Sidewalks are a hot issue in Asheville these days, complete with protests, possible changes in city policy and a special Council meeting in Haw Creek at the end of the month focusing on the issue. What’s behind the ruckus?
On May 22, over 200 people marched along Tunnel Road’s infamous “goat path” as part of a “Sidewalks for Safety” march. Asheville City Council has scheduled a rare out-of-City-Hall meeting in Haw Creek Aug. 31 to talk about the issue (years ago, Council held an informal neighborhood meeting about every quarter — when there was a fifth week in the month). Neighborhood leader Chris Pelly has called for “BIG TURNOUT” in a recent e-mail to supporters. At Council’s last meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy broached the idea of adding sidewalks to newly annexed neighborhoods as part of the city’s standard service package. While Council members, especially Jan Davis, balked at doing that for the two annexations currently under consideration, there was broad support for the general idea.
Shortly after Bellamy’s suggestion, Transportation Director Ken Putnam laid out the city’s situation: There are 165 miles of sidewalk in Asheville, but the city needs an estimated 108 more, especially in areas linking its existing sidewalks.
So if Council’s behind it, and activists in the community want it, why do sidewalks still remain such an issue in Asheville?
Well, for one, they’re expensive. Putnam reported that it cost over $1.5 million to lay 7.5 miles of sidewalks in recent years. Add in issues of state and local jurisdictions along with right-of-ways and actually building the oft-demanded paths becomes a much trickier issue. The city’s budget crunch, along with the political unpopularity of raising taxes, complicates things still further.
Infrastructure in general is one of those famous “bell the cat” issues: Everyone wants it, especially near them, but no one’s enthusiastic about paying for it. Sidewalks are no exception.
Davis, in Council’s discussions, notably pointed out that there are areas annexed into the city decades ago that still lack sidewalks.
At the heart of this is something alluded to by a number of Council members and activists: In previous eras sidewalks weren’t viewed as necessary. Cheap gasoline and cars were assumed to be the norm, then and into the future, leaving little need for sidewalks in many neighborhoods. The result is that, decades later, in different times, Ashevilleans are scrambling to deal with that particular oversight.
When today’s would-be visionaries plan tomorrow’s city, perhaps they should aim to make it as versatile as possible — so the next generation doesn’t have to relive this whole battle.