Asheville officials plan renewal of historically black neighborhood

By Max Miller – [email protected] – Opinion Editor
The official report, dated July, 1978, outlining the renewal plan for the Eagle-Market Street neighborhood in Asheville, sits in a bin in the Special Collections section of Ramsey Library. Its spine has begun to come apart, and a Post-it note stuck to its cover reads, “Project never implemented.”
After urban renewal in the late 1970s failed to economically revitalize the Eagle-Market Street neighborhood and displaced hundreds of its African-American residents, the Asheville city government looks back to avoid past mistakes as it moves forward with its current plan for the area’s redevelopment.
“I wasn’t here in the days of urban renewal, so what I know is anecdotal. I think that there was a sense of a failed promise,” said Jeff Staudinger, director of the Department of Community Development. “While urban renewal succeeded on one level — of helping to insure that many households that didn’t have safe, affordable housing could get that — it didn’t carry through on promises to help ensure a vibrant and diverse business community. It tore families and their cultural institutions apart.”
The urban renewal plan from 1978 visualized a framework for developing the economically depressed Eagle-Market Street neighborhood, aka “the Block,” into a thriving commercial district, which could resemble its former role as a business hub for African-Americans in the segregation era, but within the scope of the desegregated downtown.
A map attached to the proposal shows commercial spaces lining Market Street and dotting the hillside where substandard homes once stood. The city moved the mostly black residents to newly-constructed public housing, planned as temporary residences, and bulldozed the inadequate houses to make way for the proposed business spaces.
But commerce did not make its way into the neighborhood. While displacement and demolition occurred as scheduled, the redevelopment aspect of the plan never came to fruition.
“What happened, in large part, was the neglect of government and private-sector stakeholders in promoting the growth of an African-American middle class,” Staudinger said. “There were no business development structures really set up. They were inadequately funded. I think it was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’ll just kind of bootstrap yourself.’ Without any follow-up, nothing ever happened.”
Instead of the imagined prosperous commercial district, parking lots for the city’s police, fire and sanitation departments now cover the hillside.
“There were homes on Charlotte Street where people are now parking the city’s trash trucks,” said Dwight Mullen, professor of political science at UNC Asheville. “Do you know what that says to the community when you’ve torn down my home and put a garbage truck on top of where it was?”
Now, as the city undertakes a new urban renewal project in the Eagle-Market Street neighborhood, officials said they seek to create a better infrastructure of affordable housing and commercial units to rebuild the shattered community.
“The city of Asheville is financially supporting this development with more funds than it has ever supported this kind of development with. We have $5 million of funds going into this development. It’s very significant,” Staudinger said. “And yet we still need to keep thinking about these issues relative to poverty in our community, the availability of affordable housing, business development, community development and all the systems and structures that support a strong community.”
The city mainly uses Low Income Housing Tax Credits, many of which come from the Reagan era, to pay for about 60 affordable housing units currently under construction in the Eagle-Market Street neighborhood.
Mountain Housing Opportunities, a local non-profit, manages the construction, refurbishing and leasing of the affordable housing spaces, operating on funds from the tax credits. To qualify for the credits, MHO agrees to rent the spaces to people earning 60 percent or less of median income for the first 15 years of operation.
The city develops affordable housing projects like this to combat rising real estate prices downtown. Steph Monson-Dahl of the Asheville Office of Economic Development said apartments that sold for $120,000 to $190,000 10 years ago now sell for $300,000 to $400,000.
“It was very clear when there was a development boom from about 2006 to 2008, before the bottom fell out, that there was one type of construction happening, and it was luxury apartments,” Monson-Dahl said. “Before that time, several developers downtown had worked to create living spaces all over downtown. They’re not a government or anything, so they didn’t have a lot of ways to put land-use prices or building prices on control and deed restriction, and they let the market take over.”
According to Staudinger, MHO plans to complete the affordable housing construction by December 2015, with about 10,000 square feet of commercial space following in summer 2016.
The city plans to fund the commercial development with Community Development Block Grants through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because the grants used by MHO for the affordable housing cannot cover business spaces, the Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., another non-profit, manages the construction and leasing of these units.
Founded in 1994 by local African-American leaders, the Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. serves not only to create business opportunities for black and other minority entrepreneurs, but to assist them in management and training to ensure their financial stability.
“In this project, the commercial development is equally as important, conceptually, as the residential development, because ‘the Block’ was one of the primary centers for African-American businesses prior to urban renewal in our community,” Staudinger said. “Part of the reason to partner with Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. is really to make sure the whole thing is really geared toward the important social objective of how this community looks at the full participation of African-Americans and other minorities in all phases of the community. Hopefully, someday, it doesn’t have to be a special effort. But, today, it does.”
Monson-Dahl stresses the importance of job creation in stabilizing a developing neighborhood so the area does not lapse after the 15-year affordable housing period ends.
“By raising the amount of jobs that pay above the median wage, we effectively lower the housing cost because they’re making enough to afford it now,” Monson-Dahl said. “You have to press on both sides. We’re trying to press on the price side by continuing to invest in subsidized and affordable housing units, and on the affordability side based on income, which is what we’re trying to press up.”
By combining a more focused housing initiative with a business plan rooted within the African-American community, the current urban renewal plan outlines a clearer vision for families displaced by the 1978 plan to reclaim “the Block.”
“It’s going to be a real challenge. I think what we need to be careful not to do is think that the Eagle-Market Street development will be the cure-all to an urban renewal process that tore a community apart and is still remembered 40 years later,” Staudinger said. “We have to, as a community, keep on working on these issues of economic justice, and we really need to think about how people get into business, where jobs are being created, how people are being trained, who these programs are targeted to and if they’re successful. If we just say, ‘We’re done here,’ then we’ll fail.”