Big plans at Citizen’s Academy

The third meeting of Asheville’s Citizen’s Academy mostly featured straight-forward lectures and Q&As on city planning and engineering.

But there was some news, too.

Interim Planning Director Shannon Tuch, who took over the department’s management last year upon the resignation of Scott Shuford, told her audience she loves planning but not the “politics and management issues” inherent in leading such a high-profile department. Thus, she won’t seek to make her interim status permanent.

After initially resisting applying for the permanent job, Tuch told a questioner she eventually relented and applied, only to have a change of heart and withdraw her application. Tuch, whose background is in landscape architecture and planning, said she’ll be happy to hand over the reins to a new leader, whenever that happens, so she can concentrate on what she does and loves best. So far, the city has completed a second round of candidate interviews to find a successor, she said. Other than that, “I’m completely in the dark” on the candidate search status, she added.

If the academy participants—volunteers from various walks of life, including a rotating slate of Xpress reporters—are any indication, the new director will serve a populace that would like to see the city grow at a much slower rate. More than a few took issue with the recent spate of announcements of planned or proposed high-rises and other mega-developments downtown.

Tuch explained that the city has a preference for denser, multiuse development, in part because it helps curb traffic if people can live, work and play in the same general area without hopping into their cars. She noted that presently the city’s Unified Development Ordinance places no restrictions on density or height, but that a Downtown Master Plan now in the works could change that if there is enough outcry.

One thing that likely won’t change anytime soon is the growing trend toward green, sustainable development. “I think we’re really on the cusp of a different way of thinking, living and defining quality of life,” she said.

Assistant Director of Transportation & Engineering Ken Putnam also shared some news. While his department, like Tuch’s, handles a multitude of responsibilities, many academy participants grilled him on the city’s transit system. Participant Donna Bateman was the most vocal: As a person with disabilities who is confined to a wheelchair, she raised concerns about routes, safety and the overall dependability of the transit system for those who truly rely upon it. More than a few participants echoed her sentiments.

Putnam said that the city is in negotiations with a new firm to manage the city-owned bus system. When that contract will be finalized is unclear, largely because the company and its drivers are unionized. However, once a new contract is ironed out, a key city requirement will be an analysis of the system to determine where improvements can be made.

A sympathetic Putnam, who recounted his experiences with an unreliable system in the 1960s while growing up in Oteen, said, “People who use the bus want to know they can depend on it.”

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