Asheville City Council

A long-term plan to make Asheville more pedestrian-friendly won approval at City Council’s Feb. 22 formal session, but an attempt by two Council members to add teeth to the proposal was thwarted.

The Asheville Pedestrian Plan Update analyzes the city’s needs for amenities that encourage walking, such as sidewalks and greenways. Implementing the extensive list of projects included in the plan would cost an estimated $30 million, all told. But while some Council members found that figure hard to swallow, others thought the plan needed jump-starting.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower said the money would be better spent on other problems, such as drugs and the city’s high-school dropout rate. He also questioned how effective the plan would be. “I have a hard time with activities that involve the illusion of action,” said Mumpower. “That’s what this document is.”

The 100-page plan takes pains to emphasize its compatibility with other comprehensive city documents, such as the 2025 Plan and the Strategic Operating Plan. Among its suggestions: installing miles of new sidewalks, implementing greenway projects, adding and upgrading crosswalks, and replacing ramps that don’t satisfy federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Among the benefits cited by the plan are a healthier community, fewer traffic accidents and increased pedestrian safety, especially in crosswalks and on sections of road that now lack sidewalks.

But though the original plan, created five years ago, enthusiastically supports new greenways and large-scale sidewalk projects, it bore little fruit, Council member Brownie Newman told Xpress. And Council member Jan Davis observed, “I could support the plan, but we have too many plans sitting on the shelf gathering dust.”

City Engineer Cathy Ball explained that the plan is not intended to dictate a time line; it simply lists the things that need to be done. Over the past decade, the city has budgeted an average of $75,000 a year for sidewalks. Last year, $140,000 was allocated out of the general fund, plus $80,000 in “fee-in-lieu” money (a system that allows developers who don’t want to build sidewalks themselves to pay the city to do it for them). Grants and other outside funding provide additional support for sidewalks, noted Ball.

Newman, however, wanted to go further, saying, “Instead of scaling back the plan, [we should] increase the resources we are using to foster a pedestrian environment.” He also pointed out that not all the identified needs are equally pressing — and some may not need to be done at all.

With that in mind, Newman proposed not only approving the plan but instructing staff to prioritize the list and begin lining up funding for implementing the projects deemed most important.

Mayor Charles Worley, however, contended that such decisions should be made during the budget process. And instructing staff to focus on this particular plan gives it precedence over others, he argued.

Newman responded that a high priority is exactly what the plan needs in order to start producing results. “Let’s be and not just seem,” he urged. “We have dedicated funding sources to build parking decks; why not have dedicated funding for the pedestrian plan?”

Council member Holly Jones agreed, saying, “This plan catches my attention more than maybe some of the others.”

Jones also touched on a related topic, reminding Council members that childhood obesity is a problem both locally and nationally. (According to the National Institutes of Health, the rise in childhood obesity — a principal factor in the increased incidence of type 2 diabetes — is partly due to a lack of physical activity.) “This is right in the middle of what we are talking about,” noted Jones.

That logic was lost on Council member Joe Dunn and Mumpower, however. “The government can’t make that happen,” Dunn declared. People, he argued, “can work out anywhere — they don’t need to use sidewalks.”

In the end, neither the plan’s detractors nor its staunchest supporters got what they wanted. Although Newman’s motion was seconded by Jones, it never came to a vote, because Worley countered with a motion that amended it, eliminating the part about giving staff the go-ahead. As a result, the plan — as originally drafted by city staff — was approved on a 4-2 vote, with Newman, Jones, Worley and Davis supporting it and Mumpower and Dunn opposed. (Council member Terry Bellamy is on maternity leave.)

In the zone

In other business, City Council unanimously voted to amend the city’s Unified Development Ordinance by creating a new Urban Place zoning designation that encourages high-density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development.

Although the city has not yet identified specific areas to apply the Urban Place designation, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Xpress that an upcoming project by Mountain Housing Opportunities (a local nonprofit) would be a good fit. And though the designation allows the highest-density development of any city zoning classification other than downtown, he noted that such development was common in Asheville in the 1920s.

The Urban Place designation, which is consistent with the city’s Urban Riverfront Master Plan, could also make it easier to restore areas such as those damaged by last fall’s flooding, Shuford told Council. In addition, he reported that neither members of the public nor community groups that had been notified about the proposal had voiced any objections.

Making adjustments

The city has a vacancy on the Board of Adjustment, which hears appeals from developers concerning such things as buffers and setback requirements. Applications must be received no later than Thursday, March 10. For an application or more info, call the city clerk at 259-5601.

Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.


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