Searching for consensus

It’s time to put up or shut up. The powers that be are coming to the table on the I-26 Connnector project, for what is likely the last chance for the community to end its hand-wringing over the controversial highway.

The much-talked-about design forum is scheduled for July 21-22 at Asheville’s Renaissance Hotel; its aim is find common ground in the conflicting visions of area residents and traffic specialists.

The design of the massive highway project, which has been in the works for years, appeared almost complete until some rousing public outcry erupted last year. Public concern appeared to grow after the I-26 Connector Awareness Group — a coalition of concerned citizens opposed to the state Department of Transportation’s current plans for the highway — brought Orlando-based traffic engineer Walter Kulash to town last November.

Kulash told a packed auditorium that Patton Avenue through West Asheville, and portions of I-240, could be turned into a gateway boulevard that families would want to stroll along — instead of being subsumed by a massive superhighway. Since then, his name has come up often in conversations about what the I-26 Connector could do for Asheville. Kulash mentioned that similar beltway revamping is already completed or under way in cities such as Chattanooga, Norfolk and Milwaukee. He also pointed out that transportation departments across the country are becoming more open to public input on highway projects — going on to note that he felt it was not too late for the same thing to happen here in Asheville.

Perhaps inspired by Kulash, citizens turned out en masse at community and Transportation Advisory Committee meetings last winter to voice displeasure with the NCDOT’s plan for the $140 million project. It calls for expanding I-240 through West Asheville to eight lanes, probably gouging out the Westgate Shopping Plaza and a host of private homes to connect I-26 with U.S. 19/23. Taking notice of the outcry, Asheville City Council members asked the DOT to present the design forum and seek consensus on the project.

For its part, the DOT has appeared to honor its recent pledges to be more open to input from the community.

“We expect [the public design forum] to be a wonderful opportunity for the community to assist in improving the I-26 Connector project,” said Drew Joyner, DOT project manager, adding, “Our commitment to Asheville is to continue to keep the community involved through the various phases of the project.”

City Planning Director Scott Shuford pointed out that the two-day forum will bring together representatives from the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration — as well as interchange designers, structural engineers, local architects, traffic engineers and city staff — all of whom will be working with citizen participants to generate ideas for improving the project.

On the first day of the forum, participants will break into focus groups to discuss the Patton Avenue interchange; other interchange issues, including bicycle and pedestrian connections; visual issues, including gateway, bridge and overpass design; and technical issues, including safety, constructability, design speed and — the most controversial aspect of the project — the number of lanes. The sessions will be repeated throughout the day so that each participant could conceivably address all four topics. The following day will begin with a summary of each focus group’s conclusions, after which participants will discuss the project as a whole.

Shuford explained that the design forum’s recommendations will be presented to the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Asheville City Council, and that the DOT says it will use that information, where feasible, to revise the project.

One player coming to the table has held its cards until the very eve of the forum. But the I-26 Connector Awareness Group, which has been working with Kulash’s engineering firm, has just released some design ideas that members hope will drive the forum’s dialogue.

Group representatives say that — based on public-opinion polls over the last two years — residents’ goals for the project include separating I-240 and Patton Avenue, and making Patton into a gateway boulevard to downtown. The group also supports creating pedestrian and bicycle connections, and minimizing the widening of I-240 and the associated loss of homes and businesses in West Asheville.

“Separating I-240 and Patton Avenue for new development could result in huge economic benefits for the community,” said local developer Whit Rylee, a member of the Connector Awareness Group. “A conservative estimated value of the resulting development along Patton Avenue alone would be $10 million to $15 million. And that’s for property that is now off the tax rolls, because it is devoted to highway use.”

The group’s conceptual designs rely on having I-240 cross the French Broad River at a proposed connector bridge near Broadway Avenue, thereby freeing up the Smokey Park Bridge for Patton Avenue traffic. In addition, the existing “spaghettilike” interchange on the river’s west side would be replaced by a simple diamond-shaped design, re-routing the connector around Westgate Shopping Center and saving the 40 businesses there.

Group members say several benefits can spring from these design concepts — particularly in terms of redevelopment. For example, eliminating the I-240 exit ramps running from just east of the proposed bridge all the way to the Haywood Street Methodist Church would free up an estimated 12 acres of land for new urban development. That, said Rylee, could take the form of mixed-use buildings — perhpas with restaurants and galleries below and apartments up above. Infill housing and subsequent connections off the proposed boulevard would reunite the Montford and Chicken Hill neighborhoods with the isolated Hillcrest public-housing development, which was isolated by the construction of I-240 in 1963.

“This is incredibly valuable land,” proclaimed Rylee, noting that the city of Asheville is one of the largest landholders in that area. The Asheville Transit bus garage, which occupies part of the site, has been a frequent topic of City Council discussions about selling off land.

Connector-group members say their proposal would also promote riverfront access — a goal of the city of Asheville’s 2010 Plan — and the possibility of creating a new mixed-use urban area where Westgate is located. That area, Rylee added, has the best views of downtown.

“We are not saying that these design concepts are the final answer for the I-26 Connector,” Awareness Group member Ron Ainspan emphasized. “These concepts do, however, accomplish what we are hearing the community wants. We would like to see them receive full consideration in the move toward consensus on this project.”

The forum will kick off at 10 a.m. on July 21. Facilitator Fred Craig, an independent traffic consultant with a history of helping communities and departments of transportation find common ground on highway issues, will give a short introduction. After that, participants will break into groups to discuss the issues during 90-minute sessions.(the later ones begin at 1:30, 3:30 and 7 p.m.).

On July 22, a summary session will run from 9:30 a.m. to noon, followed by a wrap-up session that will address what comes next for the connector project.

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