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A question of historical proportions

I want to believe that the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce can get along with its neighbors. I want to believe that the organization won't pressure the Historic Resources Commission into accepting a not-so-historically-pleasing design for a new visitor center near the head of Montford Avenue. But then I read a subtly threatening headline in the Feb. 17 Asheville Citizen-Times: "If Montford location rejected, headquarters will move off I-40 near Farmers Market."

What? If the Chamber doesn't get its way, they'll completely ditch a proposal to build a new visitor center and Chamber headquarters on the site where the Peddler Restaurant now sits? The organization wants special treatment from the HRC, whose approval is required for any new buildings in the Montford Historic District?

Not so, Chamber representatives assure me. But Chamber CEO Jay Garner is quoted in the Citizen-Times article as complaining that it costs the organization "more and more" every time its architects must tweak the design to meet HRC criteria. On the flip side, some neighborhood activists allege that Asheville's influential Cecil family is behind this: They want the Montford location rejected, the argument goes, so the new visitor center will be off I-40, on property they own. Preservationists, meanwhile, argue that the current visitor center looks like a Gulag prison -- and, without the HRC's input, so will the new building.

Good lord -- no wonder folks complain that there's too much divisiveness in this town!

Just last year, the Chamber requested special zoning to allow a 45,000-square-foot building on the 9-acre site, which is not zoned for uses requiring such a large structure. Chamber leaders used the we'll-build-it-on-I-40 threat then, too, when they pitched their case to the Asheville City Council. But Chamber representatives also expressed a willingness and intention to work with the HRC and Montford representatives, and Council granted the transition-overlay designation they requested.

After that, who knows what happened? Maybe the process didn't get greased the way Chamber reps would have liked. For one thing, the HRC only recently revised the Montford guidelines to include a relatively flexible category for "monumental" buildings (most of the guidelines deal with residential structures); monumental buildings embody the architectural spirit Asheville is known for (think City Hall, the S&W Cafeteria, the Grove Park Inn). The new guidelines allow much flexibility in design -- such as how far the structure must be set back from the street -- according to HRC Director Maggie O'Connor.

Unfortunately, the Chamber's initial design wasn't all that monumental, sporting a blocky, cookie-cutter look. "Corporate, conservative architecture," a local resident lamented. So architect Steve Walker revised it, presenting HRC members with a new look that, he said, was inspired by the U.S. Post Office once located where Pritchard Park is now.

Walker's revision is a towered affair that reminds me of some of the early-20th-century architecture of West Asheville's Haywood Road corridor. But that design posed new questions, which surfaced in the HRC's preliminary review on Feb. 9: Several commissioners asked that the window design be changed and the brickwork show more architectural details. Some commisioners questioned whether the tower would fit with the look and character of Montford. Fellow architect Mike Freeman responded that detailing the brickwork would not be economically feasible, according to the official minutes of the meeting. Two commissioners noted that they were not pleased with the revision, overall (but, ironically, one of them said that the HRC has been "overly involved").

Meanwhile, Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford, who's been involved in the whole process, aptly observes: "The site is difficult to design for, since it is a transition property between downtown Asheville and the more residential part of Montford. Furthermore, there is no "context" in the immediate vicinity that provides a specific design direction. Consequently, this site represents a considerable architectural challenge."

But back off from the technicalities a moment, and remember that the Peddler property has a turbulent history: Local preservationists -- including many Montford residents -- tried to save the historic Coleman House that once occupied the spot; the building was bulldozed, however, despite an oral agreement with the property owner that it would be preserved. "No one would be sorry to see the Peddler go," said one Montford resident, when asked about the Chamber/HRC conundrum.

Whether you like the steaks the Peddler's known for or not, here's a chance for Montford to get a new building at its gateway -- one that might, at least, honor the spirit of the Coleman House and its Queen Anne design. Here's a chance for the Chamber to get what it wants -- more space for all that economic-development stuff they're eager to do. Here's a chance for a new visitor center that would highlight downtown's historic quirkiness and catch visitors' eyes as they drive into town (but, hopefully, not the way wrecks seem to draw our attention).

Granted, serious questions remain about the traffic the new center will create: Will the city request a signal light for the intersection of Hill Street and Montford? Will visitors to the new center access it from the Randolph School side, which would pull hundreds of vehicles a day into the neighborhood? And what effect will the combined traffic from the new Chamber facility and a new shopping center/residential building across the street -- planned by Neighborhood Housing Services to fill the vacant lot next to Readers Corner and Hunters Bank -- have on Montford?

"It's a great location," says Chamber board member and downtown-business owner Laurey Masterton. "It would be better if we could be downtown [rather than at the Farmers Market]."

"Downtown was the number-one choice," affirms Jack Cecil, who runs Biltmore Farms. That's the Cecil-family business that owns the Chamber's second choice for a site -- the I-40/Farmers Market parcel, which is one-third the size of the Montford location (but, unlike the Peddler property, is on level ground) "It makes no difference to me whether [the Chamber] buys my property or not. I have other uses for it," he adds.

There goes the Cecils-are-behind-everything theory.

But what about the implication that members of the HRC are being kind of nitpicky? Says HRC Chair Betty Lawrence: "We do want to work with the Chamber -- just let us do our job." The HRC, she mentions, has approved most every design proposal presented to it over the years. Lawrence also points out that it's typical for the petitioner to have to go back to the drawing board after the preliminary review -- a step meant to address issues that might prevent final approval.

Says local architect (and Montford resident) Michael McDonough, "It's not hard ... to get something approved."

And, finally, a reporter's note: The comments from HRC members, evident in the Feb. 9 minutes, consists of typical meeting banter, part of a process of back-and-forth discussion that takes place in many of the cases the HRC reviews. Very few major projects make it past the preliminary review without further design work being required.

As yet, the Chamber hasn't petitioned the HRC for its final --and binding -- opinion on the design. Let's hope, as Jack Cecil says he does, that the situation will soon be resolved, without special accommodations -- or subtle pressures from either side.

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