Asheville City Council

The experts took one look at Pritchard Park, and saw more than a triangular, quarter-acre park locked between busy downtown streets. They saw a town square — an old-fashioned, people-oriented kind of place for meeting, dining, relaxing and attending city-sponsored events.

That’s how Genesis Group consultants replied when Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick took one look at the title of the $1.4 million renovation plan for the park and asked, “Pritchard Square? Is that a geometrical designation?”

Consultant Bob Finnegan of Genesis explained that his company looked at Pritchard Park as a whole: It’s a major intersection, connecting Haywood Street, Patton Avenue and College Street. It’s surrounded by businesses and shops with downtown parking. It’s a park, with an old, towering sugar maple, white-barked birches and ornamental cherry trees — plus benches for visitors. It’s also a key entrance to the city, leading to Pack Square and the Vance Monument. “It’s more than a green triangular patch in the middle of the city,” Finnegan allowed.

But at the moment, the former bus terminal is hard for pedestrians to reach and looks somewhat run-down. The crumbling fountain could be replaced by a small amphitheater, Finnegan explained, pointing to the grand plan. A bluestone walkway — or maybe brick, to reduce the cost — could meander beneath the old maple. A new, smaller bus shelter could feature an information kiosk for visitors. A statue could grace the park, along with new trees and benches. A new sign could help pedestrians find the stairway linking College and Wall streets. The old bus lanes could be demolished and replaced by new sidewalks and an open-air dining area. “Urban environments that are adaptable … are the most successful,” declared Finnegan.

But how do you reduce traffic congestion, better connect the park to the surrounding businesses, and draw people safely across busy streets? Roundabouts, said Genesis Traffic Consultant Michael Wallwork.

A roundabout replaces signal lights with a traffic pattern that flows counterclockwise around the center of the intersection. Vehicles don’t get stuck at the light, and pedestrians don’t have to wait as long to cross the street, Wallwork explained, noting that the impatient people he had observed rarely waited for the pedestrian signals to cross. Roundabouts allow both pedestrians and vehicles to navigate the intersection with little waiting.

Wallwork also maintained that Interstate 240 is now the major east-west thoroughfare through downtown Asheville — not Patton Avenue or College Street. “Downtown streets are now a destination, not a thoroughfare,” Wallwork pointed out.

Citing his home town of Melbourne, Australia — where city officials closed off a 10-block-long, four-lane-wide street used by 28,000 vehicles each day to create a new park — Wallwork said, “They filled the streets with people.”

He recommended a similar strategy for Pritchard Park: making the one-way College Street a two-lane route, and closing all but one lane of Patton at the park (making it, essentially, a parking area instead of a through street, with angled parking spaces in front of NationsBank. The overall Genesis design increases parking around the park by 10 spaces, Wallwork noted.

“But can buses, trucks and long limousines navigate the roundabouts?” queried Mayor Leni Sitnick.

Wallwork replied that the Asheville Transit Authority has agreed to re-route buses, which are too long to be able to negotiate the tight left turns at the roundabouts proposed for College’s intersections with Coxe Avenue and Haywood Street. And, after talking with Fire Department officials, Wallwork said he had concluded that — even though the city’s biggest ladder truck couldn’t make a U-turn at the roundabouts — the redesign of College Street could actually improve access for emergency vehicles. Limos, Wallwork added, should be able to navigate the roundabouts.

He also stressed that roundabouts reduce the distance pedestrians must cross to reach safety, and decrease congestion at intersections, so that emergency vehicles can get through quicker.

“Where I’ve seen them, I’ve liked the concept,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger. “But I’ve never seen them where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic.” He asked whether pedestrians would be forced to “make a run for it,” if there were a steady stream of traffic through the roundabouts.

While creating a steady flow of traffic, roundabouts do provide sufficient gaps for safe pedestrian crossings, Wallwork replied, cutting waiting time in half, compared to signaled intersections. Roundabouts also slow traffic to 10 or 20 miles per hour, instead of the 30 to 40 mph that’s typical for College now, he added. A “healthy person” like Cloninger could cross the street in about four seconds and have to wait no more than six, asserted Wallwork, adding, “Cities that have tried roundabouts realize how useful they are, and add more.”

Council member Barbara Field observed that making College and Patton two-way streets could set the stage for redesigning the congested intersection of Biltmore at Pack Square — where drivers must veer right around the Vance Monument. Another positive aspect of the plan, she remarked, is that roundabouts decrease vehicular emissions, by reducing the amount of stop-and-go traffic. And, because roundabouts slow traffic, visitors “will have a better chance to see [downtown] businesses, instead of [just] zipping through town,” Field suggested.

But after everyone seemed to agree that roundabouts are good, the discussion moved on to another touchy topic: money. Landscape Planner Alan Glines of Asheville Parks and Recreation sent Finnegan back to the podium to lay it all out. After listing every detail, from the choice of brickwork to demolishing the old bus lanes, he concluded that “the whole ball of wax” comes to $1.4 million.

But the city has budgeted only $250,000 (including design fees), Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson interjected.

For $200,000, the city could demolish “what needs throwing out,” build the amphitheater and make minor improvements, Finnegan said. The remainder of the project could be done in phases.

“Do you have any other options for paying for this — other than with city money?” asked Cloninger.

“From the transportation point of view,” said Wallwork, referring to the roundabouts and street redesign, “there’s a pot of money out there. You just have to make your case for it.” Federal monies, such as ISTEA funds, might be available for pedestrian improvements. Wallwork also mentioned Environmental Protection Agency grants for projects that reduce vehicular emissions.

And Finnegan added that corporate sponsorships are another possibility.

Field reported that she has already “touched base” with local businesses, saying, “This needs to be a public/private, community project. It’s worth doing all at once.”

Finnegan noted that he will provide city staff with a list of possible funding sources.

City Manager Jim Westbrook said flatly, “We don’t have enough money to do the $1.4 million project.” Staff, he said, would have to get back to Council in a few weeks on funding options.

Sitnick remarked that she and Field have been talking to the banks that front the park (Wachovia, First Union and NationsBank), joking, “We had originally talked about robbing them, but now we’ll just go and beg.”

Cobb suggested appointing a committee to spearhead fund-raising efforts.

And Wallwork said he wouldn’t rule out the North Carolina Department of Transportation as a funding source, either. “They’ve realized [that] roundabouts are coming,” he commented.

Said Sitnick, “I’ve got [DOT] on my list, too.”

Corn OK, pesticides NOT

R.V. Warren will get to grow corn on 51 city-owned acres this year, provided that he sticks to a few simple rules: Don’t use pesticides, keep the crop at least 75 feet away from the banks of the French Broad and Mills rivers, and limit herbicide and fertilizer use to biodegradable applications.

Asheville City Council members approved leasing the property, which lies just north of the new Mills River Water Treatment Plant. With the plant scheduled to begin pumping drinking water to city and Henderson County residents later this year, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson had to set strict limits on the property’s use as farmland, Asheville Water Resources Director Tom Frederick told Council during its Jan. 5 work session. Most local farmers, said Frederick, leave a mere 5-foot buffer between crops and local streams and rivers, “So we’re breaking new ground with this lease.”

Buffers help keep pesticide, fertilizer and herbicide runoff from contaminating streams and rivers. The Authority’s pending grant application to the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund — for money to relocate pesticide-mixing stations on the Mills River and improve buffering in the watershed — mandates a 75-foot buffer, Frederick remarked.

“Wouldn’t the city be better off planting the whole [51 acres] in trees?” Council member Earl Cobb posed.

“That’s a philosophical question,” Frederick replied. Granting the strict lease to Warren could set a standard for environmentally friendly agricultural use in the area, he observed. But the city and the Authority would have to “vigorously promote” environmentally friendly practices, and closely monitor Warren, Frederick warned.

After little further discussion, Council members concurred with the Authority’s decision to award Warren a one-year lease for $3,825. If the Authority receives the Trust Fund grant, that revenue will become part of the matching funds needed for the watershed-protection project.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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