With its unanimous vote on Aug. 9, City Council cleared the last official hurdle needed to place a general obligation bond referendum on Asheville voters’ ballots in November. Council gave the nod to a $74 million bond question that includes $32 million in transportation infrastructure, $25 million to support affordable housing development and $17 million for parks and recreation facilities. On Election Day (or during early voting), Asheville voters can opt for or against each category separately.
Now that the bond referendum is a go, voters are considering how the proposed spending will be spread around the city and what it will accomplish. While the city will have some flexibility in how it uses the money in each category — and even whether to draw on the full amount — Mayor Esther Manheimer noted on July 26 that it’s important to “spend the money on what we say we will spend it on.” The mayor has been giving presentations on the referendum to community groups, and she says the city should “stick to the plan” that it has laid out.
Two of the bond categories, transportation infrastructure and parks and recreation, include specific plans at locations around Asheville. Using a list of the projects and their locations developed by city staff, Xpress analyzed the proposed spending to determine how the bond funds will benefit different areas.
Not surprisingly, the center of Asheville — which boasts the highest population density in Buncombe County and contributes the largest share of city and county property taxes — accounts for the largest amount of bond spending, with $12.7 million, or 26 percent of the $49 million total for infrastructure and parks and recreation. Two projects make up the lion’s share of central Asheville’s booty: the $4.65 million second phase of the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, which will add a gym, program rooms and outdoor facilities for recreation to the facility on Livingston Street; and a $4 million renovation at Memorial Stadium, which will improve parking, accessibility, bleacher seating, walkways, concession areas, restrooms and the ticket booth.
East Asheville will receive the second-largest chunk of funding, with $10.3 million going to the area, or 21 percent. The big-ticket items in East Asheville include a 2-mile section of the Swannanoa River Greenway from South Tunnel Road to Azalea Park ($3.6 million); resurfacing Kenilworth Road ($1.9 million), Cisco Road ($490,000), Caledonia Road ($450,000), Beverly Road ($360,000) and Chiles Avenue ($340,000); new sidewalks on New Haw Creek Road ($1.1 million) and Swannanoa River Road ($756,000); and 10 new bus shelters ($250,000).
West Asheville is in line for $8 million (16 percent), with $1.4 million tagged for new sidewalks on Johnston Boulevard; $1.9 million for resurfacing and sidewalk repairs on State Street; and $900,000 and $840,000 for resurfacing Old Haywood and Sulphur Springs roads, respectively. New restrooms and an information kiosk are proposed for Richmond Hill Park, at a cost of $520,000.
South Asheville will get $6 million, or 12 percent of the total. The area nets more than its northern counterpart, which critics sometimes claim gets an unequal share of city resources due to the significant numbers of elected officials who have historically hailed from that part of town. Road resurfacing makes up most of South Asheville’s bond-related initiatives, including resurfacing on Caribou Road ($1.7 million) and Brooklyn Road ($650,000), both of which are in the Shiloh neighborhood. Southern sidewalks will also receive attention, with $702,000 going to sidewalk improvements on All Souls Crescent and $510,000 to new sidewalks on Airport Road. Another $825,000 is allocated for facilities at Jake Rusher Park near Royal Pines, including a picnic shelter and restrooms, as well as improvements to the park’s playground, parking area and gazebo.
At $3.8 million, North Asheville will receive the smallest slice of the pie, about 8 percent of the total. $1.7 million of those dollars will pay for improvements to the Montford Recreation Center, while $1.3 million will go to resurfacing Lakeshore Drive. Hill Street will see $468,000 of sidewalk improvements, and Wembley and Osborne roads near Beaver Lake will each get about $36,000 for traffic-calming measures.
In the parks and recreation category, $5.2 million in requested funding has not yet been allocated to specific locations, with $2 million tagged for projects at outdoor courts and playgrounds, $2 million for land acquisition for future parks and $1.2 million for ball field lighting.
In the transportation infrastructure category, $1 million is earmarked for general greenway connections, linkages and extensions; $1.5 million has been set aside for road resurfacing contingencies, and $260,000 is dedicated to sidewalk improvement contingencies.
Zooming out to look at the city as a whole, the $32 million transportation bond package is expected to create 16 miles of resurfaced roads (with bike lanes on several resurfaced sections); 8 miles of sidewalk improvements (including Americans with Disabilities Act compliance); 4 miles of new sidewalks; and safety improvements that include new pedestrian crossing signals, speed humps on 8 miles of city streets and new bus shelters.
Overall, $8 million, or 16 percent of the total infrastructure and parks and recreation funds, remains unallocated to specific projects. Dawa Hitch, the city’s communications director, explains that, if the bond is approved by voters, those funds will be distributed throughout the city. And if residents don’t see their street or pet project on the list of bond items, Hitch continues, they shouldn’t assume there’s no money set aside for that purpose. “We are close to rolling out an interactive online tool to show the full scope of current city projects,” she says. The map-based application will show spending planned through the city’s $150 million, five-year capital improvement plan, as well as projects proposed for bond financing.
City Transportation Director Ken Putnam points out that state rules governing the use of bond funds do allow the city flexibility in the projects it will fund in each category. If the city can’t secure the right of way to build a specific sidewalk or bus shelter, for example, it can apply the funding to another transportation infrastructure priority. Since the city has a large backlog of identified street and sidewalk needs, Putnam says, there’s no shortage of worthwhile ways to use the funds.
Compared to the infrastructure and parks bond packages, the $25 million affordable housing package is a horse of a different color. Rather than funding specific projects, the bond program will inject capital into the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which provides low-interest loans to selected affordable housing development proposals. According to Councilman Gordon Smith, who chairs Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, efforts are already underway to review and potentially expand trust fund programs. Though existing policies could be used to deploy the bond funding, “We are more likely to adapt and grow the program if we end up with bond money in there,” Smith says.
Since the end of the recession, the housing trust fund has concentrated its resources on funding rental housing. Asheville’s efforts have yielded more units than any other city in North Carolina has managed to create, Smith explains. Even so, the number of residential units the city is building falls far short of local demand. According to a 2015 housing needs assessment prepared by Bowen National Research, Asheville will face a shortage of 3,580 rental units for households earning 120 percent or less of area median income by 2020. At the city’s current rate of new affordable rental housing construction of 100 to 200 units per year, “We’re still drowning,” Smith says.
In addition to promoting rental housing development, Smith continues, money in the trust fund could also be used to support new homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income families. Those homes needn’t be limited to single-family structures, he explains; housing types could include duplexes, triplexes, co-housing and tiny home communities.
According to Hitch, $10 million of the $25 million affordable housing bond total will supplement the trust fund.
Bond money could also help expand efforts to reuse city-owned land located in areas convenient to transit, employment and services, Smith and Hitch both say.
One project already underway, Smith points out, is the redevelopment of the former city parks maintenance facility at 338 Hilliard Ave. If approved by City Council, Tribute Companies of Wilmington will build 60 units at varying levels of affordability on that site. The only other company to respond to the city’s request for proposals for the property (Kassinger Development Group of Charleston, S.C.) proposed dedicating only half the new units as affordable housing, while the other units would rent at market rates, says Jeff Staudinger, the city’s assistant director for community and economic development.
Hitch says $15 million of the affordable housing bond total will support the redevelopment of city-owned land for affordable housing, with parcels on South Charlotte Street the primary focus of that effort. The property currently houses city fleet and transit services, which would be relocated to make way for housing development.
Smith adds that land banking — purchasing land for affordable housing development — is another strategy the city could adopt. The city could reserve some cash for “when those [land purchasing] opportunities arise, whether it’s a big home run like the Innsbruck Mall property, or smaller, locationally efficient properties that would also be suitable,” he explains.
Considering that the city will have seven years to allocate and spend the bond funding, Smith says, if the affordable housing portion of the referendum passes, “We have time to build a program, and to let the building community know what we are trying to do, so that they can come and meet us along the way.”
Still to come
While this article considers the “spending” part of the bond equation, there’s also the “paying” question. Future Xpress coverage will look at such issues as how long the city will have to pay its bond bill, how much Asheville will pay in interest and how the city will manage so many new projects.