New parking decks, affordable housing, a renovation to the Asheville Art Museum, and pedestrian improvements. All these and more are the goals of an $11.6 million fund the city of Asheville’s government wants to set up in an attempt to spur economic development. With planned savings from state legislation looking increasingly unlikely, the city may use a tax increase to make the projects a reality.
Proponents on Asheville City Council assert that the projects are necessary to ensure the city’s prosperity.
“We have a choice before us: we’re either going to be an aspirational city that grows toward our goals or we’re going to be a stagnant city that starts to decline,” Council member Gordon Smith said at Council’s June 11 meeting.
But the priorities have already attracted some controversy. At the last Council meeting, mayoral candidate John Miall and former Council candidate Saul Chase both criticized money going to the art museum in particular, with Chase noting “your job as City Council members is not to improve nonprofits’ ability to get money.” Chase also said the projects focus too much on downtown while other areas are in need of infrastructure.
City staff and Council initially anticipated that state legislation allowing them to form a parks and recreation authority with Buncombe County would save them $2.5 million starting in January. With those savings, they planned to leverage $11.6 million in loans to back the projects, and more in coming years. But the latest version of the state bill doesn’t allow Asheville to join the authority for two years and even before that, Council members anticipated their prospects were dimming, partly due to their refusal to settle the water system lawsuit.
Without those savings, some on Council have said that a property tax increase of four cents per $100 will be necessary to accomplish these goals. Council meets again June 25 to decide on a budget, including any tax increase.
The following is the list of “aspirational” priorities for the coming fiscal year, how much money each gets, and more detail on what they’re supposed to accomplish.
Affordable/workforce housing – $1 million
These funds aren’t designated (yet) for any particular project, but Public Works Director Cathy Ball says city staff hope to use them to create 100-150 units of affordable housing. If the funds are approved, staff will go ahead and start finding projects that fit the city’s criteria.
Parking deck construction – $6 million
The largest single item on the list, the deck (or decks, potentially) are likely to focus on the River District and South Slope, two areas staff believe ripe for future development, “or even somewhere along the river like Biltmore Village,” Ball says. The former Dave Steel property is another possibility, but staff haven’t drawn up any firm plans yet.
“We know putting in parking can have a 300 percent return on investment for development around it,” Ball adds. The funds could go to a single deck or multiple smaller decks, Ball notes that “it depends on the location.”
RADTIP Transportation Project – $1.5 million
The RADTIP, an overhaul of transportation infrastructure in the River District, is a major priority for Council, and this $1.5 million goes to planning and getting the specifics of the changes drawn up. “At that point, we’d have a project we’d be ready to put out for bid,” Ball tells Xpress.
Over the next four years, (if all goes to plan), city staff anticipate spending $28 million to widen roads and build greenways while adding sidewalks, transit stops and landscaping.
Municipal facility relocation – $250,000
The city wants to shift the Park Maintenance Facility at Aston Park to another location, opening the land up for redevelopment, possibly into affordable housing or another kind of in-fill development, with the goal “of creating a really good gateway from the west side into downtown.”
Multi-modal and pedestrian improvements – $550,000
While staff isn’t decided on all its details yet, it’s looking at areas like Coxe Avenue and South Slope, including narrowing traffic lanes, widening sidewalks, and adding landscaping.
“if you create the infrastructure, we’ve seen that that tends to cause infill development,” Ball says.
Underground utilities – $300,000
These funds will go to putting power lines in downtown underground, allowing more development without violating fire codes that restrict development near power lines. “We’re trying to target areas where the only thing hindering development is a lack of underground utilities,” Ball notes.
Asheville Art Museum renovations – $2 million
City staff hope to use a commitment to $2 million to help the Art Museum. While the building is owned by the city, the museum is managed by a non-profit.
“I think it all hinges on them getting the money together,” Ball says. “The thought is that having a really good arts center there is going to cause businesses to locate here, jobs to be created. There’s going to be a return on investment.”