Joseph Villers, staff writer
The basics: A section of former parkland (.18 acres containing a magnolia tree) was sold unlawfully on Nov. 21, 2006 by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners as part of a routine consent agenda. The sale passed unanimously. The parkland which had been deeded “public forever” since 1901, by George W. Pack, one of Asheville’s greatest benefactors, was sold to Stewart Coleman’s Black Dog Realty for $322,000.
On Aug. 5, 2008, a letter was delivered from Stewart Coleman (the developer which bought the land) to the High Priest of Coven Oldenwilde, Steve Rasmussen, stating his intention to chop down the magnolia tree “sometime after 35 days from today’s date.“ The tree has mothered a dialectic between spell-casting pagans and a conservative group known as the Carolina Stompers. Don’t even ask. If one is to believe Stewart Coleman, then since Tuesday, Sept. 9, Asheville’s most coveted tree has entered the twilight of its undisclosed future fate.
Adjacent to this space, the Pack Square Conservancy does its work; it is a nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency tasked with overseeing and helping fund a makeover of the former City/County Plaza and Pack Square area. Costs originally estimated at $8 million are now at $20 million. Promises not to use tax money to fund the project have evaporated (in the drought?) and the county and city have each kicked in $2 million, on top of $6 million of federal taxes procured, putting the total tax money promised-not-to-be-used-but-used-anyway $2 million over the original projected budget.
A lawsuit was won in August by the descendants of George W. Pack against the Parkside land sale, in order that the space (the .18 acres) be “public forever,” just as George W. Pack intended when he deeded the space 107 years ago. The rational-minded still harbor fears, however, that somehow, in some regrettable way, this so-called “sliver of parkland” will transform into a nine-or-ten story condo with an additional thoroughfare, just as the Parkside Project had in mind. And with Pack Square Renovations sitting at $20 million, not to mention multi-million dollar storefront renovations ongoing in the area, money is coming into this space.
From the concrete vistas of highway 240 (at the witching hour), downtown Asheville appears as a cove of light amidst rising black hills. Down College Street there are pubs, restaurants, banks, smoke shops, and banks. And then there appears, sandwiched between a grandiose Bank of America and a scrawling line of pubs, restaurants and cafes, a green burbling area of glow-rock and stream, grass, and an old Magnolia tree. There are benches here where one can rest without being a criminal. On sunny days dozens of people at a time congregate and pass through here, many on their way to or from the courthouse. Music is played here, under the great shadow of the Magnolia. On all sides of this green space there is light and hungry development. Pack Square, adjacent to the property, is a football field of broken ground, sunny-coloured earth-movers and rebar stretching toward heaven. The area is walled off with black tarpaulin, over the top of which towers an imposing concrete obelisk, standing in for sawed-down parkland.
Two students of the Warren persuasion lean against the trunk of the old Magnolia. A man named Al rests (in this .18 acres, it is not loitering) with a broken collar bone on the bench. He is quick to tell of the way it once was: “Where that bank is at–used to be a shoe store–now it is a bank. So many banks.. Down through there–that was a theatre, a men’s store, so much that’s not there anymore.”