By Leslee Kulba- Steven Lee Johnson, principal of Sitework Studios, pitched proposed changes to Pritchard Park before Asheville City Council. What he described as a “heavily-used, urban park” had been in decline since it was first created, fifteen years ago. Modifications would improve “security,” health of the landscape, and aesthetics. The city had advertised Sitework’s designs for bid and was asking council to approve a $232,349 contract with Pinnacle Landscapes, LLC, of Asheville. The Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Department could have spent funds from its $650,000 maintenance fund, but staff was trying to get the city to pay for this big-ticket item out of its general Capital Improvement Program.
The staff report merely said recommendations from a 2014 police department report would be implemented. Techniques of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) would include improving visibility by thinning out the understory and shrub layers, installing abundant LED lighting, and putting up fences. The fences were described as 4 feet tall, black, wrought iron fencing, like that surrounding the Vance Monument and other parks throughout the world. The fencing would direct people to the crosswalks so they wouldn’t be jumping out into Patton Avenue traffic.
From the presentation, it sounded like the city’s greatest concern was the welfare of tree roots, which do not fare well with a lot of human trampling. The landscape architects had prepared an inventory of existing trees, determining which should be saved. Johnson described the park as a shady oasis, the lush tree canopy being a crowning feature. Maintenance would include aerating the compacted soil and installing an irrigation system. Fencing, this time, would keep people off the tree roots and the new ground vegetation, which promised to provide “seasonal interest, year-round.”
In addition to plantings, the park would undergo hardscape upgrades. Johnson said nothing would be taken away, only improved. Existing fixtures would be pressure-washed, and minor repairs would be made to sidewalks and brick walls. Additions include stone pavers, decorative tiles, and ornamental boulders expanding seating for the amphitheater. Signage would be replaced, and a drinking fountain would operate year-round. The upgrades should take fifteen weeks to complete, and staff wanted to work during the slow tourist season. The park will remain open, with work proceeding on cordoned-off sections. Scheduled events, like the drum circle, will not be interrupted.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell was the first to comment. “I understand trees, pretty well,” he began in understatement. He then began naming contradictions in the PC presentation he had just heard. The city did not protect tree roots in any of its other parks. What’s more, if the park was to remain a “shady oasis,” why did the city want to fence off the shade? Johnson merely explained the park presented a “standard urban boundary situation [in need of] perimeter edge control.”
Mayor Esther Manheimer reminded her peers they were not the landscape architects. She recalled seeing the fences in cities she had visited, like Paris, New York, and Savannah. The fencing, she said, was not anything experimental. She noted Pack Square Park, in front of City Hall, was now a “dirt park” because people use it. “It’s hard to enjoy a dirt park versus a green park,” she said before labeling the problem a question of balance between having a healthy park and letting people use it.
Bothwell described the problem more directly. “There’s an element in the downtown community who want to exclude as many people as possible from Pritchard Park.” While city staff had solicited community input, they had only consulted the Downtown Commission, the Asheville Downtown Association, and Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors. Describing their bent, Bothwell said, “DARN called itself DARN for a reason.”
According to the city’s online crime mapping tool, in the past year, within two city blocks of the park, the following crimes have been reported: 11 aggravated assaults, 3 burglaries, 66 larcenies, 3 car thefts, 8 robberies, and two incidents of vandalism. In spite of Asheville’s Ten Year plan to End Homelessness celebrating its twelfth birthday this January, downtown has seen an influx in homeless people cooking, sleeping, and hanging out in doorways over the last year. Many campers are not allowed in shelters either because they are intoxicated or they insist on staying with their dogs. Others suffer mental health issues. There has also been a problem with rats in the area.
Councilman Gordon Smith made a motion to approve with a caveat for diversity and inclusion, but withdrew it after he learned the fences would enclose more than small circles around the trees. Council then decided to continue the hearing to January 24, soliciting input from the city’s Homeless Advisory Committee in the interim. “We may have to up your contract,” Manheimer told Johnson. “We’re probably messing up the construction schedule, too, but anyway. That’s how we are.”