Asheville City Council

Asheville’s scenic beauty isn’t purely a question of pretty trees — but they’re a fair start.

“We are a Tree City USA, but one would hardly know that, at the rate we’re cutting [trees] down,” remarked Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick at City Council’s March 16 work session.

Council members had just viewed a slide presentation prepared by the city’s Tree and Greenway Commission. The show began with images of scenic local views, before contrasting a series of poorly landscaped or clearcut lots in the city with flower-studded, manicured urban scenes from Asheville’s Sister City of Saumur, France.

“Which is more important to Asheville? This?” queried commission member Peter Loewer, as he showed a crumbling wall and scraggly vegetation at both a city-owned and a private parking lot downtown. He then cut to a park scene in Saumur, where flowers bloomed and brick sidewalks were swept clean, adding, “Or this?”

Loewer also called attention to a rocky, red-dirt lot near a local grocery store: Cleared of its trees “by mistake” several years ago, it remains vacant and ugly, despite the developers’ promise to replant, he asserted, noting, “That was two years ago.” Continuing the ugly litany, he showed a picture of a barren, red-dirt bank that he said would be collapsing if it weren’t for the drought, as well as the clear-cut lot carved out for the new Tunnel Road Lowe’s (whose developers had been instructed by the tree commission to maintain a row of white pines as a buffer, but did not, reported Loewer).

Asheville’s reputation for scenic beauty is great in the outer world, “But how long will it last?” he asked, arguing that most of those ugly scenes could be made beautiful with just a little care and maintenance.

Fellow commission member Peter Gentling urged Council to preserve trees and green space in the city, saying, “We’ve got a golden [opportunity] now … to beautify the city … for years to come.”

Council members didn’t disagree, but asked how much such beautification would cost.

Gentling observed that France has a different, more socialistic tax structure, enabling Saumur to employ 50 gardeners, compared to Asheville’s three (the two cities are about the same size). “It’s a mindset,” he added, explaining that the French seem more willing to pay higher taxes in support of municipal services.

“I have a way to raise money,” interjected Loewer. “When Lowe’s [on Tunnel Road] cut those white pines down, they should have been socked with … an incredible fine.” So should other builders who cut down trees illegally, he argued, adding that the city should also license tree cutters, to reduce the incidence of improper trimming or removal of trees.

“We do have a better landscape ordinance, but I don’t know if we’re enforcing it,” responded Council member Chuck Cloninger, thanking Gentling and Loewer for their work. He noted that the commission’s beautification initiative fits right in with the city’s upcoming $18 million bond referendum for parks, recreational facilities and greenways, scheduled to go before voters in May. If it passes, the bonds will provide funds for creating new green spaces and improving existing ones, said Cloninger.

Sitnick urged Council to amend the Unified Development Ordinance by adding a separate “P for parks” zoning classification, as a way to preserve the city’s green spaces. She also suggested putting more effort into adopt-a-street, adopt-a-corner and other volunteer beautification projects. “How hard could it be?” she asked.

Public Works Director Mark Combs explained that the slide presentation is part of a broader education effort — first, to show existing conditions, then to follow up with an informative brochure on “what … the Tree Commission can do for you.”

“It all comes back to funding,” said Gentling. “If any one of you want to leave a legacy … vote for open space.”

“Help us get the bond [referendum] passed,” Sitnick replied.

Guarding our cityscape

What’s a “cityscape”?

“A term coined to describe the unique character of the city, as expressed through its culture, built environment, natural environment, public art, open spaces, streets, people and neighborhoods,” Hojun Welker told City Council members during their March 16 work session.

Welker, the coordinator for the city’s Urban Trail, recommended that Council create a new cityscape commission, which would coordinate and oversee the visual aspects of city development. It would not be a regulatory body, nor would it replace existing bodies that address some aspects of Asheville’s cityscape (such as the Tree and Greenway Commission, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Historic Resources Commission, the Design and Historic Review process for downtown, Asheville’s Streetscape Committee, or the city’s proposed public-art commission).

Noting Council’s previous discussion with Tree and Greenway members Gentling and Loewer, Welker observed, “What we’re talking about is all interrelated.” Each of the above commissions deals with some aspect of design or development in the city; but the various plans, efforts and ordinances aren’t being coordinated, she argued. For example, in researching the creation of a public-art commission recently, Welker said she learned that “successful cities consider public art as part of a comprehensive package.”

A cityscape commission could consist of representatives from each of the above-mentioned groups — some of which could, perhaps, be converted into subcommittees of the cityscape commission, suggested Welker. “If you think the idea of coordinating [this] makes sense, we’ll go in and wrestle with the details,” she said.

Council members agreed to the concept, directing staff to proceed. “Beautification and civic pride: Go!” exclaimed Sitnick.

Buses, swinging heaters and the ATA

City Council members swear that the Asheville Transit Authority is doing a conscientious job — but they still want to take over administration of the transit system.

After hearing comments from ATA members on March 16, Council members repeated their intention to reorganize the way the public bus system and other mass-transit projects are handled. Currently, the ATA administers the system, contracting with a private company to operate it. Council members propose creating a city department to administer the system (but will probably still hire a private company to operate it — because bus drivers are unionized, and state law prohibits cities from negotiating directly with such workers).

“We’re not here trying to preserve our positions,” said ATA Chairman Tom Tomlin. The Authority’s members, he remarked, serve because they want to create a good bus system. But the ATA has several concerns about the proposed reorganization: namely, that bringing the system in-house would create more work for City Council members and make it tougher to deal with unionized drivers. Tomlin also urged Council to help solve a few existing problems, such as getting public telephones and Do Not Enter signs installed at the Aston Street bus terminal.

ATA member Ron Lambe commented, “In some ways, it would be a relief not to [serve].” But the city, he continued, needs a group of concerned citizens who can advocate on behalf of city residents who need bus service, and try to convince the state to commit more mass-transit funds to western North Carolina. “We need to look at future trends, [too], and what’s coming down the line,” argued Lambe. Ridership needs change, he noted, and the city may need to consider such options as expanded evening and weekend service, as well as park-and-ride facilities.

Fellow Authority member Althea Goode reiterated the need for public input: “We need somebody out there advocating for the community,” she said. Many of the people she’s talked to couldn’t keep their jobs without bus service — and can’t take evening jobs, because bus service stops at 6 p.m.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay responded that Council appreciates everything ATA members do. But he said he’s convinced that bringing the bus system in-house will allow Council and city staff to better coordinate pedestrian, mass-transit and related issues from a big-picture perspective.

“A lot of decisions are well-intended … but they get tied up in bureaucracy,” cautioned Council member O.T. Tomes. He urged Council not to “pull the rug” out from under the ATA, and to look at transportation issues from a regional point of view.

“Everyone has the same goal,” Cloninger responded: Providing public transportation to the greatest number of people, as efficiently and economically as possible. As liaison to the ATA, Cloninger said he has found its members to be the most conscientious of any board he’s dealt with, adding, “Some others, if told we might abolish their board, they’d say thank you.”

Turning the conversation toward specifics, Sitnick asked why the new bus terminal’s overhead heaters have been turned off.

City Planner Bruce Black responded that the gas-powered radiant heaters were designed to be hung lower under the terminal’s canopy, but they swung too wildly in the wind. Raised up under the canopy, however, they overheated and so were turned off. In either position, they never warmed the people waiting on the benches below.

“I didn’t go to college, but I know heat rises,” remarked Sitnick, complaining about the design.

Lambe noted that the terminal’s design had originally included walls to protect riders from wind and rain (and conserve heat), but that the ATA had run out of money and had to trim such amenities (designing and building the terminal cost about $1 million).

In any case, Council members reiterated their intention to bring the bus-system in-house.

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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