At their Aug. 1 work session, Asheville City Council members breezed through staff presentations on a parking study and considered a new tool for the Unified Development Ordinance.
Since December 1998, the city has held numerous, sometimes-contentious, meetings with residents and downtown merchants to get a handle on what many feel are serious parking issues. Those meetings, said city Traffic Engineer Michael Moule, yielded 67 recommendations for improving the downtown parking situation. Many of these ideas are now being tried or will be soon, and the early responses have been mostly positive, he said.
“A couple of merchants told me they’ve had noticeable improvements,” commented Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger.
Many of the suggestions have focused on freeing up street spaces in front of stores for customers by encouraging people who work downtown to park in decks — particularly the less-frequented ones. To that end, City Council raised parking-meter rates in June, and the heavily used parking garages — such as the often-packed Wall Street Parking Deck — are now more expensive than the sparingly used Civic Center Parking Facility, only two blocks away. In addition, all parking decks now offer one free hour of parking during the week and three hours’ worth on weekends.
Not everyone loves the changes. Council member Ed Hay related that he’s received some complaints from the Public Library Board. Library patrons formerly enjoyed an hour-and-a-half of free parking at the Civic Center deck, and it was no secret that a quick stop in the library could get someone free parking, even if that wasn’t really their final destination.
“The system was being abused,” said City Manager Jim Westbrook.
Other soon-to-arrive improvements, Moule explained, include directional signs to the garages. City Council OK’d the color-coded signs a couple of months ago; they will be placed around downtown and at the freeway exits. Additional changes include changing the striping for parking spaces on Biltmore and Broadway avenues, missing since the Department of Transportation completed work on those roads last year; promoting bicycle use by installing bike racks around downtown; and improving pedestrian crossings in Biltmore Village and across College Street at City/County Plaza.
Council members Barbara Field and Brian Peterson relayed some additional parking problems they asked Moule to look into. Field pointed out that since Walnut Street became one-way last winter from Haywood Street to Rankin Avenue, cars are parking illegally — making it difficult to get down Walnut. “Cars are always parking there; you can’t get around them,” said Field, who lives in that block. “It’s almost impossible to make the turn.”
Council member Charles Worley asked Moule if a short section of Walnut could be reopened to two-way traffic to promote access to the Rankin Avenue Parking Deck. Moule replied that, judging by the sentiments expressed by residents and merchants at meetings, Walnut Street is more likely to eventually become one-way from Haywood Street all the way down to Lexington Avenue.
Peterson wanted to know what could be done about auto-repair shops on Haywood Road in West Asheville that often have numerous vehicles parked on the sidewalks. “It’s forcing pedestrians into the street,” Peterson said. “I just get calls all the time.”
Westbrook said that is a law-enforcement issue, adding that he would notify the proper authorities.
City Council will probably add a new tool to its kit for evaluating specific development proposals. The Planning and Development staff is recommending allowing, in special cases, some commercial uses in residentially zoned districts.
City Planner Dan Baechtold said that many properties located behind commercial developments are zoned residential but are really too small or steep for residential construction. “It may not be appropriate to rezone property from residential to commercial, but it might be appropriate to allow parking, landscaping and storm-water detention in a residential zoning district,” he explained.
The issue has come up in Planning and Zoning Commission meetings many times, Baechtold reported. The commission has proposed an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, unanimously recommendeding it on July 20. Baechtold cautioned that this is not an opportunity for commercial expansion, and he laid out the standards for applying the amendment: eligible areas could be no more than 1 acre; would have to be adjacent to the applicant’s lot; could contain no structures, derelict vehicles or goods for sale; and could not be more than one lot deep.
If the amendment passes, each applicant will have to go before the city’s Technical Review Committee. City Council would then have the final say, after a public hearing.
Council members appeared to react favorably to the new development tool. “I thinks it’s a very positive step,” commented Field, noting that landscaping and parking would help clean up derelict lots. “Instead of the little slivers where people throw trash in, we’ll end up with something positive,” she concluded.