Asheville City Council weighed concerns about private property rights, environmental impact, equitable access to public lands and “selfies with bears” before authorizing the Parks & Recreation Department to move forward on soliciting bids for the construction of the Beaucatcher Greenway.
At its April 12 meeting, Council heard many voices both in favor of and opposed to the Beaucatcher Greenway as currently designed in over an hour of public comment on the issue. Mayor Esther Manheimer recused herself from the discussion and the vote because one of her law partners represents a property owner along the greenway route.
Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons introduced the project, which he said will add 1.2 miles to the city’s River to Ridge greenway network and cost upwards of $3.2 million when all is said and done. The greenway, Simmons explained, was first proposed in a 1920 city plan developed by John Nolen, who is regarded as the “father of American city planning.” The land that makes up a large part of the greenway area was purchased in 2008 through a joint funding effort with the city, Buncombe County, the state and The Trust for Public Land. To secure that funding commitment, Simmons has told Xpress, Asheville promised to build a greenway.
Simmons told Council that his department has tried to balance the public good of providing all city residents and visitors with a dynamic experience in nature against environmental and privacy concerns. Design work on the project was halted, he said, to develop design alternatives in response to concerns of residents of the Sky Club condominiums, whose driveway will be used as part of the greenway route. Despite the condo owners’ objections, however, planners concluded at the end of that design effort that using the Sky Club driveway was the least expensive, lowest impact alternative.
Iona Thomas of Stewart, the engineering and planning firm contracted to perform the greenway design, said recent public input sessions yielded suggestions that her team has now incorporated into project plans. The connection between the parking lot at Memorial Stadium and White Fawn Drive has been reconfigured, she explained, to allow a handicapped parking area on White Fawn Drive to be located farther from a 52-inch red oak. That change made the previous ramp configuration of the pathway unfeasible, Thomas said, so the design now uses a stairway to climb the hill from Memorial Stadium.
Thomas did not address how White Fawn Drive residents’ concerns about parking on the street might be mitigated.
To respond to concerns about stormwater management and erosion control, Thomas continued, a new drainage ditch has been added to the uphill side of the path and the project will use check dams in addition to a larger number of outflow pipes to reduce the impact of drainage.
At South Beaumont Street, Thomas reported that her team had collaborated with city traffic planners to develop a design that will reduce the height and length of retaining walls by making South Beaumont a one-way street between College Street and the Sky Club driveway. The change will allow a portion of the existing roadway to be used for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, reducing (but not eliminating) the need for new walls.
For a portion of the route that follows Ardmion Park, the design team clarified right of way issues with the city’s legal staff and determined that a gravel access road previously believed necessary to provide future access to undeveloped property along that section could be deferred. Eliminating that roadway will reduce the width of the disturbed area from 27 to 14 feet and will save 22 trees.
While the changes represent a $500,000 savings to the project, Thomas said, construction costs have risen rapidly over the past year. She said she expects the eventual cost of the project to top $4 million, even with the modifications she outlined.
Sky Club resident Geoff Kemmish said that he and fellow condo owners have been asking Council to consider their concerns for the past five years. “This project is going to upend our lives completely, so we have been paying careful attention,” Kemmish explained. He raised concerns about safety, the grade of the route, the size and impact of retaining walls and privacy. Kemmish’s comment that greenway users would inevitably attempt to take “a selfie with a bear cub” prompted sarcastic rebuttals on social media.
Other commenters opposed to or concerned about the current greenway design cited trespassing, transients, privacy, unstable geology and a lack of transparency throughout the design process as issues that remain unaddressed by the city’s response to their input.
Beaucatcher Greenway supporters included Mary Weber, chair of the city’s Greenway Committee, who emphasized the greenway’s potential to provide transportation and recreation benefits to underserved and low income neighborhoods like the East End/Valley Street and Lee Walker Heights communities, as well as connectivity for Kenilworth residents and accessibility for wheelchair users.
Suzanne Molloy, president of Friends of Connect Buncombe, and Dana Davis, board member of the the Asheville Parks & Greenways Foundation, both expressed support for the Beaucatcher Greenway. Davis presented a tally of over 1,300 responses to an online petition in favor of the greenway.
Linda Giltz, a past member of the Greenway Committee, said she welcomed the options presented during the meeting. “Less trees removed, fewer walls,” she said, were positive changes that would reduce the visual and environmental impact of the project and save money.
Bob Roepnack represented Friends of Beaucatcher Overlook Park, which is working to develop a park on the site of the former White Fawn Reservoir in an effort separate from the city’s greenway project. Roepnack expressed appreciation for Council’s attention to the Beaucatcher Greenway, noting that members of Council had taken the time to walk the site. “That shows you are looking at it from all angles,” he said. He urged Council to move forward with the bid process to “try to get this thing done.”
Mike Sule of Asheville on Bikes, Claudia Nix of Liberty Bicycles, Terri March of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force and Kim Roney, a bicycle advocate who was recently named to the Multi-Modal Transportation Commission, also spoke in favor of the project. Sharon Trammell, who lives at Wind in the Oaks condominiums adjacent to the greenway, said she believed that increasing visitation to the park would actually reduce problems with transients and drug dealers. Nix made a similar point, saying “The more people we have up there, the safer it will be. We have seen this happen on greenways all over country.”
Councilman Cecil Bothwell noted that, while he had raised questions about the project, he was not against it. “I’ve been pleased with the answers I’ve heard tonight: one way on Beaumont Street, not having to move the Sky Club gate, cutting fewer trees, saving the red oak on White Fawn Drive,” he said. It was asking questions that led to those positive changes, he explained. “I will be in favor of going ahead,” Bothwell concluded, adding that he would prefer that the flatter sections be constructed first.
After Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler asked Council members to “give a nod” to indicate their approval for moving ahead with the project (rather than taking a formal vote, which was not required), City Manager Gary Jackson outlined the next steps in the process. When the design is complete, construction documents will be released to prospective bidders and a bidding meeting will be held to answer their questions. Once bids have been received, the contract arrangements and pricing will come before City Council for consideration. At that point, Jackson said, “we will know if a budget amendment will be necessary.”
Also from the April 12, 2016 meeting of City Council:
- City Council calls for repeal of HB2, urges other cities to do same
- Preview: Asheville City Council poised to consider HB2 response on April 12
More information on the Beaucatcher Greenway:
- Greenway in the sky: Beaucatcher park offers tantalizing prospect, Nov. 5, 2015
- Forest for the trees? Residents seek answers on Beaucatcher Greenway, March 2, 2016