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Be the Change You Want To See in the City

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By Leslee Kulba- The City of Asheville is holding a second round of public workshops for “Living Asheville: A Comprehensive Plan for Our Future.” This plan will supersede the city’s 2025 Plan, integrating the various other plans the city boasts.

Planning Director Todd Okolichany explained the city needed to hear from more people, public input presumably guiding the planning process – Except for decades, government has continued to get the same, predictable outcomes from public forums. Fiscally-conservative ideas have a way of being lumped with their antitheses as categories are formed. During the Downtown Master Planning process, a number of libertarians and anarchists attempted to shake up the process.

Butcher paper was set up on easels around the Civic Center Banquet Hall. Each paper had a question at the top, and some were very loaded. They were not worded, for example, “Do you want greenways and ham?” They read more like, “Would you like them in a box or would you like them with a fox?” So, on at least one easel, somebody wrote, “No.” But then two other people came along and added something like, “Not really,” and “I don’t think so.” So, after the dotocracy votes were cast, the negatories spoiled each other, ensuring reportable mass public advocacy for greenway spending.

That said, one of the major triumphs of the Downtown Master Planning process was when the African-American community, led in no small part by activist Jenny Bowen, spoke up in opposition to always getting the short end of the stick in urban renewal. “Welcome to my living room,” said Johnnie Grant at a public input session held in the slick city building, known as the Taj Magraj, ironically constructed on top of a bulldozed, but once thriving African-American community. Lead consultant David Dixon was clearly caught off-guard, and he took what he was hearing to heart. For once, a government visioning process changed course.

Could it happen again? The meetings will be held on December 6 at the North Asheville Library (12:30-2:30), the West Asheville Library (4-6), and the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Center (6:30-8:30); and December 7 at the South Buncombe Library (12:30-2:30) and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Haw Creek (4-6).

According to the city’s website, “Workshop attendees will hear an update on the planning process, learn about the key issues facing the community and most importantly see how the public’s ideas will be incorporated into the vision. Then, residents will get the opportunity to participate in fun exercises that explore alternate development scenarios, choose their preferences, and see the results in real time.”

The city’s first workshop in this process asked questions ranging from unfathomable fluff to, “Do we want to add population or do we want to limit population growth?” “Do we want to be a low-tax, lower-service city or do we want to be a higher-tax city with greater services?” “Do we want to focus on new investment or on maintaining what we already have? How can we do both?” “What is the role of government in achieving our goals as a city?” and “Where do we want to focus the big investments?”

As the plan unfolds, the city is being responsive to demand for more greenspace and green building. Suggestions include committing to provide parks within a five-minute walk for a certain percentage of the population. Protecting the climate is a recurring theme. Predictably, citizens are demanding more public transit and access for cyclists and pedestrians. As an aside, the word cloud published by the city actually includes “helicopter” and “gondola” as preferred commuting modes.

As for the human element of the municipal habitat, the city is pleased to report some positive “statistics.” The obesity rate is only 21.2 percent, the percentage of people feeling badly about themselves is the same, and the general health condition is 57.4 percent. On the “challenge” end are an average municipal body mass index of 28.6 percent and a walkscore of 36. In response, the city is searching to improve “convenient access to food options” and recreational facilities.

Citizens are also concerned about housing: issues of homelessness, a shortage of units, and a cost of living incommensurate with municipal wages. The planners are therefore exploring options for “affordable housing, strong education, growing incomes, abundant employment, short commutes, supported entrepreneurship, equitable prosperity, and diverse growth.” Among strategies floated for new apartment construction are mandating a percentage of units be priced within HUD definitions for affordability and entering into public-private partnerships.

Zoning will continue to be an issue. The planners ask what government’s role should be in deciding where, how much, and what kinds of development are appropriate. Questions are raised about the impact of the current technology shift on land use. Other topics being mulled include “interwoven equity” and perhaps establishing an urban growth boundary.

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