A giant shopping mall in downtown Asheville? It almost happened.
by Naomi Johnson
Kathryn Long isn’t one to gloat, but if she were, it could be forgiven. After all, she’s got irrefutable evidence that she was right and her opponents were wrong.
It comes in the form of a news interview with UNC-TV from 1980, in which young entrepreneur Long lays out the potential she sees in Asheville’s downtown, then under threat from a developer who would have razed the entire area and replaced it with what was then considered the height of modern convenience: a gigantic indoor shopping mall.
She earnestly extols the virtues of the 1920s vintage buildings: their cohesiveness, their quality construction — and she suggests adding apartments upstairs, “ ... bringing people back downtown to live, to make a true neighborhood ... like a neighborhood you would find in a more cosmopolitan area. It could be like a SOHO.”
History has, of course, borne her out, and so this year as Long celebrates the 35th anniversary of her business, interior-design firm Ambiance Interiors, she’s taking the opportunity to look back on the 18 frantic months she spent fighting to save downtown Asheville from destruction.
Long grew up in an Asheville with a thriving commercial core, where she fondly remembers working at her parents’ furniture store (Sluder’s, at 25 Broadway), shopping at the JC Penney on Battery Park, and lunching with cousins at the S&W Cafeteria. But when the Asheville Mall was built in the mid-’70s, all that changed — the department stores quickly abandoned downtown, and within just a couple of years the city’s planning office put forth a proposal that would have cleared an area bounded by College Street, Broadway, Haywood Street, and the I-240 Expressway.
Much of the center of downtown, including Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street, would have been leveled. Hard as it is to believe in hindsight, that misguided plan found unanimous support from the Planning Commission and the City Council.
At that point, Long was newly returned from stints living in Paris and in New York City, and she saw downtown Asheville’s potential for that sort of urban vibrancy. She joined with others opposed to the mall into a loose-knit “Group of One Thousand” that coalesced around the simple mantra that gave the group its name: Save Downtown Asheville.
A year-and-a-half of high drama and intrigue ensued. At the very first public hearing came what Long laughingly calls “my Scarlett O’Hara moment” — when she stood up in front of a packed planning meeting and faux-innocently confronted the committee with a piece of purloined evidence crucial to the timing of the proposed destruction. In the end, the proposal was put to a public vote — and 66 percent of Ashevilleans voted to save downtown.
Local novelist Wayne Caldwell — who’s also co-founder, part owner and current finance manager of Ambiance, as well as Long’s brother-in-law — was the head of the campaign. It was a long haul, but instinct proved stronger than adversity. “We had a profound sense when the mall was proposed that it was a really bad idea,” he says with soft-spoken humor. “If you imagine the buildings downtown right now that are ugly and don’t fit, like the Biltmore [administration] Building, the BB&T Building, and Wachovia [now Wells Fargo], well, multiply that by about ten times, and that’s what the mall would have been.”
By the time victory was achieved, Long was so exhausted, she jokes, “It was the last [activism] I ever did.” Since then, she’s concentrated on building her award-winning business and of course enjoying the ever-increasing fruits of Save Downtown Asheville’s labors, in the form of world-class restaurants, energetic street life, and Asheville’s rising profile.
“I had high hopes, but downtown Asheville now is just beyond my wildest dreams,” she says with feeling. “As I always say, if you can’t live in Paris, you might as well live in Asheville.”
Visit ambianceasheville.com for more details. All the original materials from this bit of Asheville history have been donated to Pack Library, where they can be perused in the North Carolina Collection. www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/library.