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#TBT: When downtown Asheville almost became a mall

Photo: @mrdanalexaner

Photo: @mrdanalexaner

DYK: Back in the 1970s, downtown Asheville was almost razed to build a massive shopping mall?

1929: After a period of economic boom, the Great Depression hit Asheville. The city, which had borrowed a total of $8,860,000 for construction projects through the 1920s, would be paying off the debt for decades. The final payment would be made in 1976, but the lack of public funds for municipal spending left downtown Asheville on the decline.

1974: After years of neglect, downtown was in need of an overhaul. Described by city officials as “blighted,” the heart of Asheville was the focus of a redevelopment plan which would have razed historic buildings to put in a 22.7-acre shopping mall that people hoped would bring business back downtown.

The Asheville Mall, which was partly to blame for the exodus of shoppers from downtown, had opened the previous year during this heyday for shopping centers and malls, which controlled 44% of the nation’s retail sales at that time (based on information from 1974).

So in ‘77, Mayor Gene Ochsenreiter and local business leaders formed the Asheville Revitalization Commission, or ARC. The commission’s solution was a commercial shopping complex developed by the City and Philadelphia-based developer Strouse, Greenberg and Company. They called the campaign “Building A Better Asheville.”

1980: Inspection of downtown buildings begins on North Lexington Ave, Broadway, College St., Rankin Ave. and Haywood St. Of the 94 buildings surveyed, 66 were substandard according to the code of the time.

1981: The final draft of the redevelopment plan, which revealed 22+ acres of a shopping center was released by the city’s Housing Authority and Division of Planning.

Here’s how the mall would have changed downtown:

  • The mall would have partially covered North Lexington Ave. between College and Hiawassee Streets.
  • The area from approximately Walnut St. to Hiawassee on the Broadway side (the location of the Center for Craft, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Satellite Gallery, L.O.F.T., the RISC Building, and other retail and event spaces) would be a seven-level parking deck.
  • Three major department stores (330,000 square feet total) were planned for the development. Smaller shops would take up 250,000 square feet total, and a planned food court would have been 13,000 square feet.
  • A 300-room hotel would have been constructed above two of the major department stores (out of three planned) that would have faced onto College St.
  • People living in the area would have been relocated. At the time the plan was released, there were 125 residents that would have had to move.
ource: Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, and City of Asheville, Division of Planning.

Source: Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, and City of Asheville, Division of Planning.

So why isn’t there a giant mall in downtown Asheville?

The short answer: Voting.

In November of 1981, voters banded together through the “Save Downtown Asheville” movement and defeated the $40 million bond referendum that would have officially launched demolition and construction efforts.

Two of the most important members of the movement? Roger McGuire (yes, that Roger McGuire, of the Roger McGuire Green) and investor-philanthropist Julian Price. The two men, plus other local artists and entrepreneurs who had made homes + created businesses downtown, raised money to support arts + culture in the district. Price founded Public Interest Projects, a real estate firm that enabled many of Asheville’s now iconic businesses, like Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe, The Orange Peel, and Laughing Seed, to open.

And although they had to abandon their project, city officials decided on a few different revitalization techniques that actually made a big difference, including approving liquor sales by the drink (Buncombe County had been dry previously), approving sidewalk dining + launching Bele Chere.

Bonus fact: This wasn’t the first time a mall was considered for downtown. In 1965, a consulting firm drafted plans for approximately the same area that would have demolished buildings and raised a shopping center with below-ground parking. It was the City’s sixth priority in its plan for Asheville at the time–but they only made it through the top five.

I have some vague memories of downtown Asheville in the late 1980s. My parents only went downtown to eat at The Windmill, a European fine dining destination owned by the family of restaurateur Vijay Shastri, or the swanky 23 Page, which had fancy things like quail and beet ravioli on the menu, and that was pretty much it.

In middle school, I could be found roaming the Asheville Mall with my band of besties. But by high school, downtown, with its vibrant street life and still-seedy pockets, had by far the more compelling siren song. And despite the fact that parking is kind of terrible now, I’m grateful that the downtown mall, despite how much sense it might have made at the time, never materialized.

Did you know about the plans for the downtown mall? How do you think having a mall downtown would have changed the city? Do you think we would still make all those “Best Of” lists? Let us know by replying to this email, or tell us over on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


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