From Mission Hospital's aging facilities to Charlotte Street's troublesome traffic, proposed and potential development plans in two different sectors ruled the conversation during a breakfast meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners on Sept. 6.
With roughly 30 people present, the two presentations centered on past problems, current conditions and prospective plans for the North Asheville street and the local hospital campus.
“Hospital buildings are built with concrete and steel, and they're quite inflexible places,” said Brian Moore, Mission Hospital's director of public policy and regulatory affairs. “We've got really significant amounts of our physical facilities that are now hitting age 50 and above. The short story about that is obsolescence.”
He continued, “Each year at Mission Hospital — just our Asheville facility — experiences nearly $55 million in depreciation. Every year that clock ticks.”
The challenge, Moore said, only increases in complexity when considering external factors that affect hospital budgets, such as the Affordable Care Act and North Carolina legislators’ decision not to expand Medicaid. However, Moore said that leadership at Mission Health — the organization that the hospital is part of — hopes that modernizing the local hospital campus will not only update its buildings, but will elevate the quality of care delivered, starting in its emergency department.
The price tag for all the changes, he said, is estimated at $350 million.
“Our emergency department, like many emergency departments across the country, [is] the focus for many of society's issues and problems. They're overcrowded. We have to deal with issues of behavioral health and the shortfalls of that. Typically, it's a tough environment,” Moore said. “We found that our emergency department is configured less than optimally and not designed to meet the capacity of what we're doing today.”
On average, the emergency department at Mission Hospital sees more than 105,000 patients each year.
But the need for a redesign of the Mission Hospital campus goes beyond the emergency department. Moore said that hospital room sizes need to be changed due to technology advancements and cultural expectations, such as family members who want to spend the night with a loved one who has been hospitalized. Other proposed changes include the addition of 289 beds, 14 operating rooms, an emergency department with 84 beds in its bay and 18 observation beds, as well as public and support space.
In an assessment of the current hospital campus, Moore said eight facilities were identified as aged, capacity-constrained and/or in need of infrastructure investment. The current plan, Moore said, is to build a tower on a 6-acre area near the current Heart Center on Hospital Drive.
“Two hospitals that used to be major competitors across the street from one another, [that are] now under one system, were never designed to operate as a single system [when they were built],” he said, citing that nearly 12,000 transports occur between Mission and St. Joseph's campus every year.
Then there’s the traffic levels on the other side of town.
Charlotte Street conundrums
City Transportation Director Ken Putnam reported that the traffic count for Charlotte Street averages 14,000-20,000 vehicles a day, with most of the traffic occurring between the interstate ramps and Chestnut Street. For comparison, he noted that the entire stretch of Merrimon Avenue sees 18,000-20,000 vehicles a day.
This same information was shared recently at the Aug. 27 Asheville City Council meeting, where proposals to reduce Charlotte Street from four lanes to three lanes were discussed. At the meeting, Don Bryson, the consultant on the assessment, called the idea “a solution in search of a problem” unless it looks at the project in a more comprehensive way.
At the CIBO issues breakfast, Putnam elaborated on the study's findings of the corridor. One part of the study examined the effects of changing Charlotte Street from four to three lanes in the years 2015 and 2035. Putnam said that if the road stays as four lanes, motorists can expect an increase in minor delays by 2015 and a rise in moderate delays by 2035. He also noted that congestion will likely begin to spread to more times of the day.
Currently, Putnam said, most of the congestion on Charlotte Street occurs in the morning, around lunchtime and in the evening.
In the three-lane scenario, Putnam says expected delays would increase. However, there's a distinct difference if the four-lane road reduces to three: The worst delays would occur on side streets.
“So if you're trying to enter Charlotte Street anywhere along that corridor, you may be the first car in line, you may be the second car in line, but as time goes on, you might be the fifth or the sixth car in line, and that's what you'll begin to see,” Putnam explained.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, who chairs the Planning and Economic Development Committee that will receive staff recommendations in November, mentioned that she gets more emails about Charlotte Street than she does Hendersonville Road in terms of pedestrian concerns.
Putnam says that when city staffers more fully explore the three-lane option, they would likely have to consider installing underground utilities.
Concerned about the implications the three-lane change could have on his business, Kipp Martin the owner of Fuddruckers asked about traffic congestion up Chestnut Street. “Some of the projections would show under a three-lane section as much as 800-900 feet. That's three football fields,” Putnam replied.
The owner said that people need to know that information, and then asked Manheimer to comment as someone who lives near the Charlottee Street corridor herself.
"I don't think we're going to be contemplating that [3-lane plan]. I don't think that's acceptable,” Manheimer replied. “I think what we're talking about here are a lot of different iterations. I trust that staff is going to bring forward a proposal that does not result in that car backup because that's not going to be functional. All that will do is drive cars into the neighborhood and add more congestion to Merrimon Avenue.”
Manheimer continued, “Given the limited resources in that corridor, the priority would be to address cars and the sidewalk situation. In other words, if there's only room to enhance the sidewalks and improve the driving experience, and you're going to have to give up on-street parking or bike lanes, that's really a reality and we realize that. We're not trying to be ideologues about this.”
In the next few months, the City's Planning and Economic Development Committee will receive input from city staffers and then reach out for more public input. The question, Manheimer said, is whether the topic will be brought to a City Council meeting or to City Council's annual retreat in January.
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.