The Sept. 12 Asheville City Council meeting saw a cavalcade of downtown business owners and residents decrying a lack of parking in the area.
Council unanimously voted to approve a plan to allow temporary gravel parking lots in the Central Business District. Each lot will be allowed for one year, after which the property owner may apply for one additional year. Previously, temporary lots have only been allowed in the district for special events and for construction staging when associated with an active building permit. The proposal is intended to ease the deficit of monthly parking for downtown residents and workers, which, according to a city staff memo “has reached a critical level of concern.” The city acknowledged that this is only a stopgap until a more permanent, long-term solution is reached.
In the midst of a long lineup of public commenters, Mayor Esther Manheimer intimated that Council was already on board with the plan, but acknowledged the right of people to speak their minds during the hearing.
Michael Whalen, an owner of The Orange Peel, said he can’t overstate the difficulties the parking problem presents. Employees and customers often cannot find anywhere to park, even though The Orange Peel owns a small lot. “We are constantly dealing with people — although we have six signs, ‘do not park, subject to towing’ — constantly, almost nightly, dealing with people who ignore the signs and still park in the lot out of frustration and an inability to find a place to park,” he said.
Whalen also lives in the area and said he frequently finds people illegally parking in the lot for his home, while he can’t convince locals to come downtown. “As a resident of downtown, I have friends who don’t live downtown and I’m constantly hearing from them that they don’t wish to drive downtown, they don’t wish to drive and try to find a place to park,” he said.
The Mast General Store on Biltmore Avenue also struggles to provide parking for its staff and customers, said General Manager Carmen Cabrera. She related a story of a job candidate who recently had to pay $13 to park just to come interview at the store. “If the staff cannot get to work, we can’t fill the needs that we have to do business,” she said.
Adam Thome, owner of 67 Biltmore Downtown Eatery & Catering, emphasized that small businesses in the downtown area are the lifeblood of the city’s economy, supporting vendors and suppliers and providing jobs and revenue. “In order for us to succeed, we need the support of the city for this parking issue,” he said.
Referring to the situation as a parking crisis, Karen Ramshaw of Public Interest Projects echoed the refrain that Asheville residents feel shut out of their own downtown due to the lack of parking. “Many in Asheville now proudly declare that ‘they never come downtown,’” she said. “So our kids aren’t playing in Splasheville and running around Roger McGuire Green, and we’re not running into friends and neighbors on the sidewalks as we listen to local musicians or hanging out at the drum circle or wandering through the new shows at the local galleries before heading off for dinner or a coffee or a chocolate or a beer. You know — all the things that people travel here to experience.”
Ramshaw asked Council to work on a big-picture, long-term plan for parking so that locals might return to downtown. “As Asheville has grown, we have failed to provide the infrastructure necessary for growth,” she said. “We have allowed an anti-hotel/anti-tourist narrative to blind us to our own complicity in ceding our downtown to visitors.”
Cabrera said she hopes the temporary lots, permitted for up to two years, are part of a more comprehensive parking fix. “My concern is that at that two years, that there’s some other solution, because if an employee and workforce can’t get downtown, they can’t live downtown and they can’t drive into town and find a place to park, this is going to be an even greater problem in two years, because it appears the town is growing in a wonderful way,” she said.
Shiloh subdivision moves forward
At its Aug. 22 meeting, City Council spent a significant chunk of time mulling over a strip of open space at a proposed 20-home single-family subdivision on Tried Street in the Shiloh community, between Hendersonville and Sweeten Creek roads. The question arose of just who would be responsible for the maintenance of the open space, which would be created as a 21st parcel by an easement across privately owned lots.
City planner Jessica Bernstein said in a continuation of the hearing at the Sept. 12 meeting that the applicant has now revised the request to be in line with the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, defining the lot as open space only, with no development and no access restrictions.
“They were really trying to avoid the creation of a homeowners association,” Bernstein said. “They were trying to avoid that so that there wouldn’t be that additional cost burden to the homeowners, but it really seemed like it was difficult to avoid that,” she said, adding that they are now working to create such an association to manage the open space.
Conditions in the zoning request include an allowance of 4,000-square-foot minimum lot size, which is smaller than the city’s usual minimum standards. Mike Vance of Mountain Housing Opportunities said the smaller lot sizes will allow the nonprofit to build four additional homes. He also spoke to concerns some Council members have expressed about affordability. “In a development like Tried Street, we don’t have all the funding to make all 20 homes affordable,” he said. “Offering some homes to higher-income households helps us reduce land costs by spreading it across more homes.” He said he expects that more than half of the homes in the Shiloh subdivision will be sold as affordable but at this time MHO is only committing to 20 percent affordable.
Council unanimously approved conditional zoning of the Tried Street development.
Council gets an earful about bonds
Bonds can be a particularly complicated issue, and as the city prepares to to take a vote on refinancing of limited and special obligation bonds at its Oct. 3 meeting, it got an explanation of and comments against the idea at its Sept. 12 meeting.
The city will consider refinancing a portion of the 2016 limited obligation bond (approximately $18 million), refinancing all or a portion of the currently outstanding 2012 LOBs ($11.7 million), and applying to the Local Government Commission for up to $31.2 million in limited obligation refunding bonds. It will also decide whether to apply to the LGC for the issuance of up to $20 million in special obligation refunding bonds.
Barbara Whitehorn, Asheville’s chief financial officer, broke down what this means. She said these bonds are different from general obligation bonds, which require a referendum and are secured through taxes. An example of a general obligation bond is the $74 million package passed by voters last year to pay for transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, and parks and recreation. Whitehorn repeatedly stated that this proposed long-term debt issue is not related to the 2016 general obligation bond.
Whitehorn explained that LOBs are secured by city-owned property, akin to a home mortgage. She said cities use these bonds for infrastructure projects that aren’t as suited for general obligation bonds. SOBs are specifically secured by sales and other taxes and must be located in municipal service districts. Whitehorn said Asheville has adopted four such districts and these bonds can only be used to fund revitalization projects in those areas.
“Basically it’s just loans. They are just big loans that we sell on the market: Rather than going to a bank and saying, ‘We need to borrow this,’ we actually go to the capital markets and we say, ‘You want to buy our bonds because we’re really great and we pay them off with a high interest rate?’” she said. She added that the city could see potential savings of $655,000 if it refinances now due to favorable market rates.
During public comment on the bond refinancing, Chris Peterson, who with Sidney Bach filed a suit against the city in January over alleged inconsistencies in last year’s bond referendum, took Council to task. “I want people out there in TV land to realize what you have up here is seven council people that are absolutely clueless when it comes to a budget,” he said. “Any businessperson — but we don’t have any businesspeople up there — and you know what, they would look at this and they would go, ‘The first thing you ask, if you’re gonna spend this kind of money, where are we getting the money?” Peterson suggested a re-evaluation of the city’s salaries rather than further bonds.
Jonathan Wainscott, a candidate for mayor, expressed concern that the city is not efficiently managing the budget. “I’m starting to get kind of a feeling like it’s the Roaring ’20s in Asheville. We’ve seen so much prosperity in the last five, six, seven years, but we’re not keeping up with being able to pay for all of these things,” he said. “I would like a bigger, more complete picture of what it is we think we’re going to be spending in the years coming with better information about what all that stuff is going to cost.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell defended the city pursuing bonds to pay for necessary improvements. “One of the reasons we’re investing so heavily in infrastructure projects now is that past Councils back into the 1990s were unwilling to take on more debt to fix the streets and stuff,” he said. “This Council has decided to move ahead with fixing the city. So yeah, it costs a lot of money, but it’s that or potholes, it’s that or not getting sidewalks. I am fully willing to defend this sort of indebtedness because we can’t do it otherwise.”
Manheimer commented that last year when presentations were being given in advance of the general obligation bond referendum, she always included what the current state of the debt was for the city, which was relatively small in comparison to cities of similar size. “The concern was that we had been too conservative in making investments into fixing infrastructure and building new infrastructure. I know that debt is a word that makes many people recoil, including myself, but the fact of the matter is that the way that cities finance infrastructure improvement is through debt financing because to handle single projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, we would never keep up with what needs to be done, and it’s not the best way to leverage the funds.”
No vote on the bond issue was required, as the agenda item was just to receive public comment. Council plans to proceed with considering approval of the proposal at its Oct. 3 meeting.
In other business
Council approved assigning a zoning designation of highway business district to a 1.26-acre property at 421 Airport Road that the city annexed in June and on which a commercial building is currently under construction.
The mayor issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 15-Oct. 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month. “Hispanics in the City of Asheville are unique leaders and exceptional role models in all professions and have distinguished themselves as smart and wise business owners, creating jobs, paying wages and demonstrating that they are a positive force in our local communities and neighborhoods,” the proclamation states.
“Hispanic business owners, despite the many risks and personal sacrifices they encounter, continue to be inspirations to their families, employees and the community and whose success stories we can learn to emulate. … When Hispanics succeed, our nation, our state, our region and our city succeeds; and their potential should only be limited only breadth their dreams,” the proclamation continues.
Council approved its consent agenda unanimously.
Council member Julie Mayfield was absent from the meeting.