Amid questions and calls from audience members to come to an agreement, including one to end “this bulls**t,” Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman and Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lutovsky squared off at a Jan. 28 Leadership Asheville Forum debate over different plans for the controversial Interstate 26 connector.
Lutovsky spoke first, laying out his case for the Chamber’s endorsement of alternative 3. That proposal has sparked considerable criticism, as it would demolish about 25 homes in the predominantly African-American Burton Street neighborhood. Last month, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners also narrowly endorsed this plan.
Lutovsky asserted that alternative 3 would cut driving times (and therefore air emissions) and have less of an impact on the landscape, because it would go under Patton Avenue instead of over it.
Newman said alternative 4b—devised by the Asheville Design Center to minimize the impact on homes and businesses and require less land—would also open up more land for intensive, downtown-style development and is a better fit with the city’s plans for the River District.
The conference room at the Buncombe County Board of Education was packed, and the audience wasn’t shy about speaking up. “The message we’re all trying to send here is that you should work together, and right now what I’m hearing is that you’re butting heads: You’ve decided which way to go, and you’re not going to work together,” forum board member Bob Mellor told both Newman and Lutovsky. “What we’re telling you is: Work together, none of this bulls**t, get it done!”
Applause broke out at Mellor’s remarks.
Some members of the Burton Street community took issue with Lutovsky’s repeatedly emphasizing that technically, alternative 3 affects not Burton Street but nearby Fayetteville Street. Many also expressed cynicism about the Chamber’s stance.
In response, Lutovsky noted, “We’ve asked the state to take a close look at modifications in that area, and they’ve told us it looks very promising.”
“We see what happened to East End; we were already divided when I-240 came through. Now what are we going to do? Divide it again?” said Thomas Davidson. “Next thing, you’re going to put them in a reservation.”
Lutovsky also said the latest version of 4b would affect Burton Street as well, demolishing five homes there (though the Design Center says three).
After the meeting, ADC President Joe Minicozzi told Xpress that his group’s original plans didn’t call for demolishing any homes in the area or for running the connector over Patton Avenue, but the state Department of Transportation changed the proposed design.
“We didn’t go into Burton Street,” said Minicozzi. “It goes away to DOT, and all of a sudden Burton Street gets whacked and I-26 goes over Patton Avenue. We’re like, what gives? We’ve been going through this process with DOT. … We don’t have all the information yet, and modifications can still happen.”
Reid Thompson asked how many Chamber board members had voted to endorse alternative 3. “Oh, we don’t usually share how we vote, but it was very clear and decisive,” Lutovsky replied.
At the end of the question period, Newman turned directly to Lutovksy and asked if he would arrange for the Design Center to make a presentation to the Chamber’s board to see if they would change their minds.
“The Design Center had an opportunity to present to our Executive Committee,” Lutovsky began.
“But the whole board [votes], and they’ve asked to present to the whole board,” Newman replied. “Is that going to happen or not?”
“It’s up to the Executive Committee to decide,” said Lutovsky. “They’ve listened to the Design Center at the meeting we had a couple of weeks ago, and they didn’t perceive any material they would take to the board. If anything changes, I’m sure we’ll look at it.”
To view video highlights of the debate, go to www.mountainx.com.