Asheville struggles to make good on financing for “The Block”
By Roger McCredie-“He walked into the sprawled chaos of the settlement, the rifleman of news for sleeping men. His fast hands blocked the crackling sheet, he swung his lean arm like a whip. He saw the pale stars drown, and the ragged light break upon the hills … he began the day for men, as he walked by the shuttered windows … he walked amid this close thick sleep, hearing again the ghostly ring of his own feet, and the vast, orchestral music of darkness.”
-Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
Thus young Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s own fictional self, set out to deliver papers in the predawn. His route lay in the Black community that hugged the hill behind the public square and the courthouse and to get there he would first walk through the wedge-shaped neighborhood whose apex was the junction of Eagle and Market Streets. Here was a vibrant tangle of businesses, restaurants, bars, one of Asheville’s oldest churches and several dozen black middle-class homes. Surrounded by white Asheville but sufficient unto itself, it was the center of a parallel universe that had evolved soon after the War Between the States and successfully preserved its own history, traditions, folklore and values even as it mirrored, socially and economically, the white world just around the corner.
A century later, the church – Mount Zion Missionary Baptist – soldiers on, as does the Young Men’s Institute Cultural Center, whose present building was commissioned by none other than George Vanderbilt and built in 1919, after Tom Wolfe had quit delivering papers and was at Chapel Hill. (The YMI recently celebrated 120 years of service; it’s believed to be the oldest independent organization of its kind in America.)
But the neighborhood anchored by these institutions became infested with urban blight. During the 1960’s the juggernaut of “urban renewal” swept through the whole southeastern quadrant below Pack Square, obliterating the homes that made up Wolfe’s paper route and rearranging streets so that traffic flow was directed away from the beehive of humanity there. Like any organism deprived of circulation, The Block began to atrophy. One by one, as their original owners died or were displaced, the keystone businesses were shuttered or they changed hands, often not for the better. Boarded up houses and back alleys invited drug deals and petty crime. Violence – literally in the back yard of Asheville’s police station – was commonplace. Except in the memories of those who used to live and work there, The Block as a community seemed to have passed away, the victim of the very program that had promised to help insure its longevity.
Then, some twenty years ago, it seemed that help was on the way. Black community leaders put together The Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (EMSDC) which began shaping a go-ahead revitalization plan. Buoyed by this evidence that somebody was finally going to Do Something, the private sector began investing in properties on The Block. The church generated enough money of its own to buy the three structures it comprises. There was a concerted – and largely successful – effort to reduce neighborhood crime.
But flies appeared in The Block’s healing ointment. The EMSDC’s president, attorney and former vice mayor Gene Ellison, and its board chairman, businessman James Geter, came to loggerheads over the plan itself. Ellison and his business partner, Howard McGlohon, had purchased the old Ritz Building on Market Street, but Ellison found fault with the EMSDC’s overall plan, particularly its enlistment of Rogers & Associates — the same Charlotte firm that had helped renovate the Grove Arcade – and after a list of concessions he had presented was rebuffed, Ellison became the leader of forces opposing the revitalization plan. Geter, for his part, pressed for city council to release federal funds so that work could begin on renovation of five abandoned buildings and construction of a new building that would utilize the façade of other historically significant structures. Before long many key supporters of the original project had lined up on one side or the other, with Ellison leading the opposition to the EMSDC’s joint plan with the city. And it was at that point, in early 2004, that, by a one-vote margin, city council pronounced a plague on everybody’s houses and set the plan aside. Everything was in limbo again.
But in 2009, EMSDC entered into a partnership with Mountain Housing Opportunities and the revitalization plans were jump-started. Long story short: the MHO-EMSDC alliance obtained commitments for a total of $11.1 million in grants and loans from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency and from Buncombe County – enough to proceed with elaborate plans for renovation of three key buildings that “will result in 15-20 new businesses, 50 permanent jobs, and 62 affordable/work force apartments for qualifying renters ranging in rent from $200-780 per month. There will also be 600 square feet of community space, which includes a green space, courtyard, and computer lab, and 7,000 square feet of commercial, retail, and office space,” according to the Asheville Grown Business Alliance.
Fine and dandy. Work was actually set to begin on the project in June of this year but, as has often been the case in the past two decades, fate (or something) played another wild card: sharply rising construction costs, which drove the project over its budget line.
Re-enter the city of Asheville, which on August 27 voted an allocation of $3.4 million to take up the slack. The announcement that it would do so followed closely on the heels of its announcement of a $2 million dollar set-aside for improvements to Pack Place and, more specifically, to the Asheville Art Museum. And this, in turn, followed council’s pronouncement, in April, that the city was looking at a $6 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Some observers were quick to note that the $5.4 million in set-asides nearly equaled the total amount of the projected deficit.
At its September 10 meeting, Council gave final approval to its allocation for The Block, but members intimated that in order to prioritize the funding, it might have to delay a couple of other projects: a proposed greenway on Clingman Avenue and burying utility lines along South Lexington Avenue. It was even hinted that there could be a delay in releasing funds to the art museum. With those tweaks, council said, work could begin on The Block in October.
None too soon. In anticipation of the work’s beginning, buildings are locked or boarded up and fencing has appeared around vacant lots. But like a lawn left unattended even briefly, the weeds of neglect are reappearing: new graffiti, discarded needles, and a pillow, still bearing the imprint of somebody’s head, in the corner of a doorway.
Next: The eagle squeals: how the city plans to finance keeping faith with The Block