The beer flows freely alongside Asheville’s renewed French Broad River.
By Brian Barth
On a cool Friday morning back in the spring, I stood on a small pedestrian bridge overlooking a tiny stream that feeds into the French Broad River in Asheville, North Carolina. Native species including cardinal flower, joe-pye weed, trumpet creeper, rhododendron, witch hazel, serviceberry, and river birch cloaked the crystal-clear streamlet, which meandered down a series of stone-lined pools in the ravine below. Less than a decade ago, the water meandered around rusted car bodies, tires, and slabs of concrete that had been tossed there over the years, part of an old, unpermitted landfill that oozed with heavy metals and hydrocarbon pollution. At my side were Paul Mills, ASLA, and David Tuch, who designed the landscape that has brought the place back to life.
As if on cue, a groundhog appeared from a burrow under a boulder they specified. “Snake!” Mills exclaimed a few minutes later, pointing to a serpentine line squiggling through one of the pools. As he and Tuch debated the species, a second, smaller serpent squiggled by after what I presumed was its mother. “It’s a family!” I shouted.
On the flat ground above this BBC wildlife special are intoxicating gardens of native plants surrounding a boozy business: the East Coast headquarters of the New Belgium Brewing Company. Mills’s firm, Russell + Mills Studios, is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, the brewery-laden city where New Belgium was established in 1991. Looking to expand a couple of decades later, the company decided on the Appalachian city of Asheville, which has the second-highest number of breweries per capita in the United States and has been deemed the nation’s “best beer city” by seriouseats.com. (Fort Collins has merely the 11th most breweries per capita.) Russell + Mills, the rare landscape architecture firm with a reputation for designing brewery grounds—they’ve worked on a dozen to date—was hired as the lead designer for the brownfield site. Tuch’s Asheville-based firm, Equinox Environmental, collaborated on plant selection and the design of stormwater management features.
The ravine bisects the 18-acre property—a 400,000-barrel-per-year brewery lies on one side; New Belgium’s Liquid Center, a tasting room and event space, on the other—which opened to the public in 2016. It lies less than a mile from downtown Asheville in the city’s River Arts District, a place of artisans’ studios and riverside parks that have replaced the industrial landscape that once enveloped the French Broad, a long-polluted water body that borders the brewery on one side. New Belgium’s $175 million investment represents a major step toward a riverfront reclamation that has been decades in the making.
My tour began on the upstream end of the site, where Mills explained how a close working relationship with the city led to the site being bounded by a new greenway on the river side and a new streetscape on the upland side, as well as a seamless integration between the public and privately owned landscapes. The new, more complete street (bike lanes, permeable pavers) sends its stormwater runoff into a bioretention basin on the New Belgium property, for instance, which provides filtration before the water overflows into a pipe that carries it to the streamlet, which then delivers it to the river. The designers also collaborated with the city on a pair of constructed wetlands that treat runoff from the sea of pavement where semitrucks pull into the back of the brewery to collect the bubbly cargo.
Mills is ecstatic about his experience working with local officials and with New Belgium as a client. “New Belgium’s commitment to sustainability is front and center, and it inspired the city to spend the extra money and get this right,” he said. “Very few projects I’ve worked on have had this kind of momentum—there’s always some sort of pushback. This was all open arms, like, ‘What do you guys need? What do you want to do?’”
What the designers wanted was to set the highest possible bar for stormwater management practices and to showcase native southeastern and Appalachian plants. Hummocky swaths of grama grass and prairie dropseed greeted us as we moved through the site along what Mills calls a “braided stream” of paths and plantings. I was drawn to a peculiar southern shrub called Carolina allspice, whose maroon flowers have the strange distinction of being only occasionally fragrant—individual specimens are often odorless, but I was delighted to find one that possessed the plant’s strawberry-pineapple-cinnamon scent.
In some places, mowed lawn surrounds beds of exuberant, not-always-tidy natives. Mills said this was a compromise that resulted from concerns expressed by residents during the public engagement process about what they perceived as the potential unruliness of the proposed plantings. “People were like, ‘It’s going to be too messy; we need some clean edges,’” Mills said.
“By giving clean edges, it looks like it’s intentional,” Tuch said. “We used the same technique along the creek, where it’s highly maintained along the top of the slope, but then it gets wilder and wilder as you get closer to creek bottom.”
The designers also let a little wildness loose in the parking lot. Curb cuts allow water to flow into a swale planted with river oats and other natives, which overflows into the aforementioned bioretention basin. Mills explained that his “randomized” layout of parking stalls—they’re interrupted at random intervals by planted bump outs—were intended to “make it feel like the riparian vegetation had come in and taken over, like this was always here and we’ve built around it.”
Asheville is a major tourist destination, with more than 10 million visitors annually, and beer is a major attraction. On a busy day at New Belgium, thousands of people arrive on foot or by bike, canoe (floating down the French Broad is a popular local pastime), beer bus (to help prevent drinking and driving, local outfitters offer brewery-to-brewery transportation), or car (though with fewer than 70 parking spaces, this is not the primary mode of transportation). The brewery’s event lawn hosts up to 5,000 people for concerts—Mills and Tuch said the 2017 Third Eye Blind show was quite a party.
The area has always been a gathering place, even as the landscape has changed dramatically through the centuries. Just downstream from the site, the French Broad joins with the Swannanoa River, a confluence that has held significance to Indigenous people in the region for 10,000 years. Artifacts unearthed in the vicinity suggest that it was a place of ceremony and trade for the ancestors of the modern Cherokee, who refer to the confluence as Untokiasdiyi, which means “where they race,” a reference to the dugout canoe sporting events once held here.
Later, after the Cherokee were driven out on the Trail of Tears, the area became a trading ground for white settlers, says Cathy Ball, Asheville’s assistant city manager, who collaborated with the landscape architects on the public–private elements of the project. In the 19th century, a route known as the drover’s road ran along the French Broad through Asheville, along which huge numbers of hogs were driven from Tennessee farms to markets in South Carolina and Georgia. The Western North Carolina Livestock Market was later established on what is now the brewery site, part of a thriving commercial hub that subsisted throughout the 20th century, including a fairground that hosted circuses.
Ball has a personal connection to the landscape: During her childhood in the 1970s, her family trucked their tobacco crop to a barn next to the livestock market, where “businesspeople would walk through, grade your tobacco, and slap a price on top of the bale,” she said. She remembers it as a bustling market, “a very lively place with produce stands where we bought things like oranges, which for our family was a big deal at the time.”
By the 21st century, the site had evolved into more of a warehouse environment with a junkyard and a sprawling auto repair facility. Decades of unpermitted dumping of cars and construction debris had left behind a wasteland that New Belgium, and the city, were determined to clean up. “Excuse my French, but it was shit on for 100 years,” said Stephanie Monson Dahl, the point person for riverfront redevelopment at Asheville’s planning department. “We have a duty to clean it up.”
Dahl and Ball have been intimately involved in the implementation of the 2004 Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan, named for an Asheville author who was a driving force behind local efforts to clean up the river before she died in 2006. “Just as the river belongs to no one, it belongs to everyone, and everyone is held accountable for its health and condition,” Dykeman wrote in her 1955 book The French Broad, which made a full-throated case for cleaning up the nation’s waterways, seven years before Silent Spring brought the message to the masses. “There is only one respectable course for a free citizen and that is to shoulder his share of the responsibility for the ‘killing,’ for the pollution,” Dykeman wrote.
The river is much cleaner than in its industrial heyday—“One time it caught on fire,” Tuch said —and is generally considered safe for swimming. A local journalist recently quipped that while it was “once referred to as the ‘Trashy Broad,’ today people no longer smell the French Broad River before seeing her.” Ball says, “The Wilma Dykeman plan was all about bringing people to the river, with the understanding that when people have a sense of ownership of it, they will become invested in taking care of it. When we finally opened up the creek drainage on the site and began to bring it back to its natural state, there was a moment when I got cold chills.”
As my tour with Mills and Tuch continued, we passed a particularly feral-looking area along the road, where an enormous berm screens a view of the loading docks. This, Tuch explained, is where the contaminated soil excavated from the site was collected. “New Belgium didn’t want to haul it off and make it someone else’s problem, so they put it here.” The mound was capped with two feet of clean soil and planted with little bluestem, goldenrod, Ageratum, honey locust, sweet gum, and other species that will help to “immobilize the pollutants so they don’t spread,” Tuch said. “It will eventually be a savanna landscape with widely spaced trees to allow enough sun for the meadow species.”
At the entrance to the brewery we met Jay Richardson, the general manager, who said the contaminated soil was, in a sense, part of the site’s appeal. It would have been much easier to build on a greenfield site on the outskirts of town, but that would have been out of alignment with the company’s values.
New Belgium, a Certified B corporation known for its Fat Tire Ale (the first carbon-neutral beer with nationwide distribution), gives its workers a cruiser bicycle on the one-year anniversary of their employment. They deconstructed the buildings on site, diverting 97 percent of the waste from the landfill and reusing 14 linear miles of lumber and metal cladding, graffiti and all, in the new buildings and landscape. The Liquid Center has been designated LEED Platinum; the brewery, LEED Gold; and the distribution center (located off-site), LEED Silver. The landscape won a Southeast Regional ASLA Merit Award in 2017.
“One of our main criteria was that we wanted a piece of land that had already been taken away from Mother Earth, so to speak,” Richardson said. “We didn’t feel so great about developing something that was still part of nature. We wanted to return the site to something that is beneficial for the Earth.”
We made our way back across the ravine on a curving bridge that will become a canopy walk as the trees below mature. The unnamed tributary was christened Penland Creek (after a local family that operated an auction on the site for many years) in a naming contest held by RiverLink, a local watershed advocacy group; the moniker was made official by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 2015. In the spirit of Wilma Dykeman, there are now many eyes on this tiny urban trickle, which is crossed by two footbridges on the New Belgium property—one that delivers beer aficionados from the Liquid Center to the brewery entrance for tours, the other to funnel them back from the tour terminus—and a third on the greenway below.
A fourth vantage point lies above the opening of a giant culvert that transmits the water to the site from the neighborhood above the brewery, an urbanized area from which a torrent rushes during heavy storms, which the designers deftly accommodated with a floodplain sculpted from the bottom of the formerly V-shaped ravine. Mills recalled the day he bushwhacked uphill to find the stream’s modern-day headwaters, which spilled from beneath a residential street: “It was like, oh, wow, here’s the origin pipe!”
Mills was in town for meetings about a few parts of the landscape that he’s continuing to work on. Employees need an improved outdoor lunch spot, and boaters need a formalized landing area to access the brewery without eroding the bank. “Right now they get out of their boats everywhere and scramble up the hill to find beer,” he said. But the main task at hand is to finish designing the beer garden, which in its current state—picnic tables on a base of crushed stone—is a placeholder. “It’s nice to be able to see how people use a space that you’ve designed, and then have the opportunity to come back and rethink your approach,” Mills said. “It’s better to leave some things out than to think you know everything on a project and try to put it all in at once.”
The beer garden is, naturally, where the tour ended. I ordered a Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA and listened to Mills ruminate on the evolution of beer gardens, from Old Europe to the American microbrew craze, as he pondered his plans for the space around us. “The most important thing about a beer garden is the word garden,” he said. “There are many places that have beer patios, beer plazas. But I think it’s living things that bring them to life, the sense of being part of an actual garden.”
Brian Barth is a freelance journalist based in western North Carolina.
Owner New Belgium Brewing and City of Asheville, North Carolina: Craven Street, Penland Creek, and Greenway. Landscape Architecture : Landscape Architecture Team Lead/Lead Site Designer/Sustainability and Ecological Concepts: Russell + Mills Studios, Fort Collins, Colorado (Paul Mills, ASLA; Craig Russell; John Beggs; Shelley La Mastra). Landscape Architecture/Sustainability and Ecological Design/Planting/Wetlands/Craven Street Improvements/Penland Creek/Stormwater Treatment/Greenway Design: Equinox Environmental, Asheville, North Carolina (David Tuch, Kim Williams, Megan Foy, Owen Carson). Landscape Architect of Record: ColeJenest & Stone, Charlotte, North Carolina (Sue Freyler). Civil Engineering ColeJenest & Stone, Charlotte, North Carolina. Greenway, Penland Creek: Mattern & Craig, Asheville, North Carolina. >Specialty Penland Creek Engineering: Wolf Creek Engineering, Asheville, North Carolina. Architecture Perkins + Will, Charlotte, North Carolina.