On the edge of brilliance

by Jay Fields (Board member)

I feel honored to have been one of seventeen Asheville folks who worked through a ten-month review of the city’s Haywood/Page public space, a much-maligned and jumbled up area sliced through with too many streets and odd intersections in front of St. Lawrence Basilica and the civic center. The task of this advisory committee came down to recommending, based on a gargantuan amount of citizen input, exactly what most people wanted and envisioned as occurring in this undeveloped area, roughly 2.5 acres that have defied organization into anything worthwhile for more than a decade.

To put it another way, the idea was to “tee up” for qualified (and hopefully brilliant) designers, yet to be named, how most people felt about the space, plus notes on topography, pedestrian and traffic flow and other phenomena confronting a sensitive design process. Moreover, the team was asked to develop a core vision for how the area will work and what it could eventually mean as an inspirational destination for residents and visitors.

A concern that I have personally had throughout the process is that whatever “view” congeals, it should provide an un-muddled interpretation for the design team, the exact reverse of trying to be “everything for everybody.” In other words, the primary proposed uses of the space should be clear as a bell, not pulled down with innumerable options, as in “well, we could do this” or “we could do that.”

On that basis, and taking into account the overwhelming majority of citizen responses calling for an open (park-like or green) space with multiple open space uses, I think it was clear to everyone on the team that “passive/active” open space has ruled the roost of everyone’s thinking from the very start.

Any trouble in the hen house, so to speak, for any and all parties involved seems to have arisen over the words “education,” “housing” and “retail” as small bubbles that wound up affixed to the idea of an active open area.

For what it’s worth, and strictly speaking as an individual, I believe these words are not only poorly chosen, but incredibly distractive to a central concept for the space.

I saw them, all along, as peripheral and down-the-line tangential to building a fabulous open space, conceivably with gardens, paths, fountains, trees, views and public art.

So, I truly believe it’s time to put the accent on the right syllable, as my mom used to say.

And the accent should be on breathtaking, inspirational beauty, on community, on relaxation and wonder. Education may be an ad hoc book club meeting in the open space under a tree, housing in an extremely complementary way could develop well down the line beyond the edge of the park and retail, drawn to the beauty of the space (but not within it), would naturally provide opportunities and fill some needs without defacing the inherent beauty of a gorgeous space.

So I’m simply asking that we all raise our expectations. At one point in time Central Park was a dream, as was Bryant Park and the High Line, all in Manhattan. These great spaces (linear in the case of the High Line) were not built out of a muddled view or any effort to compromise the uplifting value of a breathtaking space. They were built with the notion do it right, do it for the long term, and all the rest will come, not the least of “all the rest” meaning an enduring love for an intricately thought-through space turned into something of sure merit by masters with a clear vision.

The worst thing we could do, especially after all this consideration, is to lower the sights of what this space could be and especially try to make it a space that includes something of everything. That is not how great spaces work.

I was asked to help write a “sense of place” vision statement as part of the report for Tuesday’s council presentation. One of my favorite lines reads:

“Whenever I walk into this space, changeable and fluid with the seasons, it’s like a curtain rising on one of the city’s most consequential and beautiful urban spaces.”

Let’s not stop until that dream comes true.

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