The Pit or The Park

Commentary
Pit of Despair or Park of the (Little) People
By Byron Belzak, Publisher-Editor, DowntownAsheville.com

Anyone who walks around Downtown Asheville this Spring of 2017 can't help but notice a key piece of open real estate in the heart of the city that is waiting to be reborn.

Currently and aptly nicknamed The Pit of Despair, this asphalt and concrete wasteland on Haywood Street consists of a surface parking lot with an adjacent one-story-high, concrete-block retaining wall overlooking a pit, which is fortified with a chain-link fence to keep the public out (and, perhaps, to keep the despair in).

This roughly two acres of downtown is as important as it is ugly, both in reality and in controversy. But one common thread unites all Ashevillians concerning The Pit: we are all waiters. We all wait and wait, month after month, year after year, while those in power and politics battle over whose idea for this city-owned real estate will win.

AND THE WINNER IS...

And what will be THEE winning idea? It's easy to say.

In fact, it's easy for everyone and anyone of any age, color, creed, greed or smarts who has a pair of good-enough legs to stand, along with a pair of good-enough eyes to see, plus has a good-enough heart that beats and knows right from wrong, and who has a little curiosity and time on their hands to take a gander of what it is that I see.

Perhaps, you'll come to the same conclusion as me; i.e., someone who frequents downtown often, who used to have a downtown office but remains a proud (and lucky) card-carrying holder of a monthly city parking garage slot, who is a Buncombe County homeowner and whose favorite city in the world is, you guessed it, Asheville.

So, now, let's hold hands and stand on the sidewalk across from The Pit of Despair and simply observe The Big Picture. And hidden in that big picture is the solution, at least as I see it.

Don't see it, huh? OK, while you're looking at The Pit of Despair, move your head around slowly like an owl. All the while, take note that The Pit is situated across from five — count them on one hand, FIVE — main entrances of five important people-oriented structures: (1) the historic and beautiful Basilica of St. Lawrence, which is across from (2) the frequently frequented, mountain-stoned Asheville Civic Center (you know, the people's public-gathering building with the U.S. Cellular Center sign attached), which is next to (3) the entrance of The Vanderbilt Apartments, which is next to (4) the front door to the main Asheville Public Library, which is next to (5) the enclosed walkway to the city's largest downtown public parking garage, commonly known as the Civic Center Parking Garage.

And right where we are standing together, like a pair of owls in front of The Pit, we are just a short flight or stroll from the massive Battery Park Apartment high-rise for regular folks and the fabulous Grove Arcade historic landmark now full of great retail stores, tasty restaurants, first-class office space and wonderful residential condominiums. So as you can see and feel, we are in the heart of it all and in the heart of what matters so much to people who love Asheville. It's a city with beauty and, more importantly, it's a city with a heart, a big heart. That's part of the big picture.

For those of us who enjoy and frequent those downtown landmarks, as well as many other buildings that surround The Pit, we deserve something wonderful to be created in its place. And we the people of Asheville know what that is. We regular folks have the answer.

But it remains to be seen if we have the will to see it to the end so that The Pit becomes something truly ours, for us and by us. Some fights are worth fighting, and this is one worth going to the mat on, despite the naysayers who say that government is the problem. Wrong, in this case at least. Wrong. Dead wrong.

Because the Asheville government along with its behind-the-scenes leaders are the solution. They are a big part of the big picture.

SO IT COMES TO THIS

The political decision of what becomes the winning idea should reflect the people's choice, not the business choice. That's easy to see, too, if one is honest about it. For the past 20 years, Asheville business leaders and developers already have had enough of their way and say over what has been done to change the face and character of Downtown Asheville. It's time for the people of Asheville to decide.

It's time for the voice of the people to be honored. It's time for the people's winning choice to be chosen, if for no other reason than it's the people's turn to be heard and listened to, for a change — just like when the court listened to the people and involved heirs of City-County Plaza park when the now late developer Stewart Coleman tried to place his high-rise condominium partially in front of Asheville City Hall. Today's Pit controversy is of the same ilk, the same push-and-pull as the Parkside controversy of 2008; the little against the big, the poor versus the rich, the people against the power, the right versus the wrong. (If you like a little Asheville history surrounding the Parkside controversy, read all about it at "Parkside Protest Intensifies" or at "Parkside Condominiums" published years ago right here on DowntownAsheville.com.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE

The Pit of Despair deserves the same kind of push-back that Coleman's Parkside Condominium idea received: that is, thumbs down for not being allowed to build a bad idea (or nice building, wrong place) and thumbs up for retaining the land as a park for the people. Since then, that city park in the shadow of city hall and Vance Monument has become even more significant and memorable to Asheville locals and tourists.

GO CECIL

And now today, Cecil Bothwell is the leading Asheville City Council member who is truly operating in the public interest concerning what to do with The Pit. He is without compromise and a man on a mission with a cause, a good cause. He is demanding that a park for the people is the only just solution. Hats off to Cecil. High fives all around for him and his persistence. He might have been wrong on some other things in the past, but by gum and golly, this time he has got it right, right and right some more.

The Pit of Despair needs to become The People's Park. Or if you prefer, name it Cecil's Park, because he deserves to be recognized as leading the charge for what the people want. We (little) people deserve a (little) place in the heart of the city to relax and call our own, and be able to look around like wise owls and decide what wonderful place we want to light upon next: be it a church, a civic center, a friend's apartment, a library or a parking lot that leads us to places known and unknown.

HUG A PARK TODAY

Not convinced yet? Okay, but let's say for a minute that you're leaning towards Cecil Bothwell's winning idea of having a park for the (little) people, instead of planting yet another (big) building in the middle of historic downtown. Let's say that you are leaning his way simply because it appears to you that it just might really be the right thing to do. Think about that, embrace it, hold that thought and hug it like a tree.

A downtown pocket park is something natural for humans in a city of buildings to love; it's something beautiful in an oftentimes brutal world, something truly living and alive. And because it's so alive, it will likely last for generation after generation upon generation, as solidly as an oak stretches upward and outward and endures magnificently over time.

Just for a moment conjure up this (little) city park in your mind's eye. Kiss the possibility that Asheville can become special and sweet again for pedestrians, if but in just one key corner of the city. Visualize that lovely (little) pocket of nature, so alive, amidst the otherwise towering and overpowering mix of brick, asphalt, steel, glass and concrete.

Finally, consider that every square inch of Downtown Asheville does not have to be a part of a giant cash register. The (Little) People's Park of Asheville would be both real and symbolic, proof that humanity and doing the right thing is alive and well in one of America's, if not the world's, great little cities.

A TWO-STORY OUTDOOR AND INDOOR PARK

In my mind's eye I see a two-story park, a public space that is both indoors and outdoors, and is open to the general public, citizens and tourists alike. I imagine one level of the park is at street level and even with the church and the civic center across the street, while a second and higher level of the park is a rooftop park that graces a one-story community building that faces the library.

And I imagine looking inside the indoor public area that is even and street level with Haywood Street and the library to find a stage complete with an open-mic for buskers to perform while a random, ever-changing audience relaxes in rocking chairs, on polished wood benches, and upon rustic picnic tables. This indoor portion of the park would open its windows on warm days and be an open air place for citizens and tourists to cool their heels and take in the musical and performing talent this fair mountain town has attracted and for which it is now well known, a truly live attraction. It would be a place where artists would be invited to come in and do their art and craft by adding frequently changing colorful giant murals on the walls with the focus to celebrate Asheville and the human race, particularly to celebrate the lives of the (little) people.

FEEL THE BOTHBURN

Can't you see it? Can't you feel it? I'm sure City Council member Cecil Bothwell can. He's on the right side of The Pit argument and has the right solution. He's all in for a Park for the People. And I'm all in with Cecil and his (little) people's park.

Nothing has changed since 2015, when Cecil publicly spoke about what the (little) people want, deserve and have earned collectively. He explained that 86 percent of Asheville voters are in favor of The Park; read about it all for yourself at Mountainx.com. What Cecil had to say, and what others have to say, will move you, if you have a heart that beats.

WALLOW OR WIN

But if you just want to stay at home, stretched out on the couch and wallow in your misery of not knowing who to agree with about what to do with The Pit, you might as well go to your computer and click on Goodreads.com to read Quotes About Despair.

But after you're done with your wallowing, be with me, and that means to be with Cecil Bothwell, champion of the Downtown Asheville People's Park.

Do your part to recreate The Pit of Despair and transform it into something wonderful, just as a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.

BELIEVE IT

But we (little) people must first believe in the idea, embrace it, then convince — no, DEMAND — that the powers that be of the Asheville elite must, if not but this one time, LISTEN TO US. It's we who have helped to make Asheville great again. It's we who do the work that is needed to be done, every day, every night, all year, in all kinds of weather. Without us little people doing big little things, Asheville would just be another American dream gone bad.

KNOW IT

Lastly, just see in your mind's eye what the future can hold and behold, and lean over to listen to what folks in the future will say, those who come long after us. They, the little people (and the big people too), will thank us of today for getting it right and making The Pit, The Park. Or, as I prefer to call it, Cecil's Park.

Copyright 2017 Byron Belzak

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