You can tell time by the St. Lawrence chimes, if you live downtown.
And you can hear the rumble of the automobile engines and the sound of laughter echoing in the Civic Center parking deck after headliner events, if you live in an apartment or condo on Haywood Street.
You get to vie for parking spaces with nightclub patrons, walk to the theater, buy fresh bread at Laughing Seed or Blue Moon, and pick up your prescriptions at one of the pharmacies just down the street.
And now, you can have your say in a new residents group, the Downtown Neighborhood Residents Association — otherwise known as DNRA.
Formed this March, the new association joins nearly 25 other active neighborhood groups in the city that, together, form the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, an increasingly powerful lobby, when it comes to getting residents’ concerns noticed and acted upon by local officials.
Says CAN President Brian Peterson, “People feel like, if they organize, they have a better chance of being listened to.” Until now, he adds, Asheville’s growing downtown residential population — estimated at nearly 1,000 — didn’t have a unified voice.
They do now, thanks to the organizing efforts of Vanderbilt Apartments resident Marilyn Muccio.
Particularly concerned about issues in her building, which houses low-income elderly and disabled residents, Muccio first approached Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick about getting some things done. Sitnick directed her to Peterson, and he suggested she start by getting organized.
“I made up a flyer and posted it everywhere downtown I could think of — wherever people live,” says Muccio. The result of her impromptu effort was a series of monthly meetings held this winter, each attended by a diverse slice of downtown: elderly Vanderbilt and Battery Park residents, a retired couple who live in a Haywood Street condo and are active in downtown affairs, younger residents from the newly completed apartments in the old Asheville Hotel building, above Malaprop’s.
“We had 17 to 20 people each meeting, all with a variety of concerns to voice,” says Laurie Maltby, DNRA’s newly elected board president.
Those concerns include parking problems, vandalism, police- and fire-response times, inadequate public transportation, the lack of a downtown grocery store (this is a particular concern of elderly and disabled residents), and a proposed water-line repair that would have closed Haywood and interrupted water service (since postponed, after businesses and residents raised an uproar).
“Some of those concerns match those of downtown businesses,” Peterson points out.
But each has a special twist: At night, residents compete with business patrons for parking spaces — even if the residents have rented those spaces. And friends coming to visit, day or night, often have a hard time finding parking. Late-night and early-morning noises echo in the urban landscape. Water-line repairs mean no showers or clean dishes for downtown residents. Downtown festivals, such as Bele Chere with its closed-off streets, may leave residents marooned, either at home — or away from it.
Muccio and Maltby are particularly concerned with the needs of downtown’s older population, which is concentrated at the Battery Park and Vanderbilt apartments. Some of those needs are simply social.
“Forming a residents’ association is just as much a chance for them to have a social outlet as it is to have a voice before City Council,” says Maltby.
“One of our first goals,” she notes, “is to give these issues priority and determine which ones are most important.”
For now, the group is focusing its attention on the following actions: Ask the city to give downtown residents a discount on monthly parking-deck rates; obtain ticket discounts for elderly residents attending downtown performances at such places as the Civic Center, Asheville Community Theatre and Pack Place; work with downtown businesses on issues such as parking; have a resident representative appointed to the Downtown Commission; and get police to monitor alleged male-prostitution activity near the Battery Park Apartments.
On behalf of Vanderbilt residents, the group has helped publicize the plight of their aging building, whose brickwork is in danger of collapse. The residents are seeking assurance from the building owners that it won’t be closed down.
When the group met with the building’s board of directors on April 16, board member Tom Coulsen assured them, “We will find the money. … “We’re committed to keeping it open.”
“When new neighborhood groups form, it’s often in response to a crisis,” Peterson explains. Both the water-line repair and the Vanderbilt-deterioration issue played a large part in bringing residents together. “[That’s the way] people start to feel they have a voice and a say in things.”
There’s another benefit, as well. “You get to know your neighbors. We’re all in the same boat — although [unlike most residential neighborhoods], downtown has some special concerns, because it’s also an active business district,” Peterson adds.
Maltby emphasizes the getting-to-know-you point even more: “I’m from Los Angeles, and it’s a city of anonymity. The thing I find amazing here … [is that] the mayor knows my name.”
For more information about the Downtown Neighborhood Residents Association, call Maltby at 281-0898, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.