Pedestrians, developers and sidewalks
If City Council members did everything recommended in the new Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan, they would have to come up with more than $38 million.
That’s the total price tag for ugrading city sidewalks to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act ($1.8 million), fixing those sidewalks in need of repair ($6.6 million), improving pedestrian crosswalks ($1.6 million), and building new sidewalks and other needed pedestrian links ($28.5 million), Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Malloy reported on May 18.
But the tentative budget for fiscal year 1999/2000 allocates just $200,000 for sidewalk construction and maintenance.
After soliciting public comment on the plan, however, city staff came up with a few ways to squeeze more pedestrian improvements from a tight budget: For starters, require the builders of all new subdivisions, multifamily dwellings, commercial developments and major residential improvements (those whose total cost is more than 50 percent of the structure’s prior value) to construct sidewalks. Said Malloy, “We felt that if we were serious about sidewalks, we needed to do this.”
Developers who want this requirement waived could, instead, make a corresponding payment to the city; those funds could be directed toward sidewalk projects, Malloy remarked. The Unified Development Ordinance requires only a few new developments (mostly the larger ones) to provide sidewalks.
To meet other needs identified in the pedestrian plan, Malloy recommended that the city “aggressively pursue” funding from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and other federal, state and private sources.
Funding is one thing; changing the UDO is another. Vice Mayor Ed Hay remarked that the new sidewalk policy — which would require Council to hold a public hearing and, subsequently, amend the UDO — “may be the most controversial part of [this plan].” And the amendment proposal would first have to survive review by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Considering how long that process would take (a few months, at least), Council member Chuck Cloninger recommended putting the fee-in-lieu-of-sidewalk-construction proposal on the fast track. Council members have already dealt with several requests from developers that the sidewalk requirement be waived; if that option had been available, it could have provided funds for other pressing sidewalk needs, Cloninger has said in the past.
“Not everyone wants sidewalks,” commented Council member Barbara Field, noting that the impermeable surfaces can cause storm runoff and erosion problems. And not every development is suitable for sidewalk construction, due to terrain restraints and other issues, observed Field, who is an architect. She asked staff to create flexible criteria for deciding which developments would qualify for the payment-in-lieu-of option.
Council members took no formal action on the plan, which is scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, May 25.
Room for walking and dining
Balance: That’s what managing downtown sidewalks is all about, Downtown Development Manager Terry Clevenger told Asheville City Council members at their May 18 work session.
Downtown sidewalks support outdoor entertainment, al-fresco dining and pushcart food vendors, said Clevenger. But they must also accommodate the needs of pedestrians and be handicapped-accessible. “We need to find a balance. … Our sidewalks are only so big,” she told Council members. Clevenger urged them to adopt the recommendations of the Sidewalk Usage Team — which includes representatives of the city’s Planning and Development, Police and Public Works departments, as well as members of the Downtown Commission’s Streetscape Committee and the Asheville Downtown Association.
Based on input from residents and downtown-business owners, the team has recommended that Council:
• Set size, design and location restrictions on pushcarts.
• Increase the permit fees for outdoor dining (now just $25, regardless of size). Large dining areas — or those with a fence, canopy or other fixture attached to the sidewalk — would require an encroachment agreement, a $300 application fee and an annual renewal fee of $50. Small dining areas (two tables or less) would require a permit, a $175 application fee and a $50 annual renewal fee. Pushcart permits would require a $125 application-and-processing fee. Sidewalk merchandising (now prohibited) would be allowed, subject to the same fees as large dining areas.
• For any of the above sidewalk uses, require that at least a 6-foot-wide passage for pedestrian traffic be maintained.
• Continue to ban A-frame/sandwich-board signs on downtown sidewalks. Although prevalent, the signs are not permitted, under the city’s sign ordinance.
Council member Field remarked that the merchandising fee shouldn’t be greater than the business’ privilege license.
Mayor Leni Sitnick remarked that she has seen families pushing baby carriages, and residents in wheelchairs, have difficulty navigating around outdoor-dining areas, A-frame signs and other sidewalk obstacles downtown.
Council members made no other comments on the recommendations, and city staff indicated that the team will be holding a series of community meetings with business owners and residents. A public hearing is scheduled for June 22.