By Roger McCredie- It’s been, among other things, a women’s club and most recently the ministerial headquarters of a church. But the graceful red brick building on the corner of Charlotte Street and Sunset Parkway looks like it belongs on a manicured campus. And that’s because its life began as the Plonk School for Creative Arts.
Now a local veterinarian wants to turn the 75-year-old structure into a doggie day care center – a move that is being met with vigorous opposition by neighbors and preservationists, who say that to do so would be disruptive, potentially dangerous … and grossly inappropriate.
The property, officially listed as One Sunset Parkway, was chosen by Laura and Lillian Plonk, sisters from King’s Mountain, as the site for a school whose curriculum would be focused entirely on “creative arts.” The Plonk School for the Creative Arts was founded in 1938, occupied the current building in 1941 and operated until 1964.
After closing as a school it went through several reincarnations, serving for a time as the Asheville Women’s Club and later as headquarters of El Bethel Christian Assemblies. Most recently it has served as the offices and worship center of Zion Christian Ministries, which is the current owner.
Looking to acquire the property is Asheville veterinarian Dr. Mark Ledyard, whose practice, Charlotte Street Animal Hospital, is almost directly across the street from the Plonk School property. The animal hospital is housed in a large, purpose-built structure Ledyard built in 2007, on the site of what had been a Chinese restaurant.
But while that building is adequate for most of the practice’s purposes, Ledyard says, it is not big enough to accommodate his most rapidly growing area of pet medicine, canine rehabilitation.
“In humans, this would be called ‘physical therapy,’” Ledyard says, “but we can’t legally apply that term to animals. What it amounts to is remedial programs of exercise and therapy for animals with problems from joint issues muscle rebuilding to obesity.
“We just don’t have the room to do all that specialized treatment in our current space,” Ledyard says. “Right across the street there’s a 7,000 square foot building with a 5,000 square-foot auditorium attached to the back of it. That former auditorium is ideal for our therapy purposes.”
Not everybody, though, thinks Ledyard’s plan is a good idea.
“It’s putting a ‘highway business’ in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” says Jack Thompson, Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. “It’s encroaching on the part of Charlotte Street that is definitely non-commercial in nature. If [the property] is rezoned to commercial, that’s the first domino. Then there’s the traffic problem.”
The North Charlotte Street corridor, which begins at College Street, is four lanes wide and lined with small apartment buildings (many of them converted single-family homes), restaurants, retail businesses and professional offices. At the intersection of Charlotte Street and Edwin Place, opposite the Manor gatehouse, the street narrows abruptly to two lanes, all commercial development ends and the street becomes leafy and entirely residential, serving as a thoroughfare through one of Asheville’s oldest and most historic upscale neighborhoods. The Plonk School building is just inside this invisible boundary; Charlotte Street Animal Hospital is just outside it, back down the street in commercial territory.
“The place where the street narrows is the line in the sand,” Thompson says. Rezoning north of it sets a dangerous precedent.”
Not so, says Ledyard. “We’re just applying for conditional rezoning,” he says. “That means that we’ll be restricted to doing exactly what we say we’ll be doing with the property and no more. We’re not encroaching on anything. The school property is already insulated” in the rear by the alley bordering the Manor grounds, on the east by apartments and their tenants’ garage bays, and on the front by the broad, lawn-like median of Sunset Parkway.
“All our rehab treatment will be done inside that 5,000 square-foot former auditorium area,” Ledyard says. “There will be no noise; we have sound engineers to monitor our construction there. The dogs will only be taken outside the therapy area to use the bathroom. As for traffic, we don’t anticipate more than thirty clients a day coming to the building.”
Besides, Ledyard says, he is getting married this fall and he and his fiancée plan to make their home in the main part of the building.
“The inside is mostly classrooms and offices, so we’ll have to do a good deal of interior renovation, but we think it will be attractive. Also, I would think people would be reassured that we’ll actually be living on-site.”
But although Ledyard has indicated that his plans will do little if anything to alter the character of the property, the Preservation Society remains wary of the implications of rezoning, however conditional. “We would hate to see this open a floodgate,” Thompson says.
The city’s zoning board is due to hear Ledyard’s presentation at its May 7 meeting. If the board rules favorably, the matter would then be presented to city council and that could happen as soon as council’s next session on May 14.