Asheville City Council hosted a fifth-Tuesday community meeting for residents of West Asheville at Hall Fletcher Elementary. Designed to give city council a chance to hear and be heard, these meetings typically cover no new ground. The best part may be the opportunity citizens get afterward to interact with key members of city staff. Councilman Gordon Smith summarized the situation well in his closing remarks when he said he could, figuratively, read the minds of the familiar faces in the crowd. He then named names and provided a sound bite on what the city was doing to address their causes.
Following remarks by the school’s principal, Dr. Gordon Grant, city staff members summarized recent and upcoming changes. Planner Alan Glines, who has been visioning with the residents of West Asheville, presented the findings of surveys and public meetings. Focusing on Haywood Road, however he sliced the data, he found citizens wanted New Urbanist, Smart Growth Complete Streets.
In response, the city was working to change Haywood Road into a thoroughfare for pedestrian interaction, providing equal time for alternative modes of transportation. As the city is able, it will provide benches and street trees, section by section. Other pedestrian amenities will include adding curbs and “pedestrian refuges” that jut into traffic lanes for pedestrian safety. The NC DOT will help with more crosswalks and pedestrian signaling for the ADA community.
The city will also be installing a number of new, signature bus shelters. Transportation Director Ken Putnam said the city obtained them at a considerable discount, paying $4000 apiece, rather than the $18,000 indicated by one citizen’s research. Putnam also indicated that with new sidewalks the city is trying to construct concrete pads or at least install benches until it can purchase more shelters.
Other roles for municipal government emerging from the visioning session included maintaining, recruiting, and incubating small businesses; with light manufacturing being an option under the right circumstances. People also wanted more neighborhood-oriented stores. Glines said he had a long list of the types of ethnic restaurants people wanted, in case somebody wanted to open one.
Judy Daniel followed with an explanation of the form-based code the city would soon be implementing for West Asheville. Rather than grouping buildings by uses, it would group them by aesthetics. The first step will be to collect a list of qualified firms interested in developing the code. DPW Cathy Ball, who recently received an extended job title to help the city with green grants, provided lists of infrastructure upgrades, recently completed and on the radar.
Group Concerns –
Following the city’s presentations, the floor was opened to representatives of community organizations. Cat Foster, representing the Pisgah View Residents’ Association, listed the programs provided by the public housing development. Kids could participate in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, and other programs to teach them responsibility. There was even a Zumba class for adults. Smith observed she said nothing of her community’s “needs,” and said he would like to speak to her in the near future about that.
Vivian Conley, representing Burton Street, spoke to council like anybody else, boasting grand plans and visions and comings together. Then, for a twist, she said none of it could come to fruition because of the “thirty-year cloud” cast by debates over where I-26 should be moved or expanded. Neighbors in the once proud community are still wondering which of them will come under the knife of eminent domain and when.
What was once a proposal for an eight-lane expansion of I-26 in West Asheville died in response to environmental outcry. While many believe the junction in West Asheville could use some improvement, activists’ visions of walkable, environmentally sustainable communities have clashed with what DOT engineers consider viable, or at least consistent with what they are allowed to build. As a result, limited DOT funds have been diverted toward more shovel-ready projects. In his closing remarks, Councilman Jan Davis told of his concerns for expediting I-26 improvements while chairing the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. “When you see blue lights down there every day, that’s people getting hurt,” and then he qualified, “or property getting damaged.”
Tuesday, Mayor Terry Bellamy said she had been approached by newly-elected Representative Nathan Ramsey. He will be serving on the state’s Transportation Appropriations Committee, and he wants to go to bat for Asheville, redirecting DOT funds to streamlining what some have called “spaghetti junction.” The only problem is, he needs a coming together of the citizens so, as Bellamy explained, he knows what to request.
Citizen Comment –
Emily Bidwell led off the individual public comments. Speakers were not timed, so for a while, it appeared she might be the only one. The line of logic expressed by several speakers was that there were too many cars, so they should go slower. Bidwell wanted to offer the city options for less expensive traffic calming. She called attention to the time she and former city councilman Bryan Freeborn got in trouble for painting pictures in the road. It was a concept called “visual friction.” It should be legal; the only problem was the artists had not first secured permission from the proper channels. Among other advantages, Bidwell celebrated having children playing in the road.
Bidwell thought visual friction could work with wayfinding for the thousands of tourists who would be visiting the New Belgium facilities. Cecil Bothwell explained the brewery schedules tours four to six weeks out, and it provides directions with its guest packets. The tours are not designed for drop-in traffic.
Dick Rule wished to thank the city for providing traffic calming on Vermont Avenue. He then explained it came by way of disrepair. In response to a request for a timescale for repaving, Smith said the city has funds to repave every eighty years, which is admittedly substandard. As a result, torn-up streets are triaged.
Bellamy was insulted by Timothy Sadler’s accusation that city council puts buildings before people. She kept interjecting defenses as the night proceeded. Among other things, Sadler requested that the city add recycling receptacles downtown. That is easier said than done. Davis had requested ordinary trash bins for the streets on Patton Avenue for a decade with no results. Prices of durable streetscape furnishings run higher than expected. Regardless, Ball said the city had been looking into purchasing dual trash/recycling containers that would have solar-powered compactors and the ability to communicate to city staff when they needed their diapers changed.
Esther Manheimer responded to a request that the Asheville water system discontinue fluoridation. Fluoridation had begun pursuant to a vote of the people in the 1960s. Now, that the people may have changed their minds, the legislature has bigger fish to fry. Rumor has it that one of the first items of business it will conduct when it convenes in a few days will be to transfer control of the water system to the MSD. Only three members on the MSD board are sympathetic toward Asheville. Three members of council, Manheimer, Marc Hunt, and Chris Pelly, had just attended the annual League of Municipalities meeting where it was decided resisting legislatively-mandated transfers of power for public utilities was the lobbying group’s highest priority this year. To date, 39 municipalities have signed petitions supporting Asheville’s position. In summary, Manheimer said there may be value in discussions about fluoridation, “but the house is burning.”
Possibly the most constructive comment of the evening came from a resident of public housing, who requested permission to grow personal gardens. Pisgah View had a community garden with a fence around it. He acknowledged people were living on taxpayer-subsidized land overseen by the federal government, but a lot of residents were also on food stamps or hurting for food. It only made sense to let them plant vegetables in their front or back yards. He brought the house down with his closing remark, “I realize people might be inappropriate with growing certain things, but that’s not my intention.”
Bellamy beamed as she recalled the days when gardening was allowable in Asheville public housing. She said she would have the housing authority’s director, Gene Bell, get in touch with Green Opportunities’ DeWayne Barton. Smith said he had already had that conversation with Bell, and Bell had said it wouldn’t work unless it came from a grassroots upwelling. Bell had recalled years ago when Rotarian Don Swaby had tried to get a community garden going at Hillcrest. He was given an inferior plot of ground, in the shade, and nobody but he wanted to work at making things grow.
The greatest applause of the night came when David Wall asked if the city could get the leaf collector back. Ball said she had met with several citizens on several occasions over the problem. Unfortunately, the city’s leaf collector had been a 1970s model held together with duct tape. It wasn’t worth repairing, and the replacement cost for the high-maintenance piece of equipment would be about $500,000.
Bothwell interjected the best way to deal with leaves is to let them lie where they fall. This caused a commotion in the audience, as one lady made motions indicating her leaves get to be three feet deep at times. “He’s going to force people to cut all their trees down,” she repeated.
The last comment appeared to be the mayor’s favorite. Bill Rhodes said this meeting was better than last year’s. Not a single person had raised a police-related question. He recalled eight years ago, before the Weed & Seed program had dedicated local and federal resources to shutting down Pisgah View’s drug market with its associated culture of crime. Back then, Michigan Avenue alone had been the scene of four homicides.