Downtown Commish tackles construction concerns

The future impact of new buildings in downtown Asheville is a frequent topic of debate these days, given its effect on the skyline, traffic and the general downtown atmosphere.

But what about the here and now? Construction on large projects—both by the city and by private developers—can block sidewalks and streets for extended periods of time, leaving local storefronts inaccessible and cutting into their business.

With that in mind, a few members of the Downtown Commission met the morning of July 21 to discuss what sort of mitigation practices can be proposed to the city to provide relief to businesses hampered by construction.

Already, commission chair Pat Whalen noted, other cities around the country have methods in place, from loans to signage directing pedestrians to the businesses. “If the streets are closed, that’s the worst,” he said. “If the sidewalk’s closed, that’s the second worst. What can we do to make sure these businesses survive?”

Attendance at the specially called meeting was small. Out of the 11 members who sit on the commission, four attended, including Kitty Love, who said she wants to see heavy fines for developers who overstay their welcome on city sidewalks. “There should be a pretty major set of rules around that,” she said.

Asheville already keeps track of the number of sidewalks and streets closed due to construction, and Technical Review Committee approval depends in part on a builder committing to a certain amount of time blocking vehicle or pedestrian traffic. But as yet, there is nothing in the way of penalties that would serve to remedy the woes of merchants whose businesses suffer.

Whalen noted that, given the meeting’s small turnout, it would most likely be the first in a series of brainstorming sessions, but that the hope is to eventually have a set of recommendations to present to City Council for adoption. Those options may include advertising and marketing funds for hindered storefronts paid in part by the city or developer, but City Attorney Bob Oast suggested that securing money from the city budget for that might be a hard sell. With high-impact construction like the Ellington hotel and the Haywood Park redevelopment on the horizon, Whalen said it was time to find a solution, even if it falls on the developers themselves.

“They oughta shoulder some of the burden for that effect,” he said.

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