Asheville City Council

Those who claim that Asheville has a do-nothing government should take a gander at what City Council tackled during its Jan. 18 work session: a draft plan for sustainable economic development, hiring a new center-city planner, hiring designers for a new downtown parking deck, unveiling the new Pritchard Park design concept, and UDO amendments concerning places of worship and sidewalk construction.

“This is a council on a roll!” rejoiced Mayor Leni Sitnick. “There are lots of positive works on the way, and lots getting done in the city of Asheville.”

The future economy of Asheville will not likely resemble its past, reported Jack Cecil and Dr. David Kolzow, presenting the much-anticipated Strategic Plan for Sustainable Economic Development. Jobs and income, they said, will be derived not from new factories, but from “knowledge-based” industries. And what will give cities a competitive edge will be such things as the availability of skilled workers, innovative technologies, and an advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

“A lot of communities are still chasing smokestacks, not realizing we’ve moved ahead,” said Kolzow of Lockwood Greene Consulting, which was hired by the city to produce the plan. “We need to pass along a healthy environment, as well as a healthy economy.”

Council seemed to react favorably to the draft plan, which was developed with input from more than 400 citizens. The effort was spearheaded by Cecil, a local developer. “To me, the best part of the whole strategy [is that] it gives us a strategic plan that works with our decision-making,” said Council member Ed Hay. In other words, Council can weigh, in the future, whether the impact of its decisions is “consistent or inconsistent with the plan,” as Hay put it.

The key issues in the sustainable-economic-development process, say the plan’s engineers, are: a positive approach to development growth; the ability to meet the need for business-office space; balancing economic growth and social needs with conservation of natural resources; creating a more fertile climate for research-and-development opportunities at local colleges and universities; improving the technical skills of students from kindergarten through 12th grade; and focusing on the development of the French Broad River basin and the Swanannoa River corridor.

Under heavy questioning by Council member Barbara Field, Cecil and Kolzow explained how the plan — which was conceived last April — is different from past studies, and what makes it “special” for Asheville. “Some of the questions I asked were rhetorical,” Field later noted. “I just wanted the public to know that this is just not the same old thing.”

“It’s a value of the community,” Kolzow offered, pointing to similar projects in Chattanooga, Tenn.; San Antonio, Texas and Fairfax County, Va. “This will transcend everything you do in the future. And this plan is not written in stone. It’s a document that can be changed — that is periodically changed — as need be.”

To put the plan into action, Cecil recommended that Council hold a series of public meetings and create an implementation task force. “I don’t want these to be volumes that collect dust on your desks,” he said about the more-than-350-page document.

Sitnick, who praised the plan and said it would take Asheville to new heights, tacked on some additional requests.

“The inclusion of both rivers is crucial. … Those areas have the most potential for growth,” the mayor insisted. “And I would like to see a little more that embraces, for lack of a better word, Ray Andersonisms: industries that don’t use up our natural resources. In addition, human intellectual capital [needs to] be the cornerstone of the whole thing.”

Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger asked City Manager Jim Westbrook to look into ways to get more public feedback and to create a task force to implement the plan. “I would hope we could move this along expeditiously,” said Cloninger.

Planner wears many hats

City planner Gerald Green freed up some time for himself (temporarily) and got a new job in the process, after explaining two proposed Unified Development Ordinance amendments to Council.

The result of several months of work for Green, the amendments establish definitions for places of worship and sanctuaries, and also set standards for places of worship in residential districts — addressing development issues ranging from lot size to off-street parking and outdoor lighting.

A sanctuary, said Green, “means a room in, or that section of, a place of worship containing the altar … where regularly scheduled, primary worship services are conducted.” The term includes, but is not limited to, churches, synagogues and temples. Child-care centers, schools and recreational facilities that are developed as part of a place of worship must meet the zoning standards for the districts where they’re located.

Existing places of worship will be grandfathered under the UDO amendment, Green said. The results from a survey of 25 such places indicated that only two would not have satisfied the new guidelines.

Noting the considerable effort that Green has invested in the ordinances, Sitnick asked him: “What will you do with your free time [now]?” Green said he didn’t know, but City Planning Director Scott Shuford didn’t take long to come up with an answer.

Shuford asked Council to reallocate $35,000 from the Planning Department budget to create a coordinator position for the Center City Plan, in order to increase the focus on its technical aspects. And he said that Green was the most likely candidate for the job. “So when you asked Gerald what will he do with his time now — well, I happened to know what he’s going to be doing,” Shuford quipped, adding, “I think we’ve got an opportunity to improve our customer service, as well as save a little money.”

Getting serious about downtown parking

With the Grove Arcade project showing renewed signs of life, Council is getting serious about building another parking deck.

At their next formal meeting, Council members plan to fork over $570,000 to hire Carl Walker Inc. — a Charlotte-based architectural firm — to design and oversee the $8.8 million project, to be sited in an as-yet-undetermined spot in the Battery Park area.

When the Grove Arcade renovation is completed, the historic structure is expected to contain 70 new shops and restaurants — and existing merchants and neighborhood residents are bracing for the increased competition for already-scarce parking spaces.

But don’t expect this deck to look like the typical collapsed stack of concrete cards noted Chuck Tessier — a commercial real-estate investor who helped the city choose an appropriate design firm.

“This is really more than just a design of a parking deck,” he said. “[Carl Walker] is an architectural firm … that specializes in new urbanism, with mixed-use designs [combining retail, commercial and parking spaces under one roof].”

Cloninger noted that he hopes the design of the new garage will take advantage of the dandy view from its top floor, perhaps featuring a public park there.

Pritchard Park vision becoming a reality

The bidding process for giving Pritchard Park a facelift is under way. City Park Planner Alan Glines unveiled his design concept to Council, saying he expects construction to fire up early this summer and be finished by late fall.

The proposed design features lots of greenery, benches, tables for playing chess, sections designated for works of art, and space to relax. There will also be some kind of fountain for “water wicking,” said Glines, noting that,”The sound of water is pleasant.”

In addition, the width of the sidewalk that runs along the north side of College Street (between Barbara’s Wig Boutique and Sandwich Express) will be doubled, to increase the space available for festival vending (such as at Bele Chere). To make room, the city will eliminate the now-unused bus lanes and some parking spaces on Patton Avenue

Hay asked Glines whether the new design would restrict the ability of westbound vehicles on College Street to turn left in front of First Union Bank, in order to go east on Patton Avenue. (Hay revealed that he often has to make this turn.) Glines replied that codes require the corner to be wide enough to allow for fire-truck access. That prompted Council member Charles Worley to tease: “I guess the answer is, Edward, that you’ll only have a problem if your vehicle is bigger than a fire truck.”

Field asked Glines to look into the idea of building some sort of shelter in front of the Wachovia Bank, just across the street from the park. “I see people standing in there in the rain [waiting for the bus] all the time,” she explained.

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