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Visioneers Want African-Americans to Replace Green’s with Soul Grocery

People walking by RAD sign

It’s just as well. Patel and his employees are Asian. Whereas the visioneers who created the community consensus for the RAD form-based code want diversity, they want to achieve it by, “integrating the African-American community – jazz club, soul food, grocery store.” (See page 22.)

Should the city be disgraced to publish such rudeness? Probably not. Persons raising objections will be told they’re taking things too literally and not feeling the energy. In fact, local activist Jerry Sternberg related city planner Sasha Vtrunski had explained how the proposed rules for buildings in the district came about. He said she said, “Staff and neighbors get together and stand beside a building and see what feels good.”

The plan is designed to help government with its most important role: garnering revenue. The RAD is becoming a tourist trap, so the city must get in front of the action with a plan, so it can claim credit to justify programming and departmental budgets. On the surface, the city claims it wants to help artists, but at council’s meeting two weeks ago, Helaine Green spoke on behalf of 65 working artists who were going to be robbed of parking space for their patrons.

Apparently, the city wants to foster small arts – the kind tourists can throw in their bicycle baskets and pedal back to their low-wage job creating hotel downtown – unless somebody is thinking of going into the barge business. The plan is all about bringing businesses up to the curb to create a pedestrian feel, with fenestration for human-scale interaction. It calls for “pedestrian bridges, [filling in] missing sidewalks, greenways, river access, better pedestrian connectivity between artist nodes, [a] trolley system, [and] bike taxis.” Wayfinding is to be designed for pedestrian access, as well as “places to sit, public gathering spots, tables, chairs, shade, pocket parks, playgrounds, outdoor dining, art in the parks, [a] sculpture garden, [and a] performing arts center.”

Another big part of the program is place-making. That is one of those technical terms dissidents are derided for misunderstanding. It involves pages upon pages of stuff like regression formulae for time-derivatives of divergences, curls, and gradients of exponentiated hyperbolic inverse trig functions with complex parameterizations for non-linear kurtotic drift. It’s best just to nod and play along like you know what they mean, like you can feel the positive energy.

Having established an energy for tourists with building heights, setbacks, styles, etc.; the city must also make sure artists come to the district and stay put. Strategies include controlling the use of city-owned land. As for other parcels, a land trust is recommended. “Part of the challenge in the River Arts District is speculation by the development community. If a nonprofit owned the land and buildings most desirable to artists, then the profit motive is eliminated, ensuring more reasonable costs for tenants and a focus on the arts.” (See page 58.) Formal mentoring of new artists, inclusionary artist zoning, and rent controls are other tools to be pursued.

This blurb, also on page 58, reads like an ad for fire insurance. “River Arts working artists need to support the Asheville Area Arts Council, as they focus on providing for artists throughout the region. Their mission as a voice of the arts community is a powerful one. Their access to funding sources may also be helpful as the working artists try to retain their spaces in the project area.”

Almost two decades ago, Ann Ryder wrote an article for the Mountain Guardian that warned about the visioneers. She said they’d come to town and hold meetings to gather ideas, but after input was first interpreted for the butcher paper, and then categories lumped theses with antitheses, the result was always the same advocacy for Smart Growth. The story was no different with the charrette week hosted for the RAD’s form-based code.

The public was invited to drop in; investment in the area was not prerequisite. Real people who work in the district and have to make payroll may not have had the luxury to set a spell and vision. But folks who want to see the residents ride bicycles were free to express themselves. Earlier in the RAD redesign, the politically-active conservative Chris Peterson was told a street realignment was going to run through 12 Bones, the restaurant that sits on his property. Now, the fuelish gas station and parking for patrons must go.

A problem with form-based codes is they punish people for aesthetic choices. Zoning originally was justified under municipal policing powers, as putting a noisy plant that expels noxious fumes next to a school with small children would definitely threaten health and safety. Following the logic, it is healthy to make pedestrians walk down concrete chutes with intentionally-planted trees. The RAD is now characterized by loud-colored buildings with creepy-funky street art. How are disciplined structures with well-ordered setbacks supposed to affect the community feel?

Fatal conceit assumes one knows which businesses are good and which are bad, and that an outsider knows better how to run all businesses than those who strive to keep them profitable day-by-day. Aesthetic plans, rather than good laws, don’t direct activities toward pro-social achievement, but introduce unnecessary obstacles that drain opportunities for creative expression and drive up costs of doing business. They also obstruct early adapters of new technology.

Lastly, the community vision oft repeated in the plan is a fiction. It is based on the downside of democracy known since Plato’s time, that two wolves and a sheep get to vote on what’s for dinner. To be fair, America’s highly-dismissed founders wanted a country that was better than that, one that would prevent tyranny of the majority. It had something to do with property rights.

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