Design Center, told the subcommittee that his volunteer group of design experts have been involved in discussions about developing the property since 2012. “We feel confident that at this stage, nobody can come to this process with more understanding,” he said.
Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, an longtime ardent supporter of having the property developed as a park, made a quick PowerPoint presentation during the public comment period. Titled “A People’s Park,” Bothwell said the planning process needed to address a host of concerns, from whether the property should remain at two elevations or be brought to how to pay for the park. He suggested web-based surveys to engage the public, as well as demonstration garden beds, temporary art installations and a temporary performance space to enliven the space. As far as paying for it all, Bothwell suggested finding sponsors, selling naming rights and hitting up the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority for grant cash.
In coming to a decision, Smith said he favored having the Asheville Design Center lead the visioning process, and that he was for “broad public input.” He suggested that the stakeholder committee including people from outside downtown, since “downtown is everyone’s backyard.” He said he was also interested in redesigning the streets around the Haywood Street space to make them safer for motorists and pedestrians.
And as far as whether the lot at 33 Page Ave. should be included in the park planning, Smith said “that’s a huge question.” Smith said the building could possibly be a location used to address Asheville’s affordable housing crisis.
Haynes chimed in, saying, “I basically want to see as much public involvement as early as possible.”
In the end Wisler and her committee members said they would move the process on to Asheville City Council without making a recommendation on the 33 Page Ave. location.