Peeved is a mild word for Asheville City Council member Barbara Field‘s reaction to city staff who recently restricted the west end of Walnut Street to one-way traffic.
During Council’s May 18 work session, she laid into City Engineer Cathy Ball and new city Traffic Engineer Michael Moule: “That street has been two-way for 50 years, and no one’s ever had a problem with [it]. … Are we trying to kill downtown? You can tell: I’m really angry!” (Later in the meeting, Field gave Ball a hug).
The change, Field complained, severely restricts access to the Rankin Street parking deck, makes it near impossible for garbage trucks to access the alley behind Earth Guild (where she lives), and limits other access to her building (traffic can now proceed only east — downhill — on Walnut, between Haywood and Rankin streets). Accusing city staff of having failed to adequately inform affected residents and businesses of the proposed change, Field said, “We get a new traffic engineer, and all of a sudden, we have a one-way street.”
City Council members had recently received a thank-you letter from Public Interest Projects, Inc. for promptly making the change; the company owns both Haywood Street buildings with frontage on Walnut (the former Asheville Hotel building, which now houses Malaprop’s and apartments, and the former J.C. Penney building, which is being converted into condominiums). Field implied that the change had been made largely at this developer’s request, without input from other affected businesses or residents.
“That’s not the only reason,” responded Ball. Making Walnut one-way, she explained, had been under consideration for some time, and a public-input process had been planned. “But sometimes, public safety goes against the process we’d like to use,” said Ball.
Moule added that the sidewalk scaffolding erected on Haywood Street recently to protect pedestrians from ongoing construction work on the Penney’s building had increased the urgency of taking prompt action. He said he had already heard complaints that motorists trying to turn onto Haywood from Walnut have extremely limited visibility at that corner, because of parked cars and delivery trucks and, now, the protective scaffolding. Those motorists routinely blocked the pedestrian walkway as they edged out into traffic, endangering themselves and pedestrians, he pointed out. “To me, there’s a safety issue,” Moule declared.
Over the years, the narrow street has drawn increased use by motorists and pedestrians alike, he continued. “Maybe, after 50 years, we should make this change,” asserted Moule.
A Public Interest representative, reached after the meeting, remarked that several affected businesses had been contacted about the proposal, and that the change should make Walnut a more inviting and safer pedestrian link between the parking decks and Haywood, and between shops on Lexington Avenue and Haywood Street.
Getting around Biltmore Village
On Thursday, May 27, city officials want to hear your opinion on proposed transportation improvements for Biltmore Village. Consultant Rick Day unveiled a proposed plan to City Council members at their May 18 work session. The comprehensive plan addresses pedestrian, motorist, parking and even future rail-service needs, said Day. No cost estimates have been prepared, as yet, but the plan could be phased in over the next 20 years, Day explained. Among the proposals are: improved sidewalks; new pedetrian crossings; better signage for tourist destinations; a “parking structure” (maybe a deck, maybe a surface lot) at Brook Street and All Souls Crescent; “gateway” entrances at the intersections of Biltmore Ave., All Souls Crescent and Lodge Street; and improved traffic flow for Biltmore Avenue and McDowell Street.
Council members took no action on the proposal. Copies of the plan are available through the city’s Engineering Department (259-5617).
The school report
Asheville City Council member O.T. Tomes was glad to hear the news about the improved test scores of students in the Asheville City Schools. But he couldn’t let a May 18 meeting with the school board pass him by without mentioning the high dropout rate of African-American males. According to his data, maybe 30 of these students graduated in 1999, out of 120 who started as freshmen in 1995.
Tomes said he applauds the city schools for such improvements as a 30-percent increase in the reading scores of Hall Fletcher Elementary students, as reported by board Chair Susan Fisher. “But you’ll find me very passionate — as long as I’m breathing — about the gap that is still there,” Tomes proclaimed.
Council member Barbara Field told school-board members that she’d like to see the overall dropout rate for the city schools, to provide a context for Tomes’ figures.
Council member Earl Cobb asked how the school system had managed such a significant increase in test scores at Hall Fletcher and other schools, in just one year. He also asked what progress the schools are making toward increasing students’ access to computers.
School Superintendent Karen Campbell replied that there’s been more emphasis on teacher training in the past year, and that teachers are spending more class time on reading and writing. As for computers, Campbell said her first goal is to set up a computer lab at each elementary school (they’re already available at the middle and high schools). Next, she plans to install a workstation for every teacher and, eventually, one computer for every five students. “We’re a long way from achieving that,” said Campbell. But all the schools now have Internet access, and many teachers are using it as a resource.
Council member Field remarked, “Since I went to school before calculators … there’s still value in learning to [add, subtract, read and write] without computers.”
And Mayor Leni Sitnick offered, “A personal observation: Don’t tear down Claxton [School].”
The school board is considering whether to replace the old elementary-school building, renovate it, or expand it. Said Fisher, “We hear you.”