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 an Leadership Asheville Forum debate over different plans for the controversial I-26 connector.
Lutovsky spoke first, laying out his case for the Chamber’s endorsement of Alternative 3. The proposal has attracted 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 narrowly endorsed this plan.
Lutovsky asserted that Alternative 3 would cut driving times (and therefore emissions), have less of an impact on the landscape because it would go under Patton Avenue instead of over, and that the flyover bridges that the City Council-endorsed Alternative 4b would call for are an outdated way to build roads.
Newman, who made the case for 4b — devised by the Asheville Design Center to minimized impact on homes and businesses and require less land — asserted that the plan also opened up more land for intensive downtown-style development and is a better fit with the city’s plans for the River District area. He noted that design features he had issues with could be made more pleasing through the design process. He noted too that not all of the facts are in yet.
After they’d laid out their cases, both men took questions — along with no small amount of comment and criticism — from the audience, who packed the conference room.
“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 Alternative 3 doesn’t technically affect Burton Street, but nearby Fayetteville Street.
“The majority of the homes in the Burton Street neighborhood are on Fayetteville Street — including mine — and that’s where our church is,” Zani Davidson said to Lutovsky. “It certainly impacts us and we do pay taxes. We may be small, but we’re an important black community.”
In response, Lutovsky noted that he simply wanted to make the distinction clear and that “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 remember what happened to the East End, we don’t want that to happen here,” Thomas Davidson said. “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? Chop it up, then put the people that’s left in what you might call low-income housing, put them in the projects, crime will go up. Next thing you’re going to put them in a reservation.”
Lutovsky also emphasized that the latest version of 4b would also affect the Burton Street, demolishing five homes by his estimate (three, by the Design Center’s).
After the meeting, ADC President Joe Minicozzi told Xpress that the center’s plans called for no homes in the area to be demolished — nor for the connector to go over Patton Avenue — but that the DOT has recently changed the proposed design, something he finds frustrating.
“We didn’t go into Burton Street,” Minicozzi said. “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’re in the draft process. We don’t have all the information yet and modifications can still happen.”
Reid Thompson asked Lutovsky how many members of the chamber voted to endorse Alternative 3. He replied that the decision was made by the 22-member board of directors, and when asked for the total vote, he replied, “Oh, we don’t usually share how we vote, but it was very clear and decisive.”
However, chamber member Keith Thomson, who was in the audience, noted that he’d quit the chamber in protest over the decision.
“You’re the only one and I’m not giving up on you Keith,” Lutovksy replied to laughter.
At the end of the question period, Newman said he was willing to “work for positive changes to each of these alternatives,” and Lutovsky praised the ADC’s work. Then Newman turned directly to Lutovksy and asked him if he would arrange a meeting for the ADC to make a presentation to the chambers Board of Directors.
“The design center had an opportunity to present to our executive committee … ,” Lutovsky said.
“But the whole board’s going to vote, 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,” Lutovsky said. “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.”
— David Forbes, staff writer