Let me just say up front that I do really like Asheville, and I think overall we’re pretty lucky to live in an area with this vibrant, fun, slightly freaky town anchoring the western part of the state.
But man, it seems like it takes forever to get things done here.
What spurred this latest musing? This email from a reader:
“Wondering if you could do an investigation/update about the Pit of Despair? I saw the years-ago study done and the ‘rendering’ of what may go there, but then I recently saw/heard somewhere that McKibbon Hospitality will be building a hotel there. What is the story — when will it happen? HAH!! Will it happen or will the city pay for yet another study?”
Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks nothing ever gets done in this town. Or who likes all caps now and then. HAH!
While plenty of projects and initiatives have lingered and died in Asheville over the past couple of decades, perhaps the Pit of Despair — also known as the Haywood and Page project — remains the most notorious. I really think the city ought to replace the City Hall building’s pink cap as its logo with a depiction of the Pit of Despair.
Located at 68 Haywood St., across the street from the Vanderbilt Apartments and Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville, and with a nice view of the Basilica of St. Lawrence, the aptly named pit has remained vacant since 2003 when the city bought it for $2.4 million.
To be fair, the city did tear down a dilapidated parking deck on site and the former Flying Frog restaurant. And — major bonus — the city installed some faux stone walls along the way to make it less of an eyesore.
But an eyesore it remains 20 years later, with a big, ugly, open pit anchoring a busy section of downtown. I think it’s safe to say most cities would be fine with a hotel or convention center located a stone’s throw from the major concert and events center downtown, but not Asheville.
City Council decided this area should be building-free, and in October 2020 it unanimously voted to adopt a “conceptual master plan” for a bold, dynamic use for the site: another downtown park. Sure, Pritchard Park and Pack Square Park are both short strolls away, but a park it was going to be, not another godforsaken hotel or apartments or an office building that might generate property taxes.
So, how’s the park coming?
“Implementation of the Haywood and Page Concept Plan (adopted by Council in October 2020) has been on hold since the pandemic, but it is still an effort that the city is likely to consider when resources are made available,” the city’s Planning and Urban Design staff told me via email. “As we have focused our attention these past two-and-half years on transformative projects like the Reparations Initiative and redeveloping five acres of city-owned property at 319 Biltmore Avenue (for a mixed-use and mixed-income residential community), we continue to learn valuable lessons that will help us with this effort. Staff anticipates council may provide additional direction on the redevelopment of Haywood and Page and/or other city-owned properties in the coming fiscal year.”
Allow me to translate: Ain’t nothing happening. HAH!
I predict it will be a close race as to what gets done first around here, the I-26 Connector project or this park. Seriously, I hope the city proves me wrong — the park plan does look like a real knockout.
The city website that contains information on the project includes an encouraging nugget about how city staff recommended the city pursue a phased approach to the park. But I kind of tripped over this a bit:
“The first phase could include developing an agreement with the Basilica of St. Lawrence to facilitate land reconfiguration as well as identifying potential community and private-sector partnerships and funding strategies, and include the reconfiguring of the transportation network around the Haywood and Page site.”
Allow me to translate: HAH!
Seriously, the Connector will get done first. And that’s supposed to wrap up near the end of the decade (I’d bet good money that completion will get pushed back, too).
While we’re on the subject of things that won’t happen, a McKibbon Hotel on the site is one of them. Two decades ago, the city wanted a hotel on the site, because downtown wasn’t inundated with them yet, and the location made sense.
Hotelier John McKibbon had an option on the site, but a legal challenge ensued and turned into a big mess, so he dropped the idea. And the pit endured.
To satisfy my reader’s initial question, don’t look for McKibbon to build a hotel on the Pit of Despair. His company has opened several hotels in Asheville, but the pit is slated to be a park, not a hotel site.
For fun, I reached out to McKibbon Hospitality anyway.
“Thanks for reaching out,” spokesperson Lauren Bowles said via email. “McKibbon is not planning anything on this site.”
Gosh, I wonder why not?
A pattern emerges: Wait until there’s a crisis
At this point, with some serious commitments already made to reparations, McCormick Field upgrades, the Municipal Golf Course, affordable housing, greenways, and on and on, I think the pit can rest easy for a decade or so.
As much of Asheville’s amenities can.
Asheville has a pattern in all of these things: waiting until a facility becomes way outdated and something of a liability, then acting to fix it.
What the city lacks is a true visionary — maybe another Julian Price, the Jefferson-Pilot insurance heir who lived downtown and funded an array of projects in the 1980s and ‘90s, including Public Interest Projects. But we need a Julian Price on steroids — someone who can push Asheville to think big.
And then we need some real movers and shakers to make it actually happen. Yes, this can include city staffers, maybe even the city manager, although probably not the city manager we have now, Debra Campbell, who seems more interested in retirement than real municipal vision.
What we consistently get in Asheville is stasis. I mean, come on, the Town of Fletcher is building dedicated pickleball courts before Asheville. It’s not rocket science, folks.
While “stasis” is a good word for Asheville, I think “stagnation” really sums up the local show. But hit the “synonym” key on your computer and you get a jackpot of terms that also fit Asheville: lethargy, torpidity, sluggishness, inertia, inertness, inactivity, inaction, dormancy, slowness, lifelessness, dullness, heaviness, listlessness, languor, languidness, idleness, indolence, sloth, apathy, accidie, passivity, weariness, tiredness, lassitude, fatigue, sleepiness, drowsiness, enervation, somnolence, narcosis.
All right, “narcosis” is a bit much, but you get the point: other cities beat the pants off of Asheville when it comes to amenities, and Asheville is a wealthy community with a gigantic property tax base.
But when it comes to utilizing that base for say, maybe a Business Improvement District, Asheville can’t get it done. As I mentioned in this recent article, the city approved one a decade ago, and it would’ve helped with downtown security and sanitation.
But the city never allowed the BID to actually tap into the taxes it was supposed to get.
So, the problems festered and worsened, until they reached a crisis point this year.
Maybe it’s a hangover from the city nearly going bankrupt in the Great Depression and then stubbornly paying off its bond debts until the mid-1970s, leaving behind a town essentially frozen in time.
Meanwhile, if you want to see a premier concert in a performance hall built this century, head to the $46 million Durham Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008. Or maybe down the mountain to Greenville, South Carolina’s $42 million Peace Center, which opened in 1990 and got a $21.5 million renovation in 2010.
I saw John Mellencamp there Friday, and I can vouch that it’s a fantastic venue.
The 15,000-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which opened in 1998 and cost $63 million, draws the really huge shows, by the way. To Greenville. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen and The Who there, as well as professional hockey games.
Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, part of the Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville complex, opened in 1940 and got a major renovation before a reopening in 1975. The former Civic Center arena, now called the ExploreAsheville.com Arena, opened in 1974 and seats about 7,600. It got a $7 million-plus renovation about a decade ago.
But still, Greenville is a smaller city than Asheville, and not the tourist mecca we are. And while the ExploreAsheville.com arena overhaul looks good, it was spurred in part by a leaking roof that poured water on bluegrass star Alison Krauss and her band — during a show.
In 2020, right as the pandemic hit, the city unveiled a grandiose, $100-million-plus renovation proposal for the Wolfe Auditorium that made a big splash and then died. Chris Corl, director of Community & Regional Entertainment Facilities, does yeoman’s work keeping the place running, but we’re all stuck with a 83-year-old facility that has poor acoustics, peeling paint and chairs apparently made to seat no one larger than an Olympic gymnast.
Take the Muni, for instance
Playing a round of golf at Asheville Municipal Golf Course two weekends ago, I was reminded yet again of Asheville’s torpor: wait until a crisis erupts and then spend the money to keep from actually losing the asset. Corl has shown some real leadership in getting the Muni spruced up, but it took more than a decade for the city to act.
Yes, the previous golf course contractor did nothing but collect greens fees, but the city needed to kickstart the renovations. The course had bare fairways strewn with rocks, tee boxes that looked like the beach and greens with more fungal diseases than the men’s locker room at the Y.
The course, a Donald Ross gem dating to the 1920s, languished for more than a decade, becoming a laughing stock in golf circles. And that’s a shame, because it played a key role in integration here and hosted an African American-driven golf tournament for decades, history that was largely ignored.
It’s clear the $2 million the city and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority have funneled to the course is being used wisely, as the greens looked great, new sod is on some fairways, the tee boxes are in way better shape, the clubhouse has gotten an upgrade and they’ve cut out some trees to reduce shade without destroying the natural feel.
While I chide the city on its lack of vision, I’ve got to say I was impressed with Corl’s efforts at the Muni, and his attempt to get that major Thomas Wolfe renovation started. Sure, it was crazy fancy and expensive at over $100 million, but it was visionary.
It would be the kind of place that bolsters Asheville’s reputation as an arts center, a showplace, if you will.
A growing trash pile under a bridge, for three years
Instead, we have the mess under the Craven Street Bridge along the French Broad River to polish Asheville’s reputation. Ironically enough, the city actually pushed through a pretty cool makeover for the River Arts District (using a lot of DOT money) that has reenergized the area.
But then they let this mess — accumulated clothes, trash, and other detritus from a homeless encampment, linger. A friend who frequently runs along that stretch, Nicole Crane, tells me the trash had been accumulating since 2020, with a fair amount of it making it into the river.
She sent me photos of the mess a couple weeks ago. Clearly visible is a City of Asheville trash can floating in the French Broad.
“The artsy tourists in the parking lot I was in were commenting on how gross the people that live here must be to allow that,” Crane said.
Yes, the DOT and the city point fingers at each other about who’s supposed to clean it up and who should act first, but the upshot is it took years to get done.
It was plenty of time for the garbage to stagnate, just like Asheville.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Decades of liberal democrat NON leadership is the major cause and effect. Elected democrats DESTROY cities.
That’s nonsense. It’s conservatives who balk at spending money on the kinds of assets described in this article.
Where have you been?
There are no conservatives in the Asheville City Government!
Not since there was a handsome young lawyer named Lou who also helped us write our wills. Run again!!!
“There is none so blind ….” The last conservative on the council was Carl Mumpower who departed in 2009. Since then there has not been even a single centrist democrat (Joe Manchin) or republican (John McCain).
In the early 2000’s there was a coalition of four who managed to maintain a mostly sane majority: Democrats Charlie Worley and Jan Davis along with Joe Dunn and Mumpower. I believe that Davis was the last “survivor” of that group and all were replaced by hard left progressives. Even left leaning Cecil Bothwell was defeated because he occasionally supported the right of people to use their private property without micromanagement by Council.
Sell the Pit of Despair and use the proceeds to fix up the Thomas Wolfe Vomitorium, which is a reeking disgrace to this city, a profound insult to the splendid Asheville Symphony and an ordeal for all the patrons. The city came up with the money to please the extortionists at Major League Baseball, but I haven’t seen a dime devoted to the Vomitorium.
This article is just spot on target! As I am totally confused reading other articles which clearly outline that no one is in charge here. The area will continue to reap what it sows by conducting yet another study or naming yet another committee to tell us what we already know. The city is like a parent who just wants to be friends. Well we all know how that works out.
Asheville’s primary problem is a lack of leadership, both in government and private enterprise. City government seems paralyzed by the prospect of progress, more willing to commission yet another expensive study than to take action; more concerned with “building consensus” than making difficult decisions. Can you imagine the gridlock if the Beaucatcher Cut were proposed today? It would never happen and Tunnel Road would be backed up to Black Mountain. When the manufacturing leaders and regional bank executives left town beginning in the 1990s, a tremendous void in civic leadership was created, a hole that gapes as openly as the Pit of Despair. Unfortunately, those days will not return and we’re left wondering, where do we find a new generation of true leadership?
In 1893 the state of NC adopted a motto borrowed from the writings of Cicero: “Esse Quam Videri” (To be rather than to seem). City leaders, both elected and appointed, would do well to contemplate the meaning of this expression as it applies to their own long established pattern of weak decision making and even weaker follow through.
Greenville, SC puts Asheville to shame. The difference is night and day, amenities vs none, clean vs dirty, leadership vs none. No comparison.
Maybe not for long, MJ. Greenville just put a chief diversity officer on the payroll. Simply a waste of taxpayer money, and maybe the beginning of their downfall. Hopefully not.
So they like to wipe out entire forests next to parks while turning concrete parking lots into parks…Got it.
Fire Campbell, hire a City Manager with a vision and a track record of knocking heads while taking flack, and stop death by committee and consultant. We need some serious cojones in a person who understands the old Asheville persona, but knows how to blend it with practical solutions that solve residents’ problems.
Why not just have one of our local artists create a sign stating “Pit of Despair,” and make it a photo op / tour stop type of attraction(LaZoom bus)? Create shirts (“I visited Asheville’s Pit of Despair”) — Have a food truck stationed to sell “Pit of Despair Soup” and handle the T-Shirt sales. Move the drum circle to the “Pit.” So much could be done in the meantime without spending a lot of money.
Comparisons with Greenville SC are valid, and certainly are apparent in the ways growth has been managed better south of the border and amenities added and upgraded in a timely manner. While the City of Greenville is a bit smaller than Asheville, the metro area is nearly double our size and provides a broader tax base.
Is it too harsh to believe that Asheville city government is ineffectual?
Asheville reminds me of the poor soul with one foot on the dock and the other on the boat gunnel who really can’t decide which foot he wants to place while the boat glides away from the dock. In Asheville’s case the dock represents the late 19th or early 20th century while the dock represents a leap into the 21st century and it’s challenges. Thinking downtown seems to remain in the mindset that whatever Mr. Vanderbilt and Dr. Grove want is OK while hoping that some white knight will appear with a new textile factory that will pay a living wage and build housing for its employees. Or, government makes decisions by consultant study. That way, if things go awry, city government can blame the consultant.
I spent a lot of time in Greenville, SC from last spring into the fall. Over that entire time, I saw three, THREE, homeless people. I spent the last two weeks in Paducah, KY. Downtown Paducah looks pretty grim, and I kept looking for the homeless. Finally, the evening before we left I spotted a group with their shopping carts gathered around the public restroom near the flood wall.
The I-240 overpass at Merrimon and Broadway now seems to be the depository for homeless trash.
Just to pass along, the trash under The Craven St Bridge was cleaned up a couple week ago. It looks much better!
I agree with Michael Lewis, that there’s a schizophrenic dysfunction in the city government. Attributing it to “liberals” is disingenuous at best. We have an unpaid council with no executive power. Conservative downtown property owners and their Raleigh-connected attorneys, the tourism industry and downtown chamber who pull all the strings behind the scenes, and a “strong” city manager caught in the middle, but who has no accountability to voters. I suspect the Haywood park project didn’t happen because the downtown power brokers didn’t want it to. They want the prime real estate for development. We have a government structure designed to be dysfunctional. That’s the problem.
The mayor and city council members are paid, the unpaid comment above is incorrect.
Asheville mayor annual over $20,000 per year; city council member at least $15,000 per year.
Your opinion column is spot on. The ‘kick the can down the road’ policy because one person showed up at a Council meeting and didnt like it, or was offended by the language, or just because, yank it from the agenda and delay. Hire a consultant, wait 9 months to 1 year for the report, hold meetings, get public input, ignore public input. Send out RFP’s, ignore those, send out more. Staff leaves. New hire, getting up to speed again, wait, wait, wait. Adjust the project as it now costs way more that when it started 4 years ago, project is now a dud. Yank any proposal from the agenda, send it back to the ineffective Board and Commission, (hopefully those folks will show up for the meeting and there will be a vote). Send it to the next Board, amend it, send it back to the other Board, complain, delay. 8 years later it finally makes it on Council Agenda, a new person arrives in Asheville has just seen it and it needs to be pulled again, back to the Board. A new budget fight every single year. If they changed their budget cycle to two years, maybe a department could actually get something done. Being a staff member is like whiplash, what are we doing now, where do I need to be? No continuity of projects. There is ZERO leadership, ZERO vision, ZERO strenght of character on Council. No one is willing to stand for anything with vision. They bend, sway, deflect, stroke, cuddle, hug, smile and ‘feel good’. I am seriously hoping Asheville will see a new City Manager.
Is it possible for the good citizens of Asheville to amend its municipal charter to eliminate the city manager position and put the governing power into the hands of the mayor-council? That would create accountability and certainly eliminate any attempted “buck-passing”. According to the NC League of Municipalities —- “The form of government also is set forth in the municipal charter; there are two major forms and one variation. The first form is mayor-council, where there is not a manager. The mayor and the council, acting together, make decisions about services, revenues and expenditures. All personnel come under the board with this form of government.”
I agree with all the comments above about the problems in Asheville and the management (or lack thereof) of the city by the city manager and council.
My real question is where are the viable candidates to replace the ones who are there? I vote and I haven’t seen anyone new step up for at least 10 years.
Don’t look at me as I’m too old.
As someone else pointed out the problem is the city government–the mayor, the council, and the city manager. The twin of the “pit of despair” is just a few blocks away. Pack Square. Tear down the Vance Monument. Leave the squalid remains. Concentrate on reparations. Diversity. Equity. Let the city rot. Even the new paving plan is piecemeal. Look at Lakeshore Drive where it intersects with Merrimon. A mess. And speaking of Merrimon, what of that disaster to accommodate the occasional bicyclist? John Boyle refers to City Hall’s pink cap. It should be changed to a dunce cap. And speaking of diversity? Is the Asheville city administration representative of this city? Take a look at the ethnic and racial makeup? Do you see any white men? Just asking.
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