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Reviving the River Arts District in Asheville

Chall Gray3c

Mountain Housing Opportunities restores commerce and housing to historic area

MARCH 10, 2011 – A hundred years ago, Asheville’s Depot Street area was a strong, vibrant community. The Southern Railway depot served as the city’s main gateway. Glen Rock Hotel was the hot spot for travelers to stay. Area businesses thrived.

But over the years, the neighborhood declined. And when federal urban renewal programs hit Asheville in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Depot Street neighborhood – homes, businesses and everything else – was demolished and cleared away.

Today, the historic area thrives once more, thanks to strategic investments made by Mountain Housing Opportunities, an Asheville-based nonprofit community development organization funded by the N.C. Community Development Initiative. Mountain Housing’s Glen Rock Depot project has built homes and commercial and community spaces; attracted new businesses and residents; and expanded the tax base of this once-blighted area.

“This is community development at its best,” says Initiative CEO Abdul Rasheed. “What Mountain Housing is doing for this area will have a profound and positive impact on jobs and economic growth for decades to come.”

A train-shaped playground in the 372 Depot courtyard pays tribute to the rail depot for which the project was named. Strategic investments create jobs

Mountain Housing’s Glen Rock Depot project is revitalizing the Depot Street neighborhood of Asheville, known as the River Arts District.

Part historic renovation, part new construction, the three-phase project aims to create a community of homes, businesses and spaces that are affordable, attractive and environmentally friendly. It includes:

Corner Market restoration (completed Fall 2007) – a 6,400-square-foot space, originally the Southern Railway company store.
372 Depot construction (completed Fall 2010) – a new building with 9,000 square feet of commercial space, 3,000 square feet of community space and 60 affordably priced apartments.
Glen Rock Hotel renovation (beginning in 2011) — 18,000 square feet of offices and artist studios and 9,000 square feet of traditional commercial space.

The construction project alone will contribute an estimated $15 million to the local tax base and create 100-150 construction jobs. In addition, the area is enjoying an economic boon from the new businesses, jobs, residences and activity sparked by the project.

The restored Corner Market is now home to the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas. 372 Depot is home to new residents plus two commercial tenants: West One Salon, which relocated from downtown Asheville, and anchor tenant The Magnetic Field, a performance venue, café and bar opened by owner/producer Chall Gray.

Gray co-founded two theater companies in Asheville before deciding to start his own. The entrepreneur-producer combined a bar and restaurant with his new dinner theater to ensure the business would be financially viable.

“The nice thing about it is we’re able to give performers and creative people who are involved a higher percentage of the box office than anywhere else around,” Gray says.

The Magnetic Field is the only theater in the Southeast producing all original works, and the community has responded.

“In the theater, Mondays of every week we do poetry or literary storytelling events. Tuesday we do comedy events. Wednesday we do music events. Thursday through Saturday we do theater shows or, sometimes, we might have a one-off show that we get,” Gray says.

Business is strong enough to support 14 full- and part-time employees. And Gray sees a growing number of people coming to the area for entertainment.

“I’ve seen nights when we have shows – I’ll have literally 100 people here” who have never been to the River Arts District before, Gray says.

The Asheville Citizen Times last year declared Depot Street “the hottest street in Asheville.”

“We’ve had a great response to the concept of having a performing arts venue that’s attached to a restaurant and bar,” Gray says. “You can have a bite to eat, have a drink, take it in with you to the show, if you want, and hang out after.”

Many of its regular patrons are residents of 372 Depot.

“We’ve gotten to know them and we’re all part of one little neighborhood,” Gray says.

The apartments are designed, inside and out, to be energy efficient and sustainable.Building “community” drives economic growth

A critical part of revitalizing the area has been attracting residents. 372 Depot’s 60 apartments are awarded to tenants based on their annual household income, as are their rents, which range from $350 to $750 a month.

The apartments provide affordable housing close to work for many of the residents, such as those who work at nearby Mission Hospital.

“A lot of what we build, policemen live there, nurses live there, artists live there,” said Lisa Keeter, resource development manager for Mountain Housing. 

Residents, in turn, support the community’s new businesses. Among them are The Soapy Dog, Asheville’s first do-it-yourself dog-washing facility, and Asheville GreenWorks, a volunteer-based nonprofit working to enhance the environment and quality of life in Asheville and Buncombe County.

Soon, the Town Branch Creek Greenway will be extended to Depot Street, offering residents and tenants walking and biking paths and connecting the Depot to AB Tech, Mission Hospital and downtown Asheville.

“Green” renovations reduce energy costs and footprint

Environmental sustainability is another core component of projects supported by the Initiative. Mountain Housing’s Glen Rock Depot project is no exception.

The 372 Depot building is on track to become one of Asheville’s first mixed-use buildings certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for energy efficiency and green construction standards.

The most visible green feature is the array of 60 solar hot water heating panels located on the rooftops. The panels provide a sustainable energy alternative to traditional fossil fuels for heating water in the building’s apartments.

Mountain Housing teamed with FLS Energy, an Asheville-based solar company, to create the $270,000 system. Through an innovative financial arrangement, FLS installed the panels at no cost to Mountain Housing in exchange for receiving federal and state tax credits and money for any unused energy generated by the panels.

The solar hot water panels will save 36 tons of carbon emissions each year – the equivalent of planting 109 trees or removing nine cars from the road. In addition, residents should see a dramatic decrease in their energy bills.

Other environmentally friendly design features include water-permeable parking areas to reduce runoff and soil erosion during storms. Rainwater collection facilities provide water for landscaping. Mountain Housing has also recycled 85 percent of the waste construction materials generated by the Depot project.

Glen Rock Depot Info GraphicHistoric structure revived as economic asset

With the Corner Market restored and 372 Depot building open and occupied, the final phase of the project – renovating the historic Glen Rock Hotel – is under way.

Once complete, the building’s first floor will house traditional commercial storefronts, a number of which are already reserved for craft-related businesses, such as JennyThreads Studio (specializing in hand-dyed apparel and accessories and offering textile workshops) and The Laughing Mermaid Soap Company (creating original hand-crafted soaps, lotions and perfumes).

The second floor’s hotel rooms will be renovated into business offices and artists’ studio suites. The suites will retain much of the building’s unique character.

The restored building also will have many of the community features offered by 372 Depot — spaces for eating lunch and holding meetings, showers for people commuting by bicycle, a conference room and access to stream-side paths and benches.

The Glen Rock Depot project, says Chall Gray, has provided a great business opportunity and a community of friends and neighbors.

“I really like it here,” he says. “I like working with [Mountain Housing Opportunities]. They’re really good folks; they’re really supportive of what I’m doing. And it’s nice to be in this really unique building that has 60 apartments in it…There isn’t another building even remotely like this anywhere in Asheville. To have a real community of folks above my business is a nice synergy for me as a business owner.”


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