City plans to shore up buildings, parking structures

BIG CHANGES: Capital Projects Construction Program Manager Walter Ear says that the fire or police department, both currently headquartered in the Municipal Building, must acquire new space to effectively serve the city. Photo courtesy of the City of Asheville

Following two studies, most of Asheville’s 82 city-owned buildings and four garages received an overall average C grade. Local officials are working on a plan to address critical structural needs, knowing that the city’s $1 million annual budget for maintaining facilities isn’t going to cut it.

“It is about what we expected,” says Walter Ear, capital projects construction program manager, referring to the C grade. “However, we have some changes to make in order to improve and even maintain that grade. If funding for facility maintenance stays the same, that C will begin to drop rapidly toward an F, and many of our facilities will be in a nearly failed state.”

According to Ear, the city needs $3.5 million annually just to hold steady. That amount would cover a “maintenance-only” model, precluding any growth, improvements or additions.

“The $3.5 million model would just get us to status quo, but there would be very limited room for any improvements,” says City Manager Debra Campbell. “Clearly, there are a lot of needs, and we think we have a way that we can address those needs. It is just going to take some time.”

The first study consisted of two parts, says capital projects director Jade Dundas. The first was a $148,000 contract with Cary-based Brightly Software to assess facility conditions and buy Capital Predictor software. The second was a $348,000 contract with Charlotte-based Creech and Associates for “everything else,” says Dundas, including a space-needs analysis, comprehensive capital planning and a final report.

“More than 70% of city-owned facilities are older than their expected useful lives,” says Dundas. “This study was the first step in a long process of getting our facilities back up to par.”

Dundas says that the report will be available to the public in the next few months after it is reviewed for safety-sensitive content.

Updating the Municipal Building

A large focus of the study was the Asheville Municipal Building at 100 Court Plaza, which houses the headquarters for both the Asheville police and the fire departments. The study says the departments need 13,000 square feet more than they have.

Ear says that either the fire or police department must acquire new space to effectively serve the city.

“Both departments will have to maintain existing operations while construction is underway,” says Ear. “The easiest way to do that is to build a new space first [and] move people into that new swing space. Then, while the other building is unoccupied, you can make the necessary renovations.”

Ear says that the city could add a building at Parkside, a 2.4-acre city-owned assemblage of seven parcels adjacent to City Hall and the Municipal Building. Parkside is used as a city employee and motor pool parking.

“The conceptual plan is a paired development, which will include a new development at Parkside and a reuse and renovation of the Municipal Building,” says Ear. “The fire department headquarters and Fire Station 1 would be relocated to Parkside, which would also eventually include a parking deck and a civic complex. From there, the next phase would repurpose and renovate the Municipal Building for a new APD headquarters.”

During the Nov. 14 work session presentation, Council member Kim Roney asked if the city had considered adding floors to the Municipal Building, rather than developing an all-new property.

NEW BUILDING: Walter Ear, capital projects construction program manager, says the city could add a building at Parkside, which would keep the fire and police headquarters near the seat of city government. Rendering courtesy of the City of Asheville

Ear said it is often more expensive to go “up,” and the need for a swing space would still have to be addressed. However, he acknowledged that city staff had not looked into that option but could investigate further.

As proposed, it is estimated that the plan would cost $145 million. If approved as a part of the 2024-25 Capital Improvement Plan, the new AFD building is estimated to be completed by 2030, while the Municipal Building renovations would be completed by 2033. The civic complex and parking deck at Parkside would be the last to be completed, estimated for 2034.

The concept proposed is the “most cost-effective option,” which keeps fire and police headquarters near the seat of city government, Ear said at the work session.

Campbell stressed that the proposal is a “possibility,” but that more research and planning is needed. “We are trying to look long term, and if we are going to do this, we ought to go all in. However, this is all conceptual right now,” said Campbell at the work session.

Potential for a police academy

While not discussed at length during the work session, another proposal for the Municipal Building is a new police academy. Posed by then-Police Chief David Zack during the City Council’s annual retreat in March, Campbell says that an academy would help train new officers faster and more efficiently.

“I want to be clear: We did not ask departments to tell us everything that they want; we looked at our most critical needs that will help us to provide better services for our community,” says Campbell. “[The academy] was identified by APD as a need, and we think it would be extremely impactful and could help to alleviate issues of staffing.”

As it stands now, those selected as police officer trainees attend A-B Tech’s Basic Law Enforcement Training academy. It’s 18-20 weeks long, and cadets are paid as full-time employees while attending. However, if trainees were trained in-house, it would shorten the onboarding process and lower training costs.

Problems with parking

The city also spent $308,595 to study the city’s four parking garages. The study, done by Charlotte-based Walker Consultants, found signs of structural deterioration and noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, adding up to $11.3 million in “high-priority” repairs.

Enrique Villalobos, restoration consultant with Walker Consultants, told Xpress that the garages were last renovated 12-16 years ago. Villalobos says that the city’s policy of reactive maintenance has led to significant issues.

“Over time, the condition of any structure will begin to deteriorate,” says Villalobos. “If you take the approach of not performing any preventative maintenance or only reactively maintaining a structure, the rate of deterioration will be slow at the beginning but will increase drastically over time. On the other hand, if you implement preventative maintenance from the beginning, you will extend the life of the structure.”

HIGH PRIORITY: Several signs of structural deterioration were found in the city’s parking garages, according to a study by Walker Consultants. Photo courtesy of Walker Consultants

According to Villalobos, several repairs and renovations need to be done by 2025 to avoid “structural failures.” High-priority work includes supplemental support for concrete corbels (a weight-carrying bracket) and repairing steel framing in elevators and stairwells. Villalobos also emphasizes the importance of getting the garages in compliance under the Americans with Disability Act.

“All of the garages, with the exception of the Biltmore Avenue Garage, were constructed prior to ADA,” says Villalobos. “However, compliance is required anytime that elements related to accessibility are altered. That means that any renovations, even things such as restriping, will require the city to get the facilities back into ADA compliance.”

The list of noncompliance includes accessible parking space signs installed too low, running and cross slopes exceeding maximum allowable limits in accessible parking spaces and accessible routes, and a lack of accessible parking spaces adjacent to entrances/exits.

While the structure of the garage itself prohibits some change, such as the slope of the ramps and vertical clearance of the building, Villalobos says that his firm “highly recommends that these conditions be addressed to the maximum extent feasible.”

Ken Putnam, transportation director for Asheville, says that his department is already acting on recommendations associated with ADA compliance. Asheville City Council approved a $279,940 contract with Monroe-based Cinderella Partners last October to address structural repairs. Work will likely be finished in late winter or early spring.

“We’re definitely on track to get our garages back into shape. We know that if you don’t follow a preventative maintenance plan and you defer maintenance, you hit a point where you better catch up,” Putnam says.  “Currently, we’re at that point. We’ve got to catch up. And from then on, we have a plan to keep it going.”

Next steps

Both studies mark the beginning of a multiyear process of mapping out the city’s priorities for the Capital Improvement Plan budget for fiscal year 2024-25.

Tony McDowell, the city’s finance director, says the city might use general obligation  bonds to pay for the work. In 2016, Asheville voters approved three GO bond referendums totaling $74 million for infrastructure. Since then, the city has funded over 40 projects, targeting areas related to affordable housing, transportation, and parks and recreation.

“We have a lot of needs out there, and one of the best ways of getting additional resources to meet those needs is through GO bond referendums,” McDowell told Xpress. “We do not typically have the resources to fund big infrastructure projects through our operating budget, so it makes sense to issue bonds for those projects, as they are the ones that are going to benefit the community for many years to come.”

Meanwhile, Dundas calls the 2016 slate of projects a huge success. “While it is ultimately up to the Council and Asheville residents to determine if we will use more bond funding in the future, I think it would be beneficial as it would allow us to tackle more of the bigger infrastructure projects that will benefit the community,” he says.

City Council is expected to discuss the 2024-25 CIP budget and GO bonds at its council retreat in February.


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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16 thoughts on “City plans to shore up buildings, parking structures

  1. indy499

    The city of Asheville is truly a wet dream for consultants.

    Does our voluminous and well paid staff do anything besides hiring consultants who generally then do studies that line a shelf.

    • Taxpayer

      Apparently no one on the City of Asheville’s 1200 person payroll is capable enough to design anything, clean up anything, fix anything, or keep water running. Since Debra Campbell came on board, consultant costs are astronomical. She wouldn’t want to be accountable for any decisions and neither would Mayor Moonbeam and Clowncil.

  2. Mike Rains

    The primary root cause of Asheville’s inability to do anything very well is its lack of adquate tax base. Not tax rate. Tax base (geographical). All well functioning cities need a miminum amount of tax base to adquately fulfill their mission.

    And the root casue of that issue goes all the way back to the Roaring 20’s and then the Great Depression. Asheville was foolishly managed during the 20’s and when the bubble burst, a great amount of debt had to be paid off. To the city (and county’s) credit, they did eventually pay it all off, but the city suffered for years without adquate funds. The other and more signficant result was called the Sullivan Act passed by the NC legislature during the Great Depression. It prevented Asheville from charging more for water outside the city limits; thus killing any possiblity for tax base growth for decades and to all the way to the present.

    The upshot: Asheville’s tax base is quite small relative to Buncombe County. The opposite is true with most other “healthy” cities across the state. That is, those cities garner a larger portion onf tax revenue than the county in which they reside. This is solely due to those cities ability to annex over the decades and grow their city limits.

    Why is this important? Cities need an adequate tax base to support the expected functions and realities of being a city (and without resorting to debt). Things like reasonable ongoing management/maintenance of infrastructure (such as outlined in this article with city buildings and parking decks). The other part of Asheville’s “problem” lies in what has been “selected” as priorities over the past several decades. With the last GO bond issuance, we have spent money to expand our greenways for example. Why didn’t we consider some building infrastructure more important back then?

    • Taxpayer

      We can fund ball fields but not the Thomas Wolfe auditorium. We can have greenways and bike lanes but not upgrades to the water system or city streets. It seems like the biggest obstacle Asheville has is the people leading and their questionable priorities. Their decision making capabilities are in full view with the Ramada debacle.

      • Mike Rains

        Priorities do play a role in all of this. But as a tourist center and supposed big city, pressures will always exist to fund things that you and I would see as non-essential as compared to infrastructure and core services.

        With regards to the Water Department, that is a fully, self-funded function and does not rely on tax dollars. For many years, money was so tight that the City (and County) took revenue from the Water Dept. to fund other things. This was later prohibited by the State. Of course this hurt the water system by delaying needed maintenance, etc. Now there is nothing to say that Asheville couldn’t divert tax monies to the water department; however, that would have serious political ramifications since many water customers are in the county and wouldn’t be contributing in that approach.

        Again, if you look closely you will see a very clear record of wack-a-mole going on, wherein Asheville leaders simply don’t have enough funds and staff to keep all of the balls in the air. Thus maintenance is deferred or ignored.

    • indy499

      “The upshot: Asheville’s tax base is quite small relative to Buncombe County. ”

      I can’t imagine that is true. You got any #s?

      • Mike Rains

        Here are some numbers (2022-23 budget year). Rounded to nearest single billion.
        Ashevlle real property tax base: 20B
        Buncombe County tax base (includes Asheville and all municipalities): 51B
        Buncombe County tax base without Asheville: 31B
        Asheville/BC ratio = 39%

        Winston-Salem tax base: 27B
        Forsyth County tax base (includes WS and other smaller municipalities): 45B
        Forsyth County tax base without Winston Salem: 18B
        WS/FC ratio = 60%

        In general terms, “financially healthy” cities show city/county tax base ratios >>50%.
        When the ratios are much lower, the county takes more of the money which is needed for city services and functions. This is the case for Buncombe County. Do you ever hear about BC having problems with their buildings, infrastruture, etc.? Did you know that Buncombe County generally has higher salaries for county employees than city workers? Buncombe County had a 6% inflation raise this past year; Asheville 5% (except 6% for APD). Overall, Buncombe County is flush with revenue in comparison to it’s largest city and the breadwinner for the county.

        Another large source of budget revenue is the Local Use Sales Tax refunds back to the county and municipalities That sales tax return is also determined by the ratio of ad valorem tax bases of each municipality to the county overall. So while Asheville generates 75% of all sales (and thus sales tax) in the county, our city receives a much smaller share back because of it’s lower property tax base relative to the county. Or inotherwords, Asheville would receive millions more in sales tax revenue if our tax base ratio was more like Winston Salem.

        • Lyn

          Yet, over 55% of Asheville spending goes to salary and benefits for employees. Maybe they should consider cutting staff…start with $500,000 year being spent for DEI office

    • Anonymous

      Could they use some of the funds from the tourist board, I wonder? Seems like if the “tourist tax” is to promote tourism, perhaps the city could use some of it to help fix the parking garages which the tourist (and us) both need.

  3. MV

    A healthy beer tax and better allocation of tourism room tax dollars could fix/repair almost every challenge before us. And yet…bulk water rates to hotels, giveaways to consultants, micro-developers, and third-rate farm system baseball team owners…

    • Mke Rains

      Any tax has to be approved by the State, so that is a non-starter. Even if we had such a tax, I doubt it would provide that much revenue. The issue of occupancy tax dollars being used for tourism impacts to the city has been beat to death. It is true that it has grown to be a signficant amount of money ($40M +). And other tourism cities (like Bend Oregon) get to use their occupancy tax exclusively for city functions; however, it is highly unlikely that NC would/will allow this to happen as the primary goal of TDA is to promote growth in all of western NC and by prosituting Asheville as the magnet. Many in the state legislature dislike the liberal culture and politics of Asheville and Asheville leaders haven’t exactly shown a lovefest for Raleigh. FInally, as long as Asheville fulfills its tourism mission, from Raleigh’s standpoint, everything is peachy, even though those of us who reside here know differently.

      • Anonymous

        I know this has been a big discussion, and I understand the role of the TDA, but it also seems that maybe TDA has more money than they need (or perhaps know what to do with). Perhaps the rules could be changed so a portion could be reallocated to support city infostructure? I would imagine this would improve the tourist experience, which would likely result in positive reviews.

  4. T100

    It would be interesting to see graphs comparing city population and city employees+full time contract funded employees (e.g. bus drivers) over the last 50 years.

    • Mike Rains

      Please expand on that as to what insight you’d be looking for.

      Are you a Toyota truck person?

  5. Bright

    “Shore up,” is a good way to put it. Let’s go visit the City Council members’ personal homes and see how their homes are “shored up”…with taxpayer’s money. Fix infrastructure water problems! It’s getting colder…stock up, Asheville.

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