After scarfing down some sandwiches, Asheville City Council and a number of city staff reconvened Jan. 30 in the Banquet Hall of the U.S. Cellular Center to discuss 2015 priorities and goals. During the afternoon session of an all-day retreat, every Council member made a short presentation about the changes they wished to see this year — and some people found them oddly reminiscent of campaign speeches.
“To all the staff who didn’t want to get involved in [election] politics by never going to a candidate forum, this is payback,” Mayor Esther Manheimer joked.
Unsurprisingly, given a recent flurry of studies and Council actions, housing — both public and private — came up frequently, often in conjunction with the proposed redevelopment of the Lee-Walker Heights public-housing complex, in a joint partnership with the city of Asheville and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), which are independent organizations.
“I feel an obligation in championing collaboration and partnership,” said Manheimer. “Asheville is not a powerful city that can unilaterally do something. … We can’t just walk in and say, ‘We’re going to make this huge change by ourselves.’
“So for an issue important to our community — the revitalization of the public housing — we have a housing authority, and it needs us. We need [Buncombe] County, we need Duke Energy, Mission Hospital, A-B Tech — we need all those folks to make this a reality.”
“That affordable housing vision [for public housing] is different from others we do because it focuses on people that are in poverty,” said Vice Mayor Marc Hunt. “Much of the work we do … is [aimed] at just above poverty level.” Referencing a recent housing study by consultant Patric Bowen, he continued, “Poverty-level housing is something that’s really important. We have a worse situation, percentage wise, than any other city in the state in terms of people in poverty and affordable housing. It ripples out and affects substance abuse, crime, food security, education and, ultimately, economic mobility.”
“The Bowen report let us know that we’re going to see a 7.6 percent increase in household from 2015 to 2020,” said Council member Gordon Smith. “And we’ve got a 0 percent vacancy rate on all housing [up to] the highest [income levels]. …. Growth is really good … but if that growth is reserved for the privileged we will have failed.”
Bowen, who presented his report to Council on Jan. 20, found, among other confusions, that 20 percent of the city population lives in poverty, nearly half rent rather than own their home, and 44 percent are cost-burdened, paying over 30 of their income in rent.
“There’s no single approach that’s going to solve this housing problem,” Smith continued. “That means setting some firm affordable housing targets across economic strata. I’m so grateful for the leadership of the mayor in supporting the Asheville Housing Authority’s effort to revitalize Lee-Walker Heights as well as the other public housing: It guarantees rehousing for current residents, and expands housing options for other people, including affordable housing and workforce options.”
Land use and land traversal
Beyond housing, Council members had plenty of other topics on their minds.
Council member Chris Pelly continued his press on the long-standing need for sidewalks and the lack of progress in building them: “The transportation department released a report last year that talked about how we’re doing. [I looked] at our Master Plan from 2005, which identified 108 miles of needed linkages in the city. This  report talked about what we’ve [built] since then: 18 miles of sidewalk. [That’s] two miles per year.”
Pelly told fellow Council members that even the original 2005 report, which called for 108 miles of needed sidewalks, didn’t include many city roads, meaning the need is even greater than that.
“At two miles per year, we’re looking at 50 years before [we reach 108]. I would like to look at when we’re going to address this backlog of sidewalk linkages. Two miles a year relegates many neighborhoods to decade-long waits before they can walk safely down their streets.”
Smith, speaking on multimodal transportation in general, agreed: “I’m very supportive of the sidewalk pieces Councilman Pelly’s talking about. We have to look at how we get the most bang for our buck as we build out this broad multimodal transportation system.”
Zoning came up as well, partly in response to a controversial apartment development on Fairview Road in Oakley that Council approved 6-1 on Jan. 27.
“I’d love to not see us do anymore conditional zoning, because that’s a surprise you spring on neighbors that I don’t think is fair,” said Council member Cecil Bothwell, who cast the single dissenting vote. “I think that’s a lot of what the neighborhood in Oakley was upset about. They never realized we would change it to a zoning that permitted 64-units per acre. … Things change over time, and we have to be flexible to some degree, but I think we should be as predictable as possible.”
“As part of all that,” he continued, “I think we need to push Planning and Zoning [Department] in a direction they want to go, which is to do more planning and less review. Planning should help us decide ‘how do we want this city to look 20 years out’ — and not piece-by-piece by piece approving these things.”
Council “sorts through development proposals as they come through one at a time,” said Hunt. “I think that some time over the next few months, if we were able to step back to what our goals are in the zoning context, I think we can have more common language and understanding about how development relates to affordability and quality of life in neighborhoods.”
- Council member Gwen Wisler, elected in 2013 and calling herself the “new kid on the block,” said she would like a comprehensive review of city parks, recreation and cultural arts facilities, as well as a study of what the city is spending on them. “Is there a plan for growth?” she said. “Is there a plan for investment, and if not, what’s our exit strategy?”
- Council members frequently brought up solid waste reduction through the lens of sustainability and cost efficiency. Pelly mentioned leaf bagging (the city collects and disposes of bagged leaves each fall) and whether the service could be contracted out to a private entity. Bothwell wondered if leaves needed to be collected at all, citing, as an example, how leaves gathered around trees and bushes could be used for mulch. Other city efforts underway or being discussed include backyard composting and an overhaul to garbage collection that would incentivize throwing out less.
- Council members briefly discussed an Open Data computer access system, though everything, including the name of the initiative, is still evolving and incomplete. Ideally, said Smith, this system would allow citizens to access certain public information without having to go through the city’s Public Information Office for even the smallest bits of information. It’s all hypothetical, however, as there’s been little discussion on what might be available on such a system, or even if “data” is the correct nomenclature for what materials would be available.
- City Public Information Officer Dawa Hitch closed out the retreat with updates on the changes coming through the Public Information Office, including a new “News Site,” and three new staff being added in the coming months: one Web content specialist who will maintain the website (a duty, Hitch said, that had previously been split among staff but has “became more of a burden”). The office will also hire two new communication specialists who will be embedded with specific departments.