At a June 6 meeting with local newspaper representatives, Downtown Commission members and Asheville city planners presented ideas for restricting the height, placement and configuration of newspaper boxes. The commission hopes to assess the feasibility of the voluntary rules over the next 45 days, gathering data before finalizing the proposal.
Two days later, the full Downtown Commission heard an update, and members were already acknowledging that some of the limits aren’t physically possible downtown. An inventory by Xpress estimated that if strictly enforced, the proposals could eliminate up to 80 percent of current newspaper box locations. Any mandatory rules would have to be approved by City Council.
The draft proposal would allow up to five boxes to be clustered, with clusters at least 30 feet apart. “Floating boxes” (those not next to a wall, such as the large cluster in Pack Square) would be prohibited.
"We're trying to find ways to place all these elements and ensure the safe and efficient flow of people," commission Chair Bruce Hazzard explained. "We're looking at what happens on sidewalks. You'll see criteria applied to anything permanent or temporary on public sidewalks."
Hazzard later said he wants to ensure public safety while retaining downtown’s “messy vitality.”
After several newspaper representatives pointed out that most boxes, including those of Xpress and the Asheville Citizen-Times, don’t meet the proposed 42-inch height limit, Vice Chair Michael McDonough said the limit would be raised to accommodate those boxes.
Asked how the city would decide which publications to haul away if a cluster exceeded five boxes, the assembled planners didn't know.
"That's a great question," Neighborhood Coordinator Marsha Stickford replied. Planner Alan Glines noted that the city wants to sidestep a formal permitting process to avoid adding another level of bureaucracy.
Xpress Distribution Manager Jeff Tallman voiced concerns about what the new limits might mean for Asheville's local news scene.
"There's close to 30 publications on the street,” he said, adding, “How will you tell certain publications ‘You get this spot, or no spot at all’? I know these publishers. There are some publications that are struggling; there are publications whose margins are tighter than tight. This, to me, is a radical exclusion of the opportunity to distribute downtown for a lot of these publications."
Several U.S. Supreme Court rulings have found that cities looking to restrict newspaper boxes can't play favorites between papers and can't prevent new publications from setting up shop.
In Asheville, the controversy flared up during a Feb. 2 meeting between city staff and local publishers. Stickford first claimed she’d received email complaints about the state of boxes downtown but had deleted them. But an open-records request by Xpress revealed that the only email concerning newspaper boxes that Stickford had received in the past year was from a police officer praising the cooperation with Xpress in dealing with graffiti.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.