The Homegrown Downtown: Redevelopment in Asheville, NC

By Elizabeth Strom (University of South Florida) and Robert J. Kerstein (University of Tampa)

You visit Asheville, NC, perhaps, for the lovely fall foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or because you’ve read about North Carolina’s top tourist attraction, the Biltmore Estate.  But you quickly find that this city of 85,000 also has a growing arts district and a dynamic downtown whose galleries, restaurants and microbreweries have earned praise as a “best beer city”, “great food destination,” and even “coolest city”.  U.S. cities in all regions and of all sizes have been seeking ways to turn moribund downtowns into economically vibrant and culturally rich destinations; do Asheville’s political and economic leaders have the “secret sauce”?

Written by two political scientists who study urban revitalization and are also enthusiastic Asheville visitors, this article seeks to understand the factors that transformed a pleasant but economically stagnant regional center into a growing destination for cultural consumption, attracting visitors and residents from well beyond its borders. They find that the city’s history as a vacation spot for 19th and early 20th century elites created a strong foundation of a high quality historic built fabric that remained largely intact as much through neglect as through historic preservation efforts. But the well defined and historically rich downtown became a rallying point for an emerging coalition of preservationists and independent business advocates in the 1980s, and their efforts to revitalize the city center through planning, support for culture and small businesses, and redevelopment of public spaces have come to shape the politics of redevelopment in this city.

“The Homegrown Downtown” builds on, but departs from, case studies of other cities, where the typical cast of characters in the downtown development tale often includes politically ambitious mayors and profit-minded corporate leaders and real estate developers alongside, in some cases, progressive labor or neighborhood-based alternative movements. Asheville has a nonpartisan, at-large council and weak mayor, and lacks any major corporate stakeholders or significant downtown landholders seeking to shape the city center. In the place of these institutional interests, Asheville’s downtown coalition has featured a fluid cast of small business owners, civic leaders, philanthropists, investors, environmental activists and artists working in and outside of local government. This coalition, which may presage the urban development politics emerging in other cities as traditional anchor institutions lose their centrality, is dubbed “social entrepreneurial” in recognition of its pursuit of economic goals alongside quality of life concerns, and its mix of strategic and opportunistic actions. Today, however, many of Asheville’s politically active citizens question the recent construction and approval of several downtown hotels that they fear will transform downtown into a more generic tourist destination and also contribute to the growing shortage of housing units that are affordable for the city’s workforce.ity’s workforce.

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