Annual State of Downtown event focuses on investment, opportunity

FULL HOUSE: A sell-out crowd gathered for the Asheville Downtown Association's State of Downtown luncheon on Jan. 31 at the U.S. Cellular Center. Photo by Virginia Daffron
FULL HOUSE: A sell-out crowd gathered for the Asheville Downtown Association's State of Downtown luncheon on Jan. 31 at the U.S. Cellular Center. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Are Asheville and Buncombe County investing enough in the city’s popular downtown? Speakers at this year’s annual State of Downtown luncheon, held Tuesday, Jan. 31, gave different answers to that question. While Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman touted lists of major projects and initiatives that benefit downtown, urban planning consultant Joe Minicozzi argued that tax revenue data show more municipal investment in downtown is both warranted and needed.

The annual event is organized by the Asheville Downtown Association, a membership organization made up of business and property owners and residents. According to board member Ben Colvin, this year marks the organization’s thirtieth anniversary.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer listed city initiatives focused on downtown. Photo by Virginia Daffron
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer listed city initiatives focused on downtown. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Addressing a capacity crowd of over 200, Manheimer called downtown “a place for both locals and visitors.” She cited the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Asheville as one of many events that drew large crowds over the past year. The city’s winter lights program coaxed many visitors downtown during the holiday season. However, she continued, “I don’t want any more emails about how bad our Christmas wreaths look,” noting that the city probably won’t be using those decorations again.

Manheimer pointed to the hiring of Downtown Development Specialist Dana Frankel, the launch of Walkable Wall Street pedestrian-only days, a pilot busker policy, street median maintenance, upgrades at the U.S. Cellular Center and a task force to develop a community vision for city-owned property on Haywood Street and Page Avenue as significant initiatives the city has undertaken to support downtown. She outlined proposed zoning ordinance changes that, if passed, will give City Council greater oversight of proposed downtown development projects.

Improvements planned for Pritchard Park this month “didn’t quite hit a brick wall,” the mayor said, but ran into questions and concerns. Though the proposed lighting and signage improvements will move forward, the landscaping and hardscaping components of the planned upgrades “are going to take some more study before recommendations come forward,” she said. City staff are collecting more public input on the proposed design.

The city’s planning department is undertaking a 12-month study of the fast-growing South Slope district, and the transportation department is close to completing a comprehensive parking study. The mayor also said the city will be launching a new website on Feb. 10.

County Commission Chair Newman recalled that, since moving to this area in 1990, he’s lived within walking distance of downtown for all but two of those years (when he was attending Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa). Downtown plays a key role in making this a unique community, he said.

County government is focused on policies that meet the core needs of its citizens, provide opportunity for all and create connections between different parts of the community, Newman said. One important example of this commitment is $135 million of investments over the past four years in new public education facilities, including the new Isaac Dickson Elementary School, Asheville Middle School, A-B Tech Fergus Center for Allied Health and the Mission Health/A-B Tech Conference Center. Over the next few years, he said, the county will be called on to invest $25 million in critical repairs to stabilize buildings on the historic Asheville High School campus. “It will be extremely expensive,” he conceded, “but it is critical to extend the life of Asheville High School for another 50 years.”

The county stepped in to fund a new gym floor at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, Newman said, and the commissioners are interested in funding additional projects to benefit areas where concentrated poverty exists. He also touted the new Family Justice Center on Woodfin Street. With four miles of greenways completed, over six miles planned or under construction and additional connections moving forward from the River Arts District to Woodfin, the county will have over 15 miles of continuous greenways in the foreseeable future, Newman said.

An initiative to develop public art that recognizes and honors local African-American heritage is underway, said Newman. The county and the city have contributed funds to a planning process to determine the next steps for that effort.

"Do we want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?" asked Urban planner Joe Minicozzi at the ADA's State of Downtown luncheon. Photo by Virginia Daffron
“Do we want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?” asked Urban planner Joe Minicozzi at the ADA’s State of Downtown luncheon. Photo by Virginia Daffron

After the elected leaders had their say, Asheville-based urban planner Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 took the podium to declare that Asheville is not doing nearly enough to invest in and grow its downtown. Minicozzi outlined the story of Asheville’s original development boom in the 1920s, as well as the debt crisis that boom left in its wake. Now the city is in the midst of a new boom era that’s bringing 10 million visitors to the city’s downtown each year, he said. The value of all taxable property in the city has reached $12.8 billion, Minicozzi said. In an online comment on this article (see below), Minicozzi clarified that the taxable value of downtown real estate is close to $1 billion.

Minicozzi posited that $26 million in downtown investments in the early 1990s, which financed projects such as the revitalization of Wall Street and the construction of the Wall Street parking garage, laid much of the groundwork for the current tourism boom.

In 1991, 43 Haywood St. had been vacant for 40 years and its tax value was just over $300,000, Minicozzi said. The city provided benches, trash receptacles and a street tree outside the building, which now houses the modern furniture retail store Mobilia. Today, he said, the property generates $634,000 annually in real estate taxes and $83,600 in retail taxes per acre. It is valued at over $11 million, a 3,500 percent increase over 15 years for the 1/5-acre site. By contrast, the Walmart on Bleachery Boulevard sits on 34 acres and generates $6,500 in property taxes and $47,500 in retail taxes per acre.

Because the infrastructure needed to support dense development in areas like downtown costs less than that required to service sprawling development that yields far less tax revenue, Minicozzi suggested focusing public investment on promoting dense urban development in both downtown and outlying areas such as west, north and east Asheville.

Colvin presented the results of a recent ADA survey, which showed that downtown business owners continue to prioritize expanding parking and transportation, investing in infrastructure and supporting small businesses over other concerns.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 31 at 5:21 p.m. to reflect the real estate value information supplied by Joe Minicozzi in his comment below.

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About Virginia Daffron
Associate Editor and News Reporter. Lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

30 thoughts on “Annual State of Downtown event focuses on investment, opportunity

  1. Joe Minicozzi

    The “City of Asheville” is a taxable value of $12.8B. The 200+ acres that is the ‘Downtown’ is $938M, but should be about $1B when the buildings under construction get activated.

    • Virginia Daffron

      Thanks for the clarification, Joe. I have made that change to the article.

    • Lulz

      LOL, you really mean the money the city assumes it owns and can exploit from others is 1 billion lulz. But when people are kicked out, are you going laugh at them and call them unintelligent rubes who aren’t good enough to live here? Oh you part of the swamp too. And you need not be drained, but flushed down it.

  2. It was interesting to note that the ADA survey showed that respondents wanted more parking and less traffic downtown. Those two goals are diametrically opposed. The best way to reduce traffic is to reduce parking. When parking is less convenient more people use public transit, which reduces traffic. Ideally, both from a traffic and an environmental (carbon footprint) standpoint, we would encourage use of transit and discourage use of autos. If we make parking at the perimeter of the downtown free and encourage development of an electric jitney fleet, we can reduce auto miles driven, make downtown more convenient, and reduce pollution.
    In related news, Boulder has begun an experiment that bears on Asheville. They realized that building more parking decks was a losing proposition. (Related to Joe Minicozzi’s analysis, public decks do not generate tax dollars.) So instead of building more parking they are subsidizing Uber, Lyft, taxis, so that people can get into town for about the same cost as driving and parking a private auto. We need to think in terms of whole systems and not let ourselves be locked into “need parking, build deck.”

    • Joe Minicozzi

      Actually Cecil, I said the opposite. Leveraged properly, they grow wealth by adding value. I can go through the math for you again if you’d like.

      • Joe, I know you indicated that the existing parking decks were a good idea and that they contributed to the success of downtown. (My point about your presentation, badly expressed, was that tall private buildings generate a lot of tax revenue. What you didn’t say, but I did, is that a city-owned deck is a liability, not an asset.) But that was then. We are facing a very different transportation future. As the number of privately owned vehicles collapses over the next few decades, downtown parking decks will become redundant. The best ones will be those with level floors and ramps instead of constantly sloped ones like the Civic Center deck. Sloped floors are hard to repurpose.

        • Joe Minicozzi

          Cecil: I’m not going to take the bait here and argue with you. You have had a VERY closed position on this. This goes back to your position on 51 Biltmore. We had our arguments then, and it appears that it you are still in a fixed position. The math is against your position, period. Was then, and is now. Downtown would not have redeveloped without parking. That’s a fact. PIP and numerous businesses would not have showed up if it weren’t for the City doing parking. You have been consistently against parking, and I can respect that, but don’t twist the information, especially related to my presentation. Publicly investing parking adds value in adjacent real estate and creates a “park once” ability for folks to wander around downtown on foot. The simple fact of the matter is that we are (and have been since before the Civil War) a tourist town and those folks utilize automobiles to get her or when they arrive. That’s a fact. There are 10M of them a year, and they make this place have the amenities that we enjoy as citizens here (as I pointed out today). If you can supply me some numbers on the folks that visit here, and Uber to a hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d be interested in seeing the data on the quantity that do not have cars. Heck, it’d be more persuasive to argue the need for a rail connection to Raleigh, than to categorically rail against parking. But we have a difference of opinion that seems to center on the thesis of my presentation today; which is “the need for an evidence and data based discussion.” Sorry to be pointed about it, but that’s the fact of the matter.

        • luther blissett

          I think I’m with Joe here, in that a) I’m not a believer in the driverless-car future for a variety of reasons; b) I look at the decks under construction at the AC Hotel and the DHS building and think that once they’re in service, they’ll fill a lot of the demand as long as they are not portrayed as the poor relatives of street parking. And that may mean taking a different approach to street parking in order to encourage people into decks.

          Specifically on a policy perspective, I’ve said before on Mx that Asheville doesn’t necessarily have a parking problem, it has a walking problem. A quarter-mile walk from parking, especially up a hill, appears to be a problem for people, even if they walk more than a quarter-mile once they’re parked up. (Beats me.) The existing decks are clustered around an area of downtown that is perhaps less central than it once was. I think there’d be room to study that: pay visitors to wear Fitbits or something similar with GPS capability and track their steps.

  3. Also, and not noted in Virginia’s report, the ADA pushed their view that we need a building instead of the park preferred by a majority of Asheville citizens on the Haywood Street property opposite the Civic Center. It was disappointing to see that the ADA opted to boost their view with fraudulent numbers. They offered the “investment” the City has made in the property and included $1.3 million paid to a management company to manage the proposed parking deck that was never built. That was an entirely stupid contract made under Mayor Charles Worley, but to call it an “investment” is simply a lie. Why the City signed a contract for management of a deck that was never built is an interesting puzzle, and you have to admire the chutzpah of the company that skinned Asheville without so much as one moment of “management” – but to call it an “investment” is simply a lie.

      • Gary Woods

        Cecil, All of that rambling just to further your “park” agenda? Give it a rest. Your well-manipulated and massaged “study” that supposedly demonstrated that the majority of Asheville favors a park is the real lie. So spare us the time of having to read your BS nonsense and save it for your fellow naive council members. We’re all stocked up here.

        • Lulz

          LOL, the man just won the taxpayer lottery and thinks we’ll all sing Kumbaya in the part. After working 3 jobs of curse to pay for the government spending spree where the loons assume money grows on trees.

    • luther blissett

      I think we can agree that past investments in that space are a sunk cost and should be treated accordingly.

      The more interesting question from my perspective is that the center of gravity in downtown seems to have shifted somewhat over the time since Mayor Worley was in office. In the early 00s, Haywood Street, Battery Park Ave and Wall Street felt like the heart of the city’s regeneration, thanks to Julian Price, and based on the article, I suspect Joe Minicozzi would agree. Right now, if I were to stick a pin in “where downtown Asheville is really happening”, it’d be somewhere near Wicked Weed and the Orange Peel, far south of many downtown businesses.

      This isn’t to denigrate the idea of having a public park/piazza space facing the Basilica and Civic Center, because I think it’s a fine enough idea in terms of design, but I wonder who it would be for. That, of course, would depend upon what you allowed in that space: I’d say “the Downtown City Market”, but a lot of people who’d come in for that would want somewhere reasonably nearby to park.

      So I think the sales pitch for City Council, especially what one might call the “PARC bloc”, is to justify how the north end of Haywood still matters sufficiently to create a space for public gathering and recreation, even as the focus of downtown has shifted southward over recent years. There may well be a credible case, given the “gateway” hotels on the part of Haywood St that runs parallel to I-240, and the proximity to the big decks. And a city can very easily have multiple points of focus. I just worry that the moment might have passed.

      But an empty piazza is worse than a pit, because it got built and nobody came.

  4. Deplorable Infidel

    the maoyor should well know that we do NOT refer to wreaths as ‘Christmas wreaths’….they are ‘holiday’ or ‘winter’ wreaths. right?

  5. Gary there was no manipulation in the survey I conducted. I admit is was limited to land lines because I could only afford an automated poll and it is against the law to auto dial cell phones for polling. But we phoned every registered voter in the City who had voted in the previous two City elections (and who had a land line). That is about as randomized as an automatic poll can be. Something like 5,000. “Scientific” surveys rely on much smaller samples, but use live operators so they include cell users. There was nothing manipulated or falsified in the poll. And it was well confirmed by the 2015 Council election where strong proponents of the park finished 1, 2 and a close 4, the the strongest proponent of selling the land voted out of office.

    • NFB

      People who voted in the last two city elections don’t come anywhere near to being “a majority of Asheville citizens,” given how low turnout is. Thus the claims that ” a majority of Ashevillle citizens” support a park as supporters like to claim are dubious at best .

      • NFB

        I will also add that my household contains more than one person who voted in the last two City Council elections, but only one of us got to take part in the poll because we only got one phone call.

        And how many people who also got the phone call hung up as soon as they heard a recording because they, like so many people, loath robocalls?

        Many aspects of this unscientific poll (and a large number does not necessarily a scientific poll make) have been questioned and debunked since the results were released, yet its supporters continue to proclaim its results as some sort of dogma.

        • NFB

          (Note, but the above posts are mine, albeit made from different networks, hence the differing avatars.)

  6. Automotive industry experts see a collapse in car ownership in the next two decades. Some believe we will hit peak auto as soon as 2020, conservative estimates go to 2030. Las Vegas is running a driverless bus as of this month. Nevada has permitted driverless semis. Pittsburgh has permitted driverless Ubers.
    Those who doubt the speed of the coming change should contemplate the disappearance of phone booths during the rise of the cell phone. Less than two decades. The president of the Southeast Traffic Engineers (I don’t recall the exact name of the org.) told their annual conference in 2013 that cities should start to consider WHEN not IF drivers will be banned from city streets. At the National League of Cities conference last year, traffic planners advised attendees to NOT build new parking decks because they are a 50-75 year investment that will soon become redundant.
    This is not my opinion. It is the opinion of large numbers of specialists who know a whole lot more than I do.
    I don’t doubt the boost that parking decks gave Asheville some decades ago. But the world is changing fast.

  7. Oh, I should add here that Boulder has begun a test program. Instead of building more parking decks they are subsidizing Uber, Lyft, taxis so that a ride to town costs about the same as driving and parking a private auto. They calculated that it will be cheaper over time, and particularly considering the oncoming technological change, to reduce traffic instead of building decks.

    • luther blissett

      I’d be wary of any transitional deal that involves long-term payments to private companies whose business strategy is to burn billions in VC money with the intention of making it back once they have a monopolistic grip on the market, and who also intend to dump their “independent contractor” drivers as soon as the glorious robot car future arrives. This applies more to road infrastructure than decks, but if you make a transitional arrangement in the belief that fundamental change is just round the corner, it may be transitional for a lot longer than you expect.

      Boulder’s subsidized ride credit program was apparently a one-month deal for the holidays that got extended for an additional six weeks (total cost to the city: $200,000). We’ll know the usage stats soon enough.

      (Toyota’s Gill Pratt discusses degrees of autonomy in detail here: http://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/toyota-gill-pratt-on-the-reality-of-full-autonomy )

      On “looking for parking” traffic: while the online space indicator for public decks is great, it’s not well-known, especially for visitors. What would it take to add electronic signage to gateway points in downtown (such as near the I-240 off-ramps) indicating how many spaces are available at each deck? That won’t stop people seeking out street parking, but it’s a nudge towards the decks.

      • The Real World

        “What would it take to add electronic signage to gateway points in downtown (such as near the I-240 off-ramps) indicating how many spaces are available at each deck?” —- that is an excellent idea and, likely, worth the expense to install and maintain. Efficiency on the roads is always a good thing.

        Luther seems to be in a good mood today.

        • luther blissett

          The robins are back in town (and waxwings passing through) so I’m taking all the good omens I can.

          I’ve seen “available spaces” signs on the downtown periphery of a few places: they work, both to save you disappointment, and to promote decks as a more convenient option than on-street parking. They’re more common in Europe, where metered parking is rarer, but they’re used in US cities as well.

          https://ntl.bts.gov/lib/jpodocs/repts_te/14318_files/apms.htm

          • The Real World

            I like it! Luther for City Council……..

            Another thing common in Europe that is occurring more and more in the USA are traffic circles. Awesome inventions except they do take up more real estate. The old 12 Bones is about to be bulldozed and a traffic circle installed. Keep those cars moving!

          • luther blissett

            I’m pro circles where they make sense, and pro people learning how to use them properly, which includes turn signals, as much as it might burden people with Florida plates.

            The other Euro thing I like for parking is color-coding decks to guide people to them. This sign is about as perfect as it gets (I think it’s from Baden-Baden, a southern spa town which is smaller than Asheville):

            https://scottmcgee.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/parking-spaces.jpg?w=450

  8. Melissa Buerckholtz

    Actually numerous studies have show the a large portion of downtown traffic (I think the figure averages 25-30 percent) is attributable to people searching for parking. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed and experienced this in Asheville. So more parking can actually reduce traffic.

  9. Kenneth Fulford

    In a 1960, yes 1960, letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal I recommended banning cars from downtown Atlanta and the development of what are now called “park-and-ride” parking areas with free buses circulating throughout downtown Atlanta. No, they didn’t do it. On the other hand, today, with our throw-away society, I wouldn’t consider a 50-75 year investment in a parking deck a poor one, whether it be built downtown or the city’s fringe.

  10. Normally it would be hard to be wrong on so many things and with as much frequency as Cecil is, but when you drone on as much as he does it becomes possible. Only have time to address a couple. I’ll try to use small words and sentences for cecil.

    Asheville was, is and will be a tourist destination. It is primarily a drive market tourist destination. Drive destinations are reached primarily by cars. Drivers of those cars like to use their cars and enjoy convenient parking while at their destination. Tourists don’t want to park away from their destinations and take the Cecil electric jitney. Starving traffic by failing to provide adequate parking that both generates fully allocated parking profits and propels the tourist engine is insanity.

    The Cecil park view is equally disingenuous. Pritchard park has been propped up with thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars of private contributions. News to you Cecil? When time to put some real money into the park and perhaps save some meaningful vegetation Cecil and the rest of the council cowards voted no, kowtowing to the interests of a tiny minority. My contributions stopped the night of that vote and I hope other downtown tax payers do the same. It will return to the dump that it was. Bracketing it with another dump for your Parc buddies is a great idea. Hope they name it after you.

  11. Glenn Stach

    This discussion seems to have migrated away from Joe’s principle observations. The investment in both parks and parking benefit downtown and raise the value and opportunity for downtown merchants and the city. The transportation trends of first tier cities are not directly relevant to Asheville given the geographic and topographic challenges of this region. Add to that; Asheville is geopolitically, and demographically an island within an otherwise pennywise and pound foolish state government.

    • luther blissett

      “This discussion seems to have migrated away from Joe’s principle observations.”

      In fairness, the discussion has been driven by the ADA survey that identified parking as the main concern, and there’s a long, complex, ongoing conversation about a) how downtown retail is coping with the tourist boom; b) what role parking plays in it. I have a lot of time for Joe and his models for sustainable density by adding value to existing acreage, and infill development is clearly the best way forward, but I think there’s a good opportunity to look hard at the assumptions behind those downtown surveys. I’ve said before that the city and downtown businesses ought to team up on getting locals to show up on weekday nights with cheap deck parking and later opening hours. And I think there needs to be an honest, evidence-driven assessment of whether downtown’s center of gravity has shifted, at least in terms of visitors.

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