I just returned from a short vacation to Asheville. Asheville is a special place for many reasons, but of most interest to the reader of this blog is its incredibly vibrant downtown – a downtown that sustains independent bookstores, some 20 sushi restaurants, multiple live music venues, and possibly the highest amount of breweries per capita in the United States. It’s been awarded “Beer City USA” 2009-2012 and one of the happiest places to live in the United States, among its many accolades. It punches far above its weight considering it’s a small city of only about 83,000 people.
Asheville wasn’t always this way. In fact, a friend told me that she lived in Asheville for several years around 1999-2000, and the downtown was a fraction of what it is today. It’s hard to believe that in 13 years such a transformation could take place, but that’s the Asheville story. It’s a place that gets the small things right, such as the wayfinding and information signage throughout downtown’s primary streets – notice the details like leaves that spell out the name “Asheville”. Parklets downtown effectively extend the square footage of this cocktail lounge and enliven the street. The Asheville blend consists of music, arts, lots of good beer, and small businesses recirculating money in the local economy. This town takes pride in its unique geography and history, embracing it and creating a valuable place in the process.
Asheville’s success is absolutely astounding. Its downtown comprises a disproportionately high amount of retail sales and property taxes to the City and County government, on a relatively small amount of land in the central business district. In other words, it’s a heavy hitter in terms of its financial productivity.
Asheville has more in common with West Palm Beach than you might think. Both are small cities with histories tied to Gilded Age railroad tycoons (the Vanderbilts in Asheville and Henry Flagler in West Palm Beach); both are the seat of county government; both were shaped in part by John Nolen, famed urban planner; and both cities have experienced a rebirth within the past twenty years and have embraced the principles of the New Urbanism. Both cities were also changed for the better through the work of the same individual, Joe Minicozzi, who served as principal urban planner in West Palm Beach from 1998-2003 and subsequently moved to Asheville, continuing to do good works. Joe and I had the opportunity to connect while I was in town, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about West Palm Beach, Asheville, and all things in between. Joe is one of my biggest influences in thinking about the built environment, and meeting him in person was incredibly satisfying.
There is much to learn from Asheville. What lessons can we apply in West Palm Beach? Strategically, protecting and enhancing our downtown should be a top priority. As Asheville’s downtown redevelops, other neighborhoods thrive such as The River Arts District, West Asheville, and Biltmore Village. Tactically, we should embrace our unique strengths and build on them. Parklets are a concept that have been kicked around at the DDA office and would work very well in West Palm Beach. Informational signage and wayfinding would be a low-cost solution to help with the perception of parking shortages downtown. Here’s a video with a cool idea for sidewalk retail incubator space, featuring Joe and Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns on the streets of Asheville.
I look forward to another visit to this amazing little city filled with music, arts, good beer, and good people. Make a point to see Asheville for yourself.
In an attempt to give back a little bit, I’ll mention one small Asheville critique: Lighting downtown. It didn’t feel unsafe, but it was surprising how dim the streets were in certain blocks. Maybe it’s just not what we’re used to here. This stretch was particularly dim at night. No doubt the brutalist architecture doesn’t help the appeal on this block, but we noticed it in other parts of the city.