Bacoate Branch Trail hits a dead end

FIGHTING GENTRIFICATION: Several members of the Black community came to the June 10 Asheville City Board of Education meeting June 10 to support neighbors on Charles Street who were fighting against plans to build an unpaved trail near Asheville Middle School. Photo by Caleb Johnson

Bacoate Branch Trail, a natural surface trail proposed to connect Aston Park and the River Arts District, will no longer be part of the AVL Unpaved project after neighbors opposed it.

Following several months of discussion, including a contentious meeting with the Asheville City Board of Education June 3, Mike Sule, who was spearheading the project, asked the board to remove the proposal from its agenda June 10. Before the request, the school board was set to consider granting an easement to the City of Asheville on Asheville Middle School property to build the trail.

The pathway, intended for public use as well as an after-school bicycle club led by Sule, would have run behind four houses on Charles Street. But nine residents of the short, dead-end street sent a letter to the school board opposing the project because of concerns over crime, drug use and increased vehicle traffic.

At the board’s June 3 work session, Lilian Childress, a resident of Charles Street, said that rather than create a green space, as intended by Sule and the project’s other planners, it would create a “crisis zone.”

Childress and fellow neighbors said that people who are unhoused and drug users have been seen in the forest near the proposed path and they believe adding a trail would encourage more nefarious behavior in the area.

Neighbor Sharlen Mayfield, who is Black and whose family has lived in the neighborhood for generations, said that Black people are unlikely to use the trail, and she felt no one was listening to neighbors who opposed the trail. She complained that Sule, who is also executive director of Asheville on Bikes, was asking for donations for the project on his organization’s website despite the project not being a done deal, making her feel left out of the process.

“You came to us, we didn’t come to you,” she said at the June 3 meeting.

After neighbors stated their case to the board June 3, Sule rebutted several of their claims.

“I’ve heard this said and Sharlen has said it again tonight, that Black people don’t [use these trails]. I really want to push back on [that]. Informed by 12 years of doing this, we know differently. Are there historical barriers to access? Have Black people historically not been invited to participate? Absolutely. I’m not arguing against that. Our job is to remove those barriers and create the access point so that all people, the next generation specifically, have the opportunity to participate,” he said.

The insinuation that he knew better than Mayfield what Black people wanted spurred many members of the Black community to come to the June 10 meeting to speak in support of Mayfield.

Flanked by her son and granddaughter and with tears in her eyes, Mayfield explained her frustrations to the board.

“My family has managed to survive Jim Crow and urban renewal. When I stand before you today, we are all concerned about gentrification and displacement. The response I’ve already received is, ‘Well, it’s already happening.’ This process is causing not only my family harm, but the Black community in Asheville as a whole, because we live in the city and the school system that purports to support racial equity and racial justice. Time and time again, the wishes of the Black community [are] set aside in favor of more powerful interest groups,” she said.

Sule apologized publicly June 10 for ignoring the Charles Street community’s concerns regarding gentrification and neighborhood resiliency.

“I personally apologize to Sharlen Mayfield for challenging her directly during the [June 3] meeting. I acknowledge my disrespect. I appreciate and thank the community leaders who’ve held me to account and helped me see my exertion of privilege and its potential to perpetuate harm and legacy to neighborhoods. I am humbled, I am sorry,” he said.

The Bacoate Trail was one of three unpaved trails scheduled for construction this year. Sule told Xpress June 11 that he asked for it to be removed from consideration because “the neighbors on Charles Street and Timothy Street opposed the trails as designed and there isn’t a workable solution in the short term.”

The other two trails that are part of phase one of AVL Unpaved — a trail parallel to the French Broad River Greenway in east West Asheville and a trail near Azalea Park in East Asheville — will move forward if approved by Asheville City Council later this month.



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