Council member Jan Davis, one of the architects of the push for a new I-26 connector, said that the new plan will be much more receptive to local concerns than those in the past. Photo by Alicia Funderburk.
As the weather outside shifted between sunshine and snow, Asheville City Council members joined their Buncombe County counterparts March 25 in approving a resolution that sets the stage for a new Interstate 26 connector. They also launched the process for redeveloping a key property in the heart of downtown. But both moves came with dissent.
Passing on I-26
The vote was 6-1 on a joint resolution encouraging state government to move forward with an I-26 connector plan called Alternative 3C and get the long-delayed project rolling. On March 18, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously backed the resolution, which encourages the North Carolina Department of Transportation to proceed with Alternative 3C.
An ad-hoc group of local officials and community leaders drafted the resolution, the product of 18 months of meetings. Members of the group, which included Council members Marc Hunt and Jan Davis, have noted that passage of the resolution is not final approval of the plan (that decision will come around 2016, say DOT officials), but that it’s important to get the ball rolling and put the city on a list of top state funding priorities.
NCDOT engineer Ricky Tipton told Council members that the connector will clear up congestion and that there will be plenty of public comment and analysis before any final decision is made. According to the department’s current estimates, 3C will require the demolition of 34 structures (19 homes and 15 businesses) and cost about $230 million.
Council member Davis said that, unlike some previous discussions about I-26 proposals over the years, “DOT is interested in helping us with these green improvements” — such as greenways and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
When it comes to DOT considering local input, “We’re a long way from where we were 10 years ago,” Davis said.
“Any project that’s going to offer more safety is a very good thing,” Mike Butrum of the Asheville Board of Realtors told Council. “With a known plan, we then know what real estate is going to be affected and what isn’t going to be affected.”
Business owner Tom Wesley said Asheville could learn from the example of Houston, Texas. “They decided to widen Interstate [from] 10 to 14 lanes. All political parties got behind it. They whisked through some lawsuits. They got rid of the naysayers,” he said. “One hundred thousand cars [are] coming in and out of the city now. They finished it two years ahead of schedule and $2 billion under budget. That’s my encouragement to you to make this happen.”
Not everyone was so gung-ho.
“There are many places around this country that are tearing down interstates that were built with good intent but caused more problems than they solved,” said Alan McGuinn of the Asheville Design Center. “The ADC recommends that a full understanding of the impacts and benefits of each alternative be understood before making a full recommendation.”
“We believe it is premature to ask the city and county to endorse an alternative prior to the completion of the environmental impact statement and a full understanding of the relative benefits and drawbacks of each alternative,” said Rich Lee, speaking for the ConnectUs group that represents the neighborhoods most affected by the I-26 plans, including Burton Street, West Asheville and Montford. “Alternative 3C, as currently designed, does not represent the city’s long-range plans.” If the city does proceed forward, he added, it’s essential to include better pedestrian infrastructure and reduce the impact on neighborhoods.
Leaders from Burton Street, a West Asheville neighborhood that has been damaged by interstate construction several times in the past, have criticized this latest push, saying that it has overlooked the damage I-26 might do. Council member Gordon Smith acknowledged their concerns. “We have a responsibility and an opportunity to acknowledge what is a darker chapter in our history: the policies of urban renewal in the city of Asheville that, from the 1950s to the ’70s, broke families apart and broke neighborhoods apart” in predominantly African-American neighborhoods like The Block, Hill Street and Burton Street, he said.
“When we go to expand this road, we will be expanding on the footprint of urban renewal,” Smith continued. “Every one of the I-26 alternatives we’ve seen cuts into Burton Street neighborhood. All of them do.” While 3C has the smallest impact, he said, “we need to recognize it’s still there.”
Smith said he supported making sure that the neighborhood remains connected to the rest of the city. He also noted Burton Street leaders’ call on DOT to help displaced residents stay in the neighborhood.““We should make sure that not only are they getting fair-market value for their houses, but that they can stay where they are,” Smith said. “I think that’s a really reasonable request, especially given our history.”
However, Smith said, “We do need to get in line for this funding or we won’t have a chance.”
Smith voted in favor of the resolution.
Council member Cecil Bothwell, the lone dissenting vote, said that Alternative 3C is a bad plan on multiple levels. “This plan is a highway through Asheville,” he said. “But it doesn’t really address the issues we’ve been seeking to address. At this rather great expense, it doesn’t do a whole lot for Asheville.”
The resolution passed 6-1.
Back in the market
Council also voted 6-1 to begin a new effort to redevelop a prominent site on Haywood Street across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville. Abandoned since 2006, the site held a parking garage and derelict commercial building until both were demolished recently. Late last year, a proposed deal with McKibbon Hotel Group fell through. The company had planned to build a hotel on the site.
Poised to solicit new proposals, Council members voiced some concerns.
Council member Chris Pelly noted the number of hotels going in downtown (at sites such as the former Three Brothers property and the vacant T. K. Tripps) and asked whether Council could specify that it was more interested in non-hotel proposals.
Smith said that there was a lack of affordable housing for the low-wage workers who would largely fill the jobs at the new hotels coming into downtown Asheville.
The city will commission an assessment of the current market downtown to determine what kind of project might be most needed, and staff will use that to shape criteria for developers’ proposals, Economic Development Director Sam Powers responded. Council’s support allows staff to proceed with the process. The site is valued at $2.6 million.
Rebecca Hecht, of the Downtown Commission, advised Council to lean away from another hotel, saying there are better uses for the property.
Instead of a hotel or commercial development, Bothwell said that many locals want the spot turned into a park, which could “increase vibrancy” in surrounding properties. He suggested that the city should let voters decide and said the city should put it on a referendum in this year’s election.
That idea didn’t gain traction. Council voted 6-1 to start seeking new proposals, with Bothwell dissenting.