The June 16 death of Anthony Ray Gilmore, 25, killed while running across Interstate 240 in an attempt to reach the Hillcrest Apartments, has Asheville officials considering reopening a pedestrian bridge, closed off since 1994, that spans the highway.
The Swannanoa resident was struck and killed by a 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier headed west in the far right lane around 9:30 p.m., police say.
Gilmore's death reactivates an old debate. In 1994, the N.C. Department of Transportation closed the bridge at City Council's request, in response to residents' concerns about the drug trade. In May 1998, Council revisited the matter in connection with a case closely resembling the current one.
"With the recent pedestrian fatality, as a result of an individual attempting to cross I-240 going into Hillcrest, the Housing Authority and the Asheville Police Department met with the residents' association of Hillcrest Apartments to reconsider the bridge closing," the minutes from that meeting read. At that meeting, residents seemed split on the issue, some saying it had helped curb the drug trade while others called it a massive inconvenience to residents that often led those without a vehicle to attempt a dangerous crossing.
Currently, a rugged path leads up from under the Smokey Park Bridge to an unlocked gate in Hillcrest. The bridge itself is barred tight at both ends. On the opposite end from the apartments, a totally overgrown sidewalk leads into downtown.
On June 18, Council member Gordon Smith toured the area. Based on what he saw, Smith feels the time has come to consider reopening the bridge.
"It's a real-eye opener," says Smith tells. "The most direct route from Hillcrest to downtown is to run across the highway, jump a fence and take the sidewalk. Right now there's only one way in and out of Hillcrest. Anyone who's a student of geography and world history who looks at neighborhoods that have been isolated, that only have one way in and out — I would challenge those folks to find me an example of where that's worked. The most important thing we can do is reintegrate Hillcrest with the rest of the city."
Smith says he's contacted Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council member Bill Russell (who chairs the Public Safety Committee) to "get this heard as soon as possible."
Walking around the area with Xpress soon after the latest tragic death, Smith pointed out the problems pedestrians face. "When you're standing right here, it looks like the cars are really far away. Then you realize how fast they're going," he noted, adding that reopening the bridge and clearing off the sidewalk — after consultations with the Asheville Police Department and Hillcrest residents — would be a temporary measure until the planned Interstate 26 interchange better integrates the area with downtown.
"Open the bridge, clear the sidewalk and we're good," said Smith, adding, "This has been going on too long — it's time for Hillcrest to be part of the city again."
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.