After getting their feet wet with one formal session and a community meeting, it was back-to-school time at the Asheville City Council's Jan. 17 work session, as Council members scrambled to prepare for their upcoming retreat and several looming hot-button issues.
To that end, it was a long night of reports designed to get the new Council up to speed on such subjects as Bele Chere, public transit and city finances before their budget retreat a mere three days later. But sandwiched in between were some thornier matters: the embattled Battery Park parking deck and the perennial community concerns about Wal-Mart (in this case, the proposed Smoky Park Highway location).
And if there was any doubt about the new City Council's political direction, it had surely been dispelled by the end of the seven-and-a-half-hour marathon, which touched on some significant points of city policy despite being conducted in the more relaxed, consensus-based fashion typical of work sessions, rather than by formal vote.
Cutting the deck?
Tight on the heels of reviews of both undeveloped city-owned property and Asheville's public-transportation system, Council instructed city planners to start looking for alternate locations for a new downtown parking deck.
The move marks City Council's first major step back from the controversial five-story, 670-space Battery Park deck, which has been in the works since 1998. And though the request won't necessarily kill the project, it does open the door to massive change on a big-ticket item that, until recently, had seemed pretty much a done deal.
The project had already become something of an albatross for the city. The projected cost had skyrocketed from $11.8 million to $21 million due chiefly to rising construction costs driven by gas prices, and the city still hadn't obtained the last piece of needed property, adjacent to the Basilica of St. Lawrence.
Meanwhile, as the City Council and mayoral races were gearing up in September, residents of the neighboring Battery Park Apartments mounted a successful campaign to highlight their concerns about noise and construction dust. They also maintained that the size and close proximity of the deck would deprive some residents of light and fresh air and would generally impair the quality of life for the elderly residents.
Drawing on a report by Atlanta-based consulting firm Hanscombe, Faithful and Gould, which was drafted specifically to answer some of these concerns, City Engineer Cathy Ball said the deck could be reduced by one level. That chop job, she said, would eliminate 140 spaces; the remaining 530 spaces would meet the city's current demand, but not the projected future parking needs. And increasing the planned 15-foot gap between the deck and the apartments would merely result in a smaller deck at the same price.
The city has already spent $4.2 million on the project: $2.6 million for land acquisition and $1.6 million in design-and-management costs that would probably be a loss if the city walks away. And the long-running negotiations concerning the remaining piece of property eventually broke down, though City Attorney Bob Oast said the door isn't closed on a possible future deal.
It should come as no surprise that some on Council would challenge the need for and/or location of the Battery Park deck -- Vice Mayor Holly Jones and new Council members Robin Cape and Bryan Freeborn all campaigned on the issue last fall, and all were quick to try to find alternatives at the work session. And Economic Development Director Sam Powers told Council, "As far as looking at other locations, that is very much something that could be considered.
But Transit Services Director Bruce Black emphasized that visitors to downtown prefer to park close to their destination. "People don't walk long distances for parking," he said. "They want to be near where they are going." And providing a shuttle service for outlying lots could cost upward of $1 million a year, added Black.
"I just don't buy that the [deck] has to be in that proximity," said Jones. "If our [parking] demand is that high, those [outlying] lots are not going to struggle."
Cape, however, turned that argument around, asserting that given Battery Park's proximity to the Civic Center, the Basilica and the Grove Arcade, there may be better uses for the property than a deck. "I think we need to be careful what we do in that vicinity to make sure it becomes part of the attraction rather than someplace to park," said Cape. "This could be almost another heart of our city."
Freeborn and Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, stood firm in their belief that the city needs to explore other transportation options. During a previous staff presentation on bus service in Asheville, both had pushed for extended hours of operation and a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly city, maintaining that mass transit should be a high priority for public funding.
"I am open to supporting more parking downtown only if we expand our other transportation issues as well," Freeborn declared. And Newman noted that the parking decks are subsidized by outside funds such as parking fines -- money that could be used to support mass transit and alternative transportation.
But Council members Jan Davis and Carl Mumpower both wondered whether backpedaling on providing more parking would mean breaking a promise to downtown business owners. "A lot of people are building down there because they are expecting us to keep our word to supply more parking," noted Mumpower said.
But City Engineer Cathy Ball told Xpress that the city's promise was conditional, not absolute. "[The agreement] read, 'If we build a deck, we will provide parking,' which is very different from promising to build a deck," she said.
In the end, the discussion seemed to center on three tracks: continuing with the Battery Park project, seeking other sites for parking facilities, and developing an "exit strategy" from the existing plan. And after taking Council's pulse, Mayor Bellamy instructed staff to pursue the second option.
For the moment, however, the city's course remains unclear. Planning staff will look at other city-owned parcels, including property on Haywood Street and elsewhere, and perhaps explore developing shuttle services or multiple, smaller decks rather than one large one. But the Battery Park project is not completely off the board yet, and charts presented by Black and Ball maintain that, within a few years, Asheville will be unable to meet the demand for downtown parking.
City Council will have some new tools in its kit when the proposed Smoky Park Highway Wal-Mart comes up for consideration later this year.
The project, which goes before the Planning and Zoning Commission Feb. 1, will mark the first large-scale "conditional zoning" case to come before Council since the designation was adopted by the city last May. And while zoning designations are typically couched in a labyrinth of legalese, this one appears to significantly change the way City Council can approach such issues.
The new designation, which replaces the conditional-use zoning, eliminates the quasi-judicial process that prohibited Council members from gathering outside information on a project before holding a public hearing. Now, they're free to investigate upcoming cases and even talk to neighboring property owners -- which they weren't supposed to do previously. In fact, Council members are encouraging residents concerned about the Wal-Mart project to contact them.
The conditional-zoning designation also adds a new criterion City Council can consider when evaluating proposed projects: economic impact on existing small businesses. That angle seems likely to be explored in the Wal-Mart case.
But some of the other issues mentioned by Council members, such as mandatory living wages, labor practices and health insurance for employees, led city staffers to sound a cautionary note. "The closer you stay to land-use issues, the better," warned Oast. And both he and Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said that while Council could put social issues into their zoning conditions, neither man was sure whether such conditions could withstand a court challenge.
To that end, Council instructed staff to explore the feasibility of conducting a citywide assessment of the economic impacts of different land uses. They also discussed requiring developers proposing large projects to submit an economic-impact assessment.
In the meantime, however, city leaders also seem concerned about how to deal with the kind of massive debate that unfolded in connection with the Wal-Mart Supercenter in east Asheville in 2002. Two years later, City Council adopted a one-hour time limit for public hearings, which current Council members now agree is too short for such a contentious issue. But some also made it clear that they don't want to see a repeat of the marathon two-day 2002 hearing.
"I am not going to listen to a 13-hour meeting on Wal-Mart," Bellamy proclaimed. And with the ability to gather outside information in advance, she argued, there should be fewer surprises when the matter comes before Council.
At the same time, some Council members seemed reluctant to stifle public debate. In 2004, noted Jones, "I was open to limiting public comment as an experiment if we exercise more discipline as a Council, which I haven't seen." But she also worried that the fatigue induced by listening to many hours of testimony could hamper Council members' ability to make sound decisions on difficult issues.
Mumpower, meanwhile, noted that many people use the lectern for reasons other than supplying Council with information, leading to extended meetings and redundancy. "What they want is a public forum, but that's not what we are here to do," said Mumpower.
Eventually, Council members came to a consensus on how to handle the as-yet-unscheduled Wal-Mart public hearing: One hour will be allowed for presentations by staff and the developer, followed by two hours of public comment. And the people who would be most affected by the construction will be allowed to speak first. As usual, public comment will be limited to three minutes per person and 10 minutes for someone representing a group.