Who represents downtown?

by David Forbes March 10, 2015

Despite the regard given them by local government, the Downtown Association has some very controversial positions and only speaks for a sliver of this changing area. Who actually represents the city’s core is a much larger — and overdue — question.

Above: Fireworks over downtown Asheville, photo by Bill Rhodes.

“Downtown Association president: make downtown Asheville for locals,” the headline declared. At a sold-out luncheon in January Adrian Vassallo, head of the Asheville Downtown Association, asserted he wanted the area to become more than a “playground for visitors.”

At the same time, the platform Vassallo was advocating wasn’t that much changed from the ADA’s goals over many years: more power and resources from local government to the ADA’s concerns, more cleaning and parking, more cops downtown (especially to crackdown on “nuisance” violations like graffiti or panhandling) and a curb on something (toplessness, buskers, newspapers boxes) that bugged some downtown merchants who want their neighborhoods lively, but only in that very carefully controlled way. Given the nature of those proposals, and who’s requesting them, it’s worth asking which locals, exactly, Vassallo is talking about.

Nonetheless, the ADA — with about 300 members, multiple major events and a nearly $500,000 budget — is often treated in media, and by city government itself for that matter, as what it claims to be: “the Voice of Downtown.” The ADA is also spending $15,000 on a “strategic plan,” including surveying 100 “residents, business owners and executives and organization officials” to lay out its goals for the area.

The city’s official Downtown Commission, in charge of crafting policy for the city core, has a specific seat reserved for the ADA (Vassallo currently occupies it). Even those seats not specifically set aside for the organization are often occupied by those associated with it. At least five other commission members have served with the group in some capacity before, including on its board or as a past president.

A few weeks later one of those members, Byron Greiner, a local realtor and the ADA’s issues chair, took the podium at the Feb. 24 Asheville City Council meeting to advocate against expanding Buncombe County’s Department of Health and Human Services building downtown.

While the center serves 100,000 locals a year, including veterans, the elderly, working poor, families and more, Greiner asserted that it brought “undesirables” to downtown and its expansion might endanger a deal he was involved in to build a luxury hotel nearby.

Instead, in a reminder that gentrification is often a very aggressive process, he pushed for moving an expanded center outside of downtown and selling the now-valuable land to private developers (Council refused, and unanimously voted to approve expansion of the DHHS building). Greiner specified he was speaking as a private citizen, though he did note his affiliation with both the ADA and the commission.

No doubt those involved with the association and its efforts have a range of views; Greiner’s certainly isn’t the only one. Notably, for example. Rebecca Hecht, who also sits on the Downtown Commission, has expressed some concerns about the low wages paid by hotels. Franzi Charen, honored by the ADA at the same luncheon Vassallo spoke at, pushed for changes to local business and finance to allow for more worker-owned businesses “and keep municipal dollars out of Wall Street.”

Still, Greiner is one of the ADA’s most prominent leaders and, to boot, on a committee the city turns to for advice on what should and shouldn’t happen downtown. It’s pretty standard to expect anyone to advocate for their perspective when they’re in a position of power, and at the last Council meeting Greiner pretty bluntly laid down what that perspective is.

It’s notable that it’s not the first time the ADA or one of its main leaders has put their weight behind positions that are, to put it mildly, rather controversial.

In late 2013, there was the push to curb newspaper boxes, something roundly criticized for its possible impact on local media and potentially running afoul of the First Amendment.

In that case, Vassallo complained to the city that the boxes were an eyesore and should be curbed, and repeatedly said that if city officials really wanted to partner with downtown, they must follow through with this. After some boxes disappeared in a bizarre incident he publicly doubted, from his perch at the commission, that stealing them was even a crime, in the process asserting that entities that weren’t paying for the privilege had no right to use city streets.

North Carolina Press Association attorney Amanda Martin, not the type given to overstatement, called Vassallo’s assertions “absurd” and noted that she was “flabbergasted” a local leader would even suggest such. Multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings have found that regulating newspaper boxes because of aesthetic concerns is nigh-impossible without violating the First Amendment’s protections on a free press.

Then there was the incredibly controversial Business Improvement District, or BID, a proposal to set a tax on downtown and give the revenues to a separate nonprofit, ostensibly to make the area “clean, green and safe” with a big budget, more street cleaning and, in the initial proposal, a force of “ambassadors” to help tourists and report undesirable behavior to the police. Vassallo and the ADA were at the forefront of the effort.

The proposal, originally for a board that reserved seats for wealthy landowners and appointed its own successors without any say from elected government, provoked a major and widespread backlash from a variety of groups. Conservative business owners hated the tax hike. Some downtown residents believed they would be excluded from the BID’s decision-making process (and taxed, to boot). Activists asserted that it would give power over taxes to an unelected board packed with the gentry and further the escalating exclusion of anyone who wasn’t wealthy from downtown.

Eventually, as Council requested more input and scrutiny over the BID, the whole effort broke down with some of the BID leaders comparing the city to an abusive partner.

Toplessness was also a major ADA bugaboo for a bit. Lately, if Vassallo’s remarks are any indication, the ADA is once again on the regulatory warpath, this time concerned that some buskers might offend some business owners. Earlier this year, some Asheville police researched possible curbs on buskers, but those regulations were shelved after the buskers organized against them and over 1,800 locals signed a petition instead supporting “pro-busker rights reform.” The ADA later organized a fairly cordial forum with the Asheville Busking Collective, but by the time the year turned around, Vassallo was back to pushing for regulation.

But despite these controversies over the years, including ones that saw opposition from populations in downtown, the ADA is still regarded as the voice of a whole area, with official city representation and the precious, though somewhat less formal, status of “stakeholders.” That means that city staff feel they need to hear their complaints and, sometimes, craft new laws accordingly.

It’s not uncommon to hear “we’ve heard from…” from ADA advocates and commission members when pushing their goals. To an extent that’s expected: people’s views about what should happen to their city are shaped by what their friends and associates believe and witness.

So here’s another perspective, and take it with a grain of salt as you will. I’ve worked downtown since 2007 and lived here since 2008. I’ve also covered city government (with a few breaks), since I moved here in 2005.

But in the time I’ve lived here, I’ve never heard the issues the ADA throws its weight behind — with the notable exception of the need for better infrastructure — come up as major priorities from my neighbors, friends or downtown workers. Their concerns are good jobs, affordable rents, better pay, a transit system that lets them get around safely, access to public space and some variety of amenities for people that aren’t tourists or wealthy.

Graffiti’s not really a concern. Ditto toplessness. Not only do buskers or newspaper boxes not offend, but they’re generally viewed as an overall positive in their current form. At worst, if the music or headline’s bad, it might end up the target of a joke, rather than a problem necessitating a plea to government. Luxury hotels are more likely to attract widespread ire.

Even leaving my own experiences aside, given that many of the causes the ADA’s leaders have chosen to champion have ended up with considerable backlashes, a reassessment is in order. Rather than representing downtown, the association more accurately represents some downtown merchants (who form the lion’s share of its membership), property owners and specific interests. Outside of that group, if reactions to the BID and the possible busking rules are any indication, their proposals are, often, not really that popular.

Rather than some broadly-representative group, one should instead view the ADA like the conservative Council of Independent Business Owners; an organization representing a sliver of a much larger city, intent on pushing a very specific agenda in response to the concerns of very specific people. If possible, the ADA’s leadership would dearly love to get more power for its members and their allies, including through efforts like the BID that directly push public resources and sanction into their corner.

Of course, the ADA’s members have every right to organize and try to convince local government to go their way, just as others have every right to oppose them and push something different. But it does open the broader question: why are they considered the voice of downtown when their proposals fail to find broad support among so many, including in their own backyard?

Downtown is, after all, not just the playground of the gentry, major organizations or those who bought property here back in the ’90s. Perspectives here are not limited to 100 — or 300 — people, no matter who they are. Downtown is, despite its rapidly rising costs, also the province of the residents of the Vanderbilt, Woodfin, Battery Park and many others with far more limited means. It also includes, for that matter, the mix of students, retirees, families and professionals still holding on in buildings that haven’t yet slipped into the unaffordable abyss. It includes areas still recovering from segregation, urban renewal and redlining.

Any true tally of downtown’s “stakeholders” must also extend to the thousands who work here, the thousands more Ashevillians who come here because it’s a center of civic life and, yes, the “undesirables” too.

However, at many a Downtown Commission meeting I have instead heard the view that “stakeholders” must have “skin in the game,” meaning wealth, to truly participate in decision-making about the city’s core.

But the workers selling their plasma to pay rent or spending most of their waking week in downtown dish pits have a more important perspective than the Florida property owners who visit a few months a year or, for that matter, the realtors selling them their third condo.

When this city realizes that, the question of who represents downtown will start to have a very different answer.

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