2/1/2012 - Architecture students dream up ways to fill downtown Asheville's empty spaces
by Mark Barrett - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- To many people, parking lots in the center of downtown look like good places to, well, park cars.
To Clemson University architecture students, the one on the corner of Patton Avenue and Church Street seems like a great place to construct a building to hold a year-round farmers market.
The lot at Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street might be a place to put several pod-like small offices -- students' designs resemble the top halves of the landing modules that carried astronauts to the surface of the moon -- that would hold one or two workers each.
And a bit farther away from the center would be good spots for activities as diverse as a garden for the state's carnivorous plants or showing outdoor movies, students said.
Depictions of those offbeat ideas and others like them that 14 Clemson students came up with during a semester-long look at empty downtown spaces are on display through Thursday at 5 Walnut Wine Bar, located at the address that is its name.
Under the direction of professor Douglas Hecker, the Clemson students inventoried empty lots, buildings and roofs around downtown and came up with proposals to put them to different uses.
The Vacant AVL project was partly a learning exercise for students and partly an attempt to encourage people to take a second look at what Hecker says are underutilized resources in and around downtown.
As busy as downtown might seem, once people start walking away from the core, "The urban ambience or feel doesn't last very long in any direction," Hecker said.
Even though parts of Coxe Avenue, for example, have seen redevelopment, empty space deters visitors from venturing any farther almost as soon as they head down the street from Patton Avenue, he said.
"You turn that corner and you say, 'Asheville's done. I'm going back,' " he said.
Every downtown needs parking, Hecker said, but too many empty lots are "a form of urban blight."
Most formerly empty buildings downtown are being used again, but there has been less new construction on empty property.
Hecker said several lots in the core of downtown could be redeveloped and parking pushed a bit farther from the center without causing any real problems with the supply of parking.
Developing those parcels would add to the level of activity downtown as well as create an environmentally friendly alternative to plopping down suburban-style development outside the city limits, he said.
Hecker, who lives in Asheville, said last semester's project is part of a series of student exercises to be focused on Asheville. Students are now looking at the idea of an school for culinary arts downtown, he said.
His students are not the only ones thinking of uses for downtown property. Hecker said he is starting to hear about various deals to buy different parcels for redevelopment.
Students tried to avoid what he called conventional formulas for downtown property: "to generate as much luxury housing and some retail space as you can," or expensive office space for larger users, not the small startups that might occupy the pods students dreamed up.
Students are "trying to look at these things that are not on the radar of conventional developers."
It is important that downtown avoid becoming just "a haven for the rich," Hecker said.