Grate gardens!

Some call it a garden, some call it a tree pit. Most trees in downtown Asheville are framed by metal grates; but on one side of Battery Park Avenue, garden-happy merchants have planted petunias, ivy, day lilies, and the like around the trees outside their shops.

Trouble is, the city’s 1991 Streetscape Plan calls for installing tree grates downtown: “Tree grates promote health by protecting the tree pit area [and] are very often associated with downtown settings and reinforce the core’s identity,” it reads. City crews were set to install them on Battery Park this year, in conjunction with recent work to improve the water lines that run under the sidewalks.

But Linda Matthews (who owns Art Works), local activist Meg McLeod and other Battery Park merchants objected. A few years ago, they fought City Hall over the right to keep the tree-pit gardens — created and maintained by merchant volunteers — and won, Matthews pointed out.

“This time around, we went through the same arguments: The gardens are bad for the trees; they’re pretty; there are maintenance issues and liability issues; the grates are expensive, but the gardens cost the city nothing. We had another battle royal,” Matthews says about a recent meeting between the merchants and city staff.

“In 1998, there was basically an agreement to disagree,” says Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs. “Since we weren’t doing infrastructure repairs at that time, [the gardens] weren’t as much of an issue with me,” he adds, explaining how a compromise had allowed the gardens to remain, at that time. “It’s a long-term issue, though,” Combs warns, calling it “emotions vs. infrastructure.”

The city’s Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan suggests that the wide sidewalks common downtown should allow 6 feet of clearance for passersby, he notes. And, at the meeting with merchants, Combs cited several arborists who claim that such gardens “cause stress to the tree,” particularly when the soil is disturbed. He also mentioned potential liability issues: In the past four years, Asheville has paid out $21,803.60 in “trip” claims related to obstacles on city sidewalks.

Merchants countered that taking away the gardens at the height of tourist season (not to mention Bele Chere) is “the wrong time,” says Matthews.

Wings co-owner (and longtime downtown activist) Barry Olen notes that trash and cigarette butts collect beneath the metal grates, whose inner ring may also restrict tree growth. But he’s quick to emphasize that there was “give and take on both sides. We learned that digging deep into the tree pit could harm the tree’s feeder roots, so we talked about setting up some planting guidelines for those who want gardens,” says Olen.

Combs and his staff, on the other hand, agreed to delay installing the grates, which cost about $600 apiece. City crews will, however, install the metal frames that support the grates.

“That way, we save a lot of our tax dollars by not having to dig up the sidewalks, if we do switch back to tree grates,” says Olen. The city also addressed another concern of his: During the dispute, the holes dug for the water repairs were filled with loose gravel; but during heavy rains, water has flooded Olen’s stores several times. So the broken sidewalk and gravel will be temporarily asphalted until the grate supports are installed and repairs can be completed.

“I’m not completely satisfied, and neither were [the merchants],” says Combs. “We’ll leave the grates out until individual shop owners want them in.” Then he adds reflectively: “They’ve done something innovative [with the gardens], and they’re passionate about it. Why make a big fuss?”

To Matthews, that’s good news. She remarks, “We managed to get a stay for our gardens, and the city saves money by installing the grate supports now.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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