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But for Now, We Drive

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By Leslee Kulba- On Asheville City Council’s agenda was a request to allow gravel parking lots in the Central Business District. The use would only be temporary, for one year with an option to renew a second year; and measures would have to be taken to keep the gravel from spilling into rights of way. The change was intended to help mitigate the divide between parking supply and demand, which has been growing for at least two decades.

Several spoke during public comment. Their concerns were the same. They run businesses downtown, and their customers and employees, who can’t afford to live in the city, can’t find spaces to park. Carmen Cabrera of Mast General Store told of a girl having to pay $13 for parking for a job interview. Those who live downtown, like Michael Whalen, can’t park in assigned lots at their homes because, as he described it, people get frustrated trying to find a legal place and park illegally in spite of restrictive signage. Many said their friends tell them they no longer go downtown because parking is such a hassle.

After several had spoken, Mayor Esther Manheimer said, “I’m very glad there are so many people here to talk about this issue, but I’ll let you know I don’t sense that it’s terribly controversial.” Then, Karen Ramshaw, a member of the city’s Parking and Transportation Subcommittee and vice president of Public Interest Projects, the impetus behind construction of the Biltmore Avenue parking garage, spoke on behalf of half a dozen in the room about a larger issue.

Ramshaw said the city had a parking crisis. The city provides a total of 2299 parking spaces on streets and in lots and garages. Spartanburg provides 3559; Greenville, 6226. As for nearby tourist destinations, Charleston provides 8941; Savannah, 7048. Ramshaw performed an analysis that conservatively estimated eight cars on average will park in one space on a given day in Asheville. The number is less in comparable cities, close to 2-3 in a few.

“Year after year, the Downtown Commission and the Asheville Downtown Association list the lack of parking, particularly affordable monthly parking, as a top concern,” said Ramshaw; and the city keeps performing studies. She cited a 2008 study that, prior to bustling expansion on the South Slope, estimated the city needed 2300-2400 additional spaces. The city gave the impression it would provide 1817 at the time, but that number turned out to be 400, and most of those were in the Biltmore Garage.

The study advised, “The City should take every opportunity to acquire necessary real estate [to accommodate parking] before costs escalate.” But this year, when Ramshaw asked to see what properties the city had so much as identified as suitable for parking facilities, she learned there were none.

Ramshaw then gave a primer in economics and shared how city policies were working at cross-purposes. When PIP was researching the feasibility of constructing a parking garage on Biltmore Avenue, they discovered that, over the lifetimes of the existing garages downtown, property values around them had risen 2-3 times higher than they had in other parts of the city. What’s more, Parking Services Manager Harry Brown runs the city’s enterprise so profitably, garages pay for themselves over time; and since FY2012-13, $616,875 from parking revenues has been transferred each year to the Transit Fund. Now, Ramshaw said, revenues from the Biltmore Garage are “far exceeding income projections.”

Leaving parking to be built by private developers, however, proves expensive. This drives low-income projects out of a market easily accessed by developers of multinational chains, luxury condos, and short-term rentals. Council, meanwhile, is trying to incentivize downtown property owners to lease to mom-and-pop shops, doesn’t want any more hotels, and is still working on tweaking its regulations limiting short-term rentals. Councilors want mixed-income housing, but if subsidized housing gets built in the CBD, inhabitants won’t be able to drive with parking fees of $125 a month.

Ramshaw added, “City staff has insulated itself” from the parking problems. “There is no member of city staff on a waiting list for a parking space, and no city staff are using the street spaces, which are not always available. City staff do not pay for parking and can ride the bus for free. What if we turned those spaces over to downtown service workers and let the city try to run a business without adequate parking?”

Going back, the city has been trying to site a parking deck near what used to be the Civic Center almost as long as the DOT has been trying to build the I-26 connector. At least three trials were thwarted out of concerns about the effects of carbon monoxide on the elderly in the Battery Park Apartments, a mall pushing out local businesses on Lexington Avenue, and seismic disturbances cracking the foundation of the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Having ascended to fame, the basilica then became the literal poster child of city council campaigns for candidates wanting a bucolic field in front.

The underlying fear is carbon emissions. Policies are written “through the lens” of a clean-technology future. The UDO, for example, only requires hotels to provide one parking space to lodgers for every two rooms, and builders of apartments can halve minimum parking requirements if they provide infrastructure for multimodal transportation. But, as Ramshaw and others pointed out, these policies are backfiring in the present. Tourists are orbiting city streets twenty minutes looking for parking spots, while locals take their business out-county.

In a follow-up conversation, Ramshaw said she likes parking garages because surface lots have higher and better uses. Concentrating parking in garages is less disruptive and safer for pedestrians than an abundance of curb cuts and the associated traffic. Forcing development to sprawl with prohibitive parking policies results in “dedicated asphalt that sits for more than half the day” unused. Ramshaw is also open to park-and-rides and carpool apps, but thresholds for participation have to be met before they become viable. “We just need to get much more creative,” she said.

In Other Matters –

After approving the provision for gravel lots 6-0, with Councilor Julie Mayfield absent, council turned its attention to the refinancing of bonds. CFO Barbara Whitehorn provided a primer on municipal bonds and then explained the refinancing was routine, and the city would realize savings by getting better terms for one set of bonds and locking-in interest rates on another.

Prior to public comment, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler established the change would have no negative impact on the city’s bond ratings. The city now enjoys the highest rating from Standard and Poor’s (AAA) and the second highest from Moody’s (Aa1), and both agencies give the city a positive outlook. Whitehorn said of the prospects of the city attaining an Aaa rating from Moody’s, “It is my fervent hope that during my tenure here that we will get there.”

Former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson took the opportunity to cast aspersions about the city’s mismanagement of resources. He said the city was carrying debt to pay for past mistakes. He is suing the city for planning a road through his restaurant as part of the River Arts District neighborhood revitalization and transportation improvement project. He reminded council of the recent finding that the RADTIP, financed in part with federal TIGER VI loans, was running $26 million overbudget.

Mayoral candidate Jonathan Wainscott said it was good the city was refinancing debt, but he felt as if he were living in the Roaring ’20s. He recalled issues with Craven Street and RAD overruns; and wondered if the multimillion-dollar, multi-decade promise for Eagle Market Place would ever be built. He asked what would happen if construction costs rose again, as the city is having problems getting bids already; or if something were to cause property values to fall, putting taxpayers in double jeopardy with an imminent tax hike in the name of revenue neutrality. Wainscott said he didn’t think voters would have approved the additional $74 million bond issue had they known the city’s financial position.

Manheimer rebutted, saying before the city won its campaign with voters on the 2016 bond referendum, she and others shared in “many, many, many” public presentations that the city’s debt capacity was, compared to other North Carolina cities, “relatively small.” With the state capping municipal debt at 8 percent of the property tax base, or $912,889,000; Asheville’s pre-2016 debt only totaled $65,774,000. Manheimer acknowledged debt can be anxiety-inducing, but said the scope of improvements the city is attempting would be infeasible without it.

Councilor Cecil Bothwell said the reason the city was having to take out so much debt was because for years members of council deferred maintenance to avoid raising taxes. As an example, cities typically repave their roads every thirty years. Asheville repaves its every seventy years. “I’m fully willing to defend this sort of indebtedness because we can’t [maintain infrastructure] otherwise,” he echoed.

Going full circle, Manheimer concluded, “I’m glad that during the last several years we put together a pretty strong capital program. And, obviously, we heard earlier tonight that there needs to be more. Folks want another parking deck downtown and that’s another item that would have to be debt-financed, … So, there’s definitely a push and pull in this community between those that don’t want public investment in infrastructure like this, they don’t want the money spent; and there’s those who do want to see the funds spent. And I think the voters approving the GO bonds overwhelmingly very much understood that what they were doing was getting involved in making Investments in our community.”

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