Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Phill Baldwin
A look at Asheville’s increasingly prominent, ever-evolving River Arts District, and what it represents for artists, businesses, and area residents alike.
“When did all this happen?”
That’s Asheville artist Wendy Whitson, recalling vividly hearing the question in 2011, when members of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce board participated in an intra-city tour which included exposure to the River Arts District (RAD).
“They didn’t know what we had been doing down here, and now look at it. Isn’t that something?” says Whitson, who is a past president of the River Arts District’s artist association and has served on the board for 15 years. She’s also a former Chamber of Commerce board member, and she’s currently involved on the Riverfront Redevelopment Commission.
Had those tour attendees been paying attention, they would have known that the area now recognized as the River Arts District began attracting artists as early as the 1970s, and, by 1994, the first studio tour took place. The RAD’s reputation for high-caliber artists joining this creative community grew steadily over time, and the community continues to evolve today. One misconception is that studios are only open during the bi-annual Studio Strolls (the next one comes up November 9-10) or during the regular Second Saturday Events, but the reality is that you can find artists at work on numerous days throughout the week. The most common days to find them with “open” signs displayed are Thursdays through Saturdays, but many are open on other days as well.
The core section of what’s known as the RAD encompasses a relatively small area nestled around the train tracks near the banks of the French Broad River in West Asheville that once served as the industrial center of town. Twenty-three buildings that once housed Hans Rees Tannery, Asheville Cotton Mills, National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), a hatchery, and many other businesses now serve as working studios and galleries for artists working in a wide variety of mediums—everything from painting and mixed media, to basketry and pottery, to jewelry, sculpture, photography, and more. Warehouses and buildings here often serve as canvases for brightly colored murals and impressive displays of graffiti art, adding to the eclectic, gritty feel of the area.
“The River Arts District is this little one-mile section where all the buildings are,” says Whitson. “That’s likely to change in the future because everybody wants to be in the River Arts District. There’s RAMP [River Arts Makers Place], which is part of UNC-Asheville, and they call themselves in the River Arts District, but they’re a mile away. The city will probably expand the parameters of our neighborhood one of these days, but right now it’s just about a mile by a half mile. That’s it. It’s all been so interesting to see the changes and how we’ve done it all. Just us doing our thing. There was a lady from Spain in here last week saying, ‘We want one of these in Spain! How did this happen? How can we get one of these?’ It’s just phenomenal.”
If you flip through the standard RAD brochure found in the district and around town, you’ll be introduced to more than 250 RAD artists, but that number is deceiving.
“This year our membership person went around and gave every artist who had an open door a membership form and she had about 250 of them because that’s how many members we have. She went back and printed another 300 because there were that many artists down here working that weren’t members,” says Whitson. “Some are not joiners, and it costs to be in the book, even though that book is probably one of the best marketing things I can invest in. It just brings people in here all the time.”
It Didn’t Happen Overnight
The marriage of abandoned industrial buildings and starving artists seeking low rent and space conducive to creativity started out slowly. Whitson compiled historical information for the RAD website and lists some important dates for the entrance of artists into the area. Among the highlights: Bill Goacher and his wife bought a number of properties in the RAD in the 1970s and offered low rentals to artists displaced from downtown; Highwater Clays moved into the area from Biltmore Village in the mid-1980s; Porge and Peter Buck bought a building in 1987 and transformed it into Warehouse Studios; Steve Keull bought 375 Depot (the former Armor Meat Packing Plant) for his photography business; and in 1989 Pattiy Torno bought buildings that originally served as the Standard Oil Company and turned them into Curve Studio and Gardens. Pattiy celebrates her 30th anniversary this month and will welcome the public to a big party. (See the sidebar on p.41 for full details.)
In 2002 the late sculptor John Payne bought the Wedge building from Bill Goacher. It had originally been built in 1916 as the Farmer’s Federated Ag Co-Op. Payne designed and crafted museum-quality dinosaurs in his studio and also rented space to other artists. He was known as a mentor to many in the RAD, including Whitson.
“John Payne set such a good example because he bought the Wedge and made it very affordable for artists,” she remembers. “A lot of us looked up to him. When I first met him, he didn’t own the building. He came over to visit one day and said, ‘I bought the building!’ He was so excited, and something went through me and I thought to myself, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
It took a few years to put that plan into motion, but in 2011 the timing was right for Whitson and her husband, John, to buy the building that now houses Northlight Studios at 357 Depot Street. She has a studio on the top floor. There’s another artist filling out the top floor space and four more artists on the bottom floor. This was once all commercial space, and now it’s all studios. Rent goes for about $1 per square foot and Whitson doesn’t charge her tenants extra for her building’s air conditioning, heating, and wi-fi.
“I also do a lot of advertising for the artists to promote this building as much as I can. There’s a big warehouse in the back, and I’m considering turning it into an event space. I’ve talked to an architect and a contractor, so that will be the next big project. I do need a commercial tenant to offset the cost of rent to keep the rents lower. Right now, I’m it. I’m offsetting the costs of everybody else because I want to keep good artists here. But by turning this into a commercial space in the back—and that’s going to cost some money to do it—I think it’ll be pretty sure it’s going to work. I’ve got a vision for it, and then I’ll hire somebody to manage that because I want to keep painting.”
Whitson’s enthusiasm flows like a symphony, and her connection to music is even evidenced through her paintings. If you look closely at some of her landscapes, you’ll see musical lyrics embedded in the tree trunks.
The year she bought her building (2011), other artists did the same. Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull bought the building housing Pink Dog Creative at 342 Depot Street; artist David Stewart bought his building at 347 Depot; and Daniel McLendon bought Lift at 349 Depot (formerly the home of the National Biscuit Company).
Jenny Ellis, owner of The Artful Chair, has been in the RAD almost two years. She shares space with seven other artists at 362 Depot Street. They currently have one space for rent. She says they keep a waiting list of artists hoping for an open space and go down the list.
“I started my career in high-end dress making in Florida,” says Ellis. “I started doing ball gowns and party dresses and then I morphed into dressing window treatments. Recently, in the last few years, I reinvented myself and went back to school and learned how to do upholstery. I put my skill sets together and started selling these chairs. At first in furniture stores, and now online mostly. The River Arts District is just my little showcase room area.”
The artists in this space take turns keeping the doors open throughout the week. “We have a lot of variety in our studio so that it’s not too competitive,” notes Ellis. “Everybody is so different and so unique.”
In recent years a frequent topic of conversation in and around Asheville centers around the potential (some would say “inevitable”) gentrification that could force out artists who were the ones who actually made the RAD such a cool place, but Whitson and Ellis both think the artists’ community remains a stable enterprise, and that the voices of those artists are being heard.
“A lot of the artists own these buildings,” says Ellis, “so they get it that we can’t have high rent, or we won’t be here, or there will be people from out of state renting our spaces, and it won’t be us. Some of the buildings have sold for an incredible price since the last time they’ve sold, but because they’ve done the RADTIP (River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project) with all the artists’ input, they’re going to beautify, but not gentrify. That’s their goal. So, it’s a more cohesive place; they’re bringing in artist lofts and artist living spaces. They’ll have outdoor venues and a promenade along the river, so it’s really going to be a destination place. I think their first structure is going to be a parking garage, a boutique hotel, and a place where out-of-towners can park and then hop on the trolley and go around to all the studios.” Ellis adds that just past the railroad tracks, right across the street from where the old 12 Bones Smokehouse barbecue restaurant used to be located, is where the Welcome Center will be located.
In addition to artists, small business owners are finding the RAD to be an attractive proposition as well; the studios draw people to the district, and the folks who come don’t restrict their shopping solely to art. “I have so enjoyed having my business in the River Arts District,” says Debbie Roe, owner of Ultra Coffeebar, located at 242 Clingman Avenue. “We get to serve the artists and the tourists that come literally from all parts of the world to see and purchase the art here in the RAD. The reach around the country that Asheville and its artistic community is gathering has gotten larger every year. The creativity in our area is over the top, and we love being a small part of that.”
Roe adds that, for locals in particular, there is also a certain legacy quality that comes with visiting or working in the RAD: “Having been born and raised in Asheville, I started working at my grandfather’s cafe in Biltmore Village, the Hot Shot Café, as soon as I was old enough! To get to come back to a business that is so close in distance to the Hot Shot has been a great feeling. I have a stainless steel mug here on the wall that used to hang in the Hot Shot that a local artist welded. It has been a great way to find locals who remember [the café] with such fondness and tell us all their memories of years ago eating and hanging out at the Hot Shot.”
Whitson agrees, saying, “Most people want the best thing for this district and our city leaders want to keep the artists in this district. And, of course, the artists want to thrive and maintain and stay in this district. So, it’s got a lot of good things going for it.”
The impact of the arts in Asheville and Buncombe County provides even more incentive to continue helping artists thrive here. Whitson hands over a brand-new rack card that defines some of the numbers.
“Asheville is Beer City, it’s music city, it’s food city, and yet we have this fabulous array of artists and types of art, and [that aspect] just doesn’t get promoted like it should,” she says. “The data we needed is tied up with this software, that we felt was the best for us, called Creative Vitality Suite.” (For an in-depth discussion of the Creative Vitality software tool designed to analyze a region’s “creative” industry labor data and how it compares our area’s local artist industry to other regions, see “Charting a Way Forward For the Arts” in the October 2018 issue of this magazine.)
Continues Whitson, “Three years ago, I went to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Commission (EDC) and talked to them about helping us get data. Heidi Reiber (Director of Research) at the EDC said, ‘Why don’t we go talk to the Arts Council?’ So, we just started taking baby steps and we reached out to the City of Asheville, we reached out to the Center for Craft and UNC-A, and now we have this data. We have this software. It’s very expensive and you have to buy it for three years running, but now we’re getting our data. So, this little rack card is freshly off the press and it’s available at the Arts Council. A group of us—downtown gallery owners, artists, and business owners—want to take this to Explore Asheville and say, ‘Do your magic.’
“Once the impact of our numbers reaches the world, and they know how many artists are here and what we’re doing for this community, it will bring more collectors and more serious art buyers to Asheville.”
What about the RADTIP?
The City of Asheville announced on July 31, 2019, that it had reached the halfway mark on the above-mentioned $54 million-dollar River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project, a/k/a RADTIP, with a projection that the entire project will be complete by summer 2020. The 2.2-mile improvement includes a multi-use path along the river, drainage systems for stormwater, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and additional parking. They’ve also been creating roundabouts at key intersections. The roundabout at Riverside Drive and Lyman Street opened June 2, and crews will now focus on putting a roundabout in at the 5 Points spot, which is where Depot Street, Clingman Avenue Extension, Roberts Street, Lyman Street, and Lyman Avenue Extension all come together.
While businesses located in the RAD will unquestionably benefit from the area’s infrastructure enhancements and improvements, some will no doubt weather short-term headaches. “We’re anticipating that will hurt our business when they’re doing that,” says Chester Oland, manager of Fresh Wood Fired Pizza at 342 Depot Street. “First, they’re going to start putting in the water drains, which will knock traffic down to one lane, but when they go to do the roundabout all lanes will be shut down. That will probably impact our business a lot from people coming from the west side. But we do get a lot of business from the hospital area over here.”
It’s a little more than a mile to drive from Mission Hospital to the end of Livingston Street, and then make a right turn onto Depot Street. From there one will encounter free parking directly across from Oland’s restaurant and Pink Dog Creative. “It’s one of our selling points,” he says. “When we meet people around town who haven’t been going here, we’re like, ‘Check it out.’ You don’t have to pay to park right now. You’ll always find parking unless it’s a studio stroll day, in which case it’s reminiscent of West Asheville or downtown.”
Fresh Wood Fired Pizza, which has its original location in Black Mountain, expanded to this second location four years ago. Oland grew up in West Asheville and has witnessed the continuous growth. He has also witnessed the struggle to keep the area free from vagrants camping out or those causing vandalism. While the River Arts District feels safe in daylight hours, with steady activity, a growing list of restaurants in the area, and artists drawing people to their studios, the late-night hours can be a different story. Whitson says she has to turn the water off at the end of the workday or people will try to camp on her property and use the outside spigots. A rash of break-ins at some RAD businesses, and subsequent arrests, came out in the news at the time of this article being written, but it has been something Oland has continually dealt with.
“We’ve been broken into multiple times,” he says. “We’ve been hit and hit pretty hard, but they never really make out with much. That is a difficult part of being down here. We have excellent cameras, but they will look straight at it and decide to break a window. It seems to come in waves. Summertime is definitely rough. Wintertime is not as bad. I don’t know how long it will be before we can really solve that, due to the fact there are multiple [nearby] housing developments for low income that just tend to draw a specific sort of crowd—although I’m definitely not saying everyone there is part of that!”
Another potential problem for the RAD is its proximity to the French Broad River. The flood of 2004 is an example when many RAD artists’ studios were destroyed in the rising water. The September 19, 2004, edition of The Asheville Citizen-Times ran a front-page article titled, “Flooded artists find support.” The article detailed how artist Steve Skufca spent eight hours vacuuming water that seeped into his studio from the rising French Broad. He felt he had a handle on the water before sleeping. As the article reported, “He was mistaken. He woke up around 7:30 the next morning to six inches of water. Before it was over, water stood at 47 inches inside his studio.”
The floods came in the remnants of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan, which arrived nine days apart and left a path of soggy destruction across Asheville, especially in the River Arts District and Biltmore Village.
The potential for future flooding is something developers are carefully considering as they work on plans to build apartment buildings and other structures in the RAD.
“There are two apartment complexes that are ready to go up and that will be so nice to have people live in here,” says Whitson. “One is at the old Dave Steel site, and the other is across from Warehouse Studios. It’s in the flood plain. The parking will be above ground, and the whole complex will be on stilts like at the beach.”
Changing Face of the RAD
One of the biggest changes in the RAD has been the addition of New Belgium Brewing’s east coast production facility, prominently located at 21 Craven Street and across from both Riverside Drive (to the east) and Haywood Road (looking southward). While at first glance the beer industry may seem unrelated to art-related businesses, there are definitely certain similarities.
Jay Richardson, general manager of New Belgium Asheville, says there is an art to great beer-making. “The origin of New Belgium came from a trip to Belgium,” he explains. “One of our co-founders was a home brewer, and he traveled around from brewery to bar, and he did it on his bike. One of the things he wrote about in his journal was there was as much an emphasis on the science of brewing beer as there is on the art of beer in Belgium. He was really taken with that. I feel like there’s an artistic part of New Belgium in the way that we approach beer-making, and even in how we treat the earth and how we treat people. Whether we realize it overtly or not, I think New Belgium relates to creatives really easily.”
New Belgium sits right on the banks of the French Broad River, and it has given Asheville an easement for a one-mile greenway. “The greenway project was a great example of what came out of a great working relationship with the city of Asheville,” says Richardson. “You know, we had to share our plans because they had to approve them. They were also sharing their plans. The greenway was really one of three projects that the city took on parallel with our construction work. We were just getting out of the way of a master plan that already existed for greenways along the river inspired by the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan. Given our values, that was a no-brainer. The second project was they rebuilt Craven Street to be a complete street with sidewalks and bike lanes, and the third was the restoration of Penland Creek, which is a watershed for a lot of East-West Asheville. The city has access to some grant funding that we couldn’t access, so they took it on and that turned out amazing.”
New Belgium announced its selection of Asheville for its East Coast brewery in the spring of 2012, and officially opened doors to its on-site liquid center in May of 2016. Richardson says community feedback was instrumental in helping them design a facility that respected its neighbors. New Belgium sought out the counsel and advice of the River Arts District business association, West Asheville business association, and surrounding neighborhood associations.
“We will be eternally grateful to that effort,” he notes, “because there were things we wouldn’t have known to pay attention to if these groups hadn’t spoken up. The most prominent thing we heard is, ‘Haywood Road is our Main Street, so we don’t want big trucks on our Main Street.’ We heard them say, ‘We are walking and biking our kids up and down the street.’ When you come at it from a project standpoint, we were told this is the truck corridor, or Haywood Road is a state road that’s approved for trucks. If they hadn’t said anything, we wouldn’t have paid attention to that, but we were able to make some changes with our trucks to minimize the use of Haywood Road. We just read that they’re halfway through with RADTIP and supposed to be done late next summer. That will allow all of our trucks to not be on Haywood Road. Again, that’s a testament to how important our neighbors were then and still are.”
“New Belgium wants to be a business that is truly a force for good and impacts the community in a positive way,” says Michael Craft, New Belgium Asheville Community & Communications Ambassador. “When we first started talking about having a brewery here, we didn’t want to be open past 8PM because we want our co-owners to have a life. (New Belgium is 100% employee-owned.) We didn’t want to steal business away from places like the Burger Bar that everybody loves down the street, or any of the businesses that were so good to serve our beer for so long.” (Burger Bar is featured in this issue’s report on small local venues p. 61.)
A proposed restaurant for the River Arts District has been embroiled in controversy; as of this writing, the developers are seeking a conditional zoning approval to build Jettie Rae’s Fish n’ Such at 144 Riverside Drive. The 1.29-acre site is situated across from the Cotton Mill Studios, but here’s the rub: It’s on the site that has a proposed greenway running through it. Karen Cragnolin, the founder of RiverLink who served in the executive director role until 2016, opposes the move, saying the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan protects the site from development, and that donors who helped buy the land understood it would be protected. Meanwhile, though, the current director of RiverLink, Garrett Artz, says RiverLink’s board stands behind the plan to sell the land for a restaurant.
Eric Scheffer, who own’s Vinnie’s Italian on Merrimon Avenue in North Asheville, and Jim Diaz are working together on the restaurant project, which if approved, would have added a two-story, 5,500-sq.-ft. building on the property. Their proposal also called for a 1,100-sq.-ft. open-air pavilion, two Airstreams for additional food and beverage service, and spaces for 36 cars. The Asheville Riverfront Redevelopment Commission voted it down, 5-4, in June, however. And more recently, at a September 4 meeting at City Hall, the city’s Planning & Zoning commission took comments on the restaurant proposal for the riparian zone, but wound up voting “no” on allowing a conditional use permit. Cragnolin, in a subsequent post to her Facebook page, applauded the decision, adding, “Next stop, City Council.” With developers pushing to get into the RAD, the question remains as to whether the area will remain affordable to the artists who made it a destination place. A quick scan of Craigslist for current rentals (as of this writing) in the River Arts District, for example, yielded a listing slated to open up November 1 in Riverview Station. The space, which can be used as retail/gallery/studio, is 1,617-sq.-ft., with a monthly rent of $2,500, which includes electricity and water.
For her part, Wendy Whitson seems cautiously optimistic about what the future holds for the RAD, saying, “There are a few people that have left because they felt like the rent was too much, but honestly, there seems to be kind of a leveling going on right now. We just seem to be getting more spaces and more artists. Take, for instance, over around the new Wedge brewery—all of this is opened up now.”
She points at the RAD map to an area behind Riverview Station on Lyman Street bursting with an array of destinations: Foundation Studios, a skate park, 12 Bones, the Wedge, and warehouses in the process of being converted into studios.
“It’s just amazing how many square feet there are,” she concludes. “They are filling up with artists, so it’s just more all the time. I haven’t heard any major complaints about the rent over in that pocket.”[Ed. note: Data points in this report were researched and compiled by the Asheville Area Arts Council]
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