East Asheville residents came out in force April 19 for what organizers dubbed a "sidewalk summit," making the case for pedestrian improvements in their neighborhoods. Over the course of the 90-minute meeting at Charles C. Bell Elementary School, several of the roughly 100 attendees voiced a wide range of questions and concerns to officials from the city's Planning and Transportation departments, the state Department of Transportation, and Asheville City Council members.
Chris Pelly, president of the Haw Creek Community Association, narrated a PowerPoint presentation showing that east Asheville has only 7 percent of the city's sidewalks. According to Pelly, north Asheville has 42 percent, West Asheville has 28 percent, and south Asheville has 23 percent.
Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel blamed the disparity largely on history. "Most of the neighborhoods west and north of the city are much older than where you are," she explained. "The houses are closer together. They were built at a time when most people walked or took a streetcar or took a bus. After World War II, that changed a lot — most subdivisions were not built with sidewalks for about the next 40 years."
Despite Daniel's assurances that east Asheville is now "high up on the priority list," however, residents continued to press her and other officials concerning specific plans to make improvements.
Daniel and Transportation Director Ken Putnam spelled out some of the challenges to making large-scale improvements, including rights-of-way authority in subdivisions, N.C. DOT jurisdiction, the placement of utilities and funding. Putnam also encouraged residents to identify specific "hot spots" — small stretches that they feel are most in need of sidewalks.
As the meeting continued, consensus grew for bumping up several sections of Tunnel Road east of Interstate 240 on the priority list. A 0.9-mile stretch between the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry's Veterans Restoration Quarters at 1329 Tunnel Road and the VA Medical Center at 1100 Tunnel Road generated the most passionate response.
Stan Vincent, who works at the vets' quarters, explained that about 200 residents — many of them disabled — walk daily between the facility and the VA hospital. Bull Mountain Road resident Kim Engel said she regularly sees them narrowly avoiding traffic.
"Seeing the vets running across the street as I'm driving my children to school is horrifying," said Engel.
Haw Creek resident Susan Bicknell agreed. "It's a miracle nobody got killed there this winter," she said. "People had to step out into the road because it was too icy and [there was] too much snow. People would be out there on that curve and on that hill, and it was really very dangerous."
Although the officials on hand made no promises, several expressed sympathy and offered guidance on how to proceed.
DOT District Engineer Jeff Moore asked the group to send him a list of their priorities and said he'd look into them, while Putnam suggested that residents work on getting a bond issue passed to fund the needed improvements.
Council member Cecil Bothwell, branding himself and fellow Council member Gordon Smith "champions for sidewalks," advised concerned residents to write to the other Council members and tell them how badly Tunnel Road needs sidewalks. "Squeaky wheels do get greased," he observed.
Toward the end of the meeting, organizers from the Beverly Hills, Haw Creek, Parkway Forest, Redwood Forest and View Pointe homeowners associations collected e-mail addresses and began laying plans to draft an official sidewalk priority list.
East Asheville resident Vickie Gaddy made it clear to the officials in attendance that they would be hearing from them again. "We're shakers and movers," she declared. "We mean business."