Walking the streets of Asheville on a cooling September afternoon, Joe Minicozzi points out parked cars bearing handicapped placards. Under state law, people with disabilities can park for free in unmetered on-street spaces; currently, the city doesn’t ticket or charge even those parking in metered spots.
Minicozzi is executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, whose complaint is that vehicles with handicapped placards are occupying metered spaces for days and even weeks at a time, preventing other potential patrons of downtown businesses from using them — and, argues Minicozzi, undermining the city's intent in creating those spaces in the first place.
“Go down in front of City Hall and see how many parking spaces are taken up like this,” he urges. “At the end of the day, it's a subsidy: Someone's getting something for free. It's a convenience cost — these are the highest-turnover spots, so you pay more to park here. The prices were driven up here to drive cars to the decks, because that's where you're supposed to store cars.”
The ADA, notes Minicozzi, has received complaints from local merchants, particularly those in the Grove Arcade. He displays a chart he's made documenting handicapped-tagged vehicles left in the same space for extended periods.
“Folks are complaining that someone's leaving their car here for eight to 10 hours a day,” he reveals. “If you and I were doing that, people would complain. The merchants who are in these stores are looking out the windows and they want to see turnover, they want to see new cars and know more people are visiting. Meters are put on the street to drive the car to move.”
The ADA, with backing from the Downtown Commission, has brought the issue to City Council. These groups want Asheville to follow the lead of Charlotte and other Tar Heel cities that require drivers with handicapped placards to feed the meters, hoping to encourage them to move to the nearest deck.
Various downtown merchants contacted for this piece declined to comment, some saying they feared a backlash against their business.
Whose city is it anyway?
Some disabled downtown residents see the issue quite differently, however. Many have physical problems that make it impossible for them to use the decks. And in a lot of cases, these folks point out, they’re merely parking where they live.
In particular, residents of the Battery Park Apartments, which provides subsidized housing for the elderly, have contacted city officials to register their objections to the proposed changes. A number of those residents sat down with this reporter recently to share their concerns.
Sunny Early relies on a wheelchair and walker to get around. “We can't run down there day and night and just put quarters in that meter,” she said. “We can't afford [the parking deck]. We live here; this is our home. This was our home before [downtown developed]; nobody expected anything like this.”
“It was our home before the Grove Arcade was renovated, before downtown became a hot property,” added Rylan Hanson. “This looks like a case of gentrification, where rich and commerical concerns come in and try to nudge out the poor and less fortunate. There's only six [designated handicapped] parking spaces in downtown.”
“I can't walk to the end of the block and around — my legs just stop,” noted Franky Moore.
And Clarence Gray maintained that while he understands the general frustration, disabled residents shouldn't bear the brunt of the city's lack of parking. “You ask anyone what they hate about downtown? It's parking,” he declared. “But we have paid our dues, and we're paying our dues.”
It’s a complex issue where various needs and concerns collide head-on: competition for downtown's limited parking, the changing nature of the area and different groups’ feelings about their rightful place in downtown life.
Costs and benefits
The parking exemption in state law is “a little bit unclear: Different cities interpret it different ways,” City Attorney Bob Oast explains (see box, “Letter of the Law”). “A vehicle displaying handicapped placards can park in a metered space or a time-limited space for as long as they want to. But if that space is metered, the law doesn't exempt them from having to pay. Historically, Asheville has not required activation of meters by handicapped vehicles.”
Minicozzi and the ADA, however, believe there’s a difference between short-term parking at a specific destination and long-term vehicle storage. And the current approach, they maintain, isn’t just hurting merchants or other downtown patrons: It’s also costing the city money.
Meters, he emphasizes, “pay for other city services: It's a public infrastructure. When someone with a handicapped placard drives into the parking deck, they have to pay for parking. Why, when they use a different piece of public infrastructure, is it free for them?” Minicozzi estimates that the exemption costs Asheville about $160,000 annually; the city, however, has no figures on the amount of lost revenue.
But for the Battery Park activists, revenue isn't the only issue.
“The city does not have a right to take away our parking spaces just because they think they're going to make more money,” Early asserts. Gray, meanwhile, maintains that the lack of essential services downtown underscores these residents’ need to use their cars. “We don't have doctors here in [down]town; we don't have grocery stores in town; we don't have entertainment in town that we can afford.”
Asked if he thinks placards are being given out to people who aren't legitimately disabled, Minicozzi says, “It is pretty easy to get one.”
“Doctors are not always by the book in giving out handicapped stickers, and a lot of the time, sympathy plays a role in that,” Hanson concedes. “In some sense it's commendable, but if parking solutions were provided, perhaps that wouldn't be as much of a need.”
Finding middle ground
“Some people just want to throw rage at [merchants, ADA and the city],” says Gray, expressing many disabled residents’ feeling that they’re being pushed out of their own city. “What we're trying to figure out is a solution — a compromise with the city, the Battery Park [Apartments], the merchants. What we'd like to do is all of us get together with some intelligent solutions.”
“We'd like to see a compromise,” Moore agrees. “Something where we can have several layers: We can have people [park] near the building who really have difficulty walking over a block, and then work out a sliding scale for the people that can walk a block or two. … It's not going to come in one package.”
The group, she notes, is currently surveying Battery Park residents to find out how many of them use cars and park in the spaces adjacent to the building, as well as how close to their home they really need to park.
Part of the problem, Minicozzi believes, is that the current practice seems to have been adopted by default. “Is it indeed our policy? Has this been adopted as what we want to do?” he asks, adding that the number of people with parking placards has “changed a lot” since handicapped access became a public issue.
For his part, Oast says the policy dates back to a very different time for downtown. “It was the policy when I got here in 1996, and probably for a considerable amount of time before that. There were not enough people parking downtown for it to be an issue. As the population and use of downtown has increased, residential and commercial spaces are at more of a premium, so we have been asked to look at alternatives.”
Oast also reports that he and Transportation Director Ken Putnam are looking at a variety of potential solutions and expect to deliver a set of options to City Council on Oct. 12.
Asked if the multitiered approach advocated by some Battery Park residents would be acceptable to the ADA, Minicozzi says what he most wants is a conscious decision. “We can decide every parking space should have pink flamingos on it; I don't care. But have a public discussion, hear all of the issues, weigh them out and make a choice,” he urges. “But to carry this on for four years is a little ridiculous.”
And Battery Park resident Ande Fuller emphasizes, “It's not just Battery Park: This is happening to disabled people all over downtown.”
Gray, too, says the residents are eager to resolve the issue, perhaps by designating parking spaces in nearby vacant lots for use by the disabled. “We know we're not going to get perfection,” he notes. “God has done myriad miraculous things, but he has not put more land in Asheville, so we may as well figure out how to work with what we got.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.