A majority of Ashevillians want a public park opposite the Civic Center
For more than a decade thousands of people in Asheville have expressed a desire to preserve the property opposite the Civic Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence as a public park. Petitions have circulated, demonstrations have been held, and letters have been written to newspapers and elected officials. Two opinion polls* have indicated overwhelming support for a park. Still those who want commercial development persist.
As we prepare to start holding events in the space that was covered with gravel for several years, the City conducted an online poll in May 2017, to name the performance space. Nearly half of respondents chose St. Lawrence Green or Park, with a majority for Green. It’s hard to imagine that the name will not finally stick.
Two City Council elections have been substantially decided over this issue. In 2005 when a proposed parking deck on the site became a hot issue, three opponents of the deck were elected and the project died. In 2015 when creation of a park became an explicit issue, park proponents finished 1,2 and 4, and the 3rd place finisher had shifted position from mild opposition to qualified support. The vice mayor who had been a vocal proponent of selling the property to a hotelier was voted out of office.
Meanwhile, in a “saved by the bell” moment, sale to the hotelier was scotched by a lawsuit filed by other hotel owners who challenged the legality of the sales agreement.
My view is that the first thing we need to do when Council finally agrees to take action is to enlist a traffic designer to propose the best solutions for traffic at the intersection of Haywood St., Flint St. and Page Ave. Nothing else should be decided before the traffic flow decision is made because it dictates the rest.
In the meantime we should do what we should have done a few years ago—start using the space for public events. In modern design terms these are referred to as “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” uses, a way for people to figure out what they like or don’t like in a public space. A festival? A concert? A farmer’s/tailgate market? Busking? Some benches? Permits for food trucks? Perhaps once the hotel construction on Page is complete, close that street to automobiles on Sundays and create a pop-up pedestrian mall?
The Project for Public Spaces, which made a presentation at the outset of the current task force effort, has helped facilitate this sort of effort around the world. Their advice? Start small with “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” experiments before any decision is made about the ultimate shape of a public park.
* One poll conducted online by the Asheville Citizen-Times was “self-selecting” and therefore somewhat unreliable. However about 75 percent of respondents wanted a park.
The poll I conducted was an automated poll (respondents touched 1 or 2 or 3 to indicate answers). Such polls are way cheaper than “scientific” polls where a company dials a few hundred “representative” people and talks to them. Automated polls cannot dial cell phones, which arguably shifts the sample to older people more likely to have land lines. But mine dialed over 5,000 Asheville voters who had voted in the previous two City elections, which is a large and arguably random sample. The results were 86 percent in favor of a park. On the same poll, conducted several weeks before the 2015 election, I asked about retention of the City water system which was being snatched away by the General Assembly, and which was a referendum question on the November ballot. My results lined up within a couple of points with the election day outcome. That gives me fairly high confidence in the accuracy of my poll.