A bridge too far?

    Asheville City Council Aug. 24 meeting

  • Montford Commons incentives narrowly approved
  • City resident condemns proposed change in handicapped-parking policy
  • Chiaromonte fasts to highlight plight of poor

On June 16, 25-year-old Swannanoa resident Anthony Ray Gilmore ran across Interstate 240, trying to get to the Hillcrest Apartments to visit his stepfather.

Gilmore never made it: He was struck and killed by a Chevrolet Cavalier.

His death re-ignited an old debate about reopening a pedestrian overpass that had been closed since 1994 at the request of Hillcrest residents concerned about crime in the area.

Over the years, a number of deaths have resulted from people trying to cross the hazardous stretch of highway, and in the wake of Gilmore's tragic accident, pressure has built to reopen the bridge. A meeting with residents of the area, along with comments sought by e-mail and Asheville Housing Authority staff, indicated that the majority favor reopening the bridge.

Accordingly, on Aug. 24, Asheville City Council members voted 6-1 to recommend to the state Department of Transportation that the bridge be repaired and reopened; the city, meanwhile, will clear brush from the approaches to the overpass and provide additional lighting and police patrols to deter crime. The DOT has said it would abide by the city's recommendation.

“If you've been underneath that bridge, you know it's a pretty scary place to be,” noted Council member Gordon Smith, a leader in the push to reopen the passageway. “This can be a really transformative event; this is an important part of our addressing the whole of transforming this area. If we take on this challenge and make this area safe, it sends the message that this is an area we won't brook crime in. We have an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

A question of safety


Council's vote came on the heels of a detailed staff report and comment by both city officials and community members.
“None of this will bring my son back,” Gilmore's stepfather, Charlton Owens, told Council. “For everybody's safety, the bridge should be opened. How many more deaths have to occur before it gets everybody's attention?” Owens collected signatures supporting the move.

Inspecting and repairing the bridge, clearing the adjacent overgrown pedestrian passageways and repairing sidewalks is expected to cost $178,725. Keeping it open will cost an estimated $145,799 annually, including $54,500 a year for a beefed-up police presence in the area, which police Chief Bill Hogan said is necessary. The remainder of the money would cover things like lighting and maintenance.

“We had some horrific experiences on that bridge,” Hogan told Council. “Day in, day out, there was criminal activity of a serious nature. That's why we need dedicated officers in that immediate vicinity.”

Whit Riley, who lives nearby, said he'd like to see the bridge reopened so he could take his family to the Westgate shopping center. The closing, he added, hasn't curbed crime, noting that he recently “had a gunshot victim in my front yard.”
Riley emphasized that the focus needs to be not just on the bridge but on making the surrounding area safer.

“If you open those bridges and you don't clean out those [nearby] woods, you'll have people shot there instead,” he told Council. “These issues are linked.”

Pastor James Kent of the Asheville United Christian Church also warned about the possible consequences of the move.

“My heart goes out to the dad that lost his son, but when that bridge was open there was more violence, there were people killed, there were gang fights, our church was broken into several times,” he recalled. “I'd hate to see all that's been done in this community washed away. When that is opened up, you'll find that it comes back. I'd love to see the west end invested in like other parts of Asheville, see it cleaned up.”

Council member Esther Manheimer remembered when she made deliveries to Hillcrest as a Meals On Wheels volunteer in the early ’90s and was “shocked” at the conditions and crime there.

“Hillcrest probably shouldn't have been constructed as the island it is,” she observed. But Manheimer added that since residents clearly favored reopening the bridge, she would support it.

Mayor Terry Bellamy likewise expressed some reluctance about reopening the overpass, instructing city staff to poll residents again six and 12 months after the reopening. But she too ended up supporting the move in deference to residents’ desires.

Only Council member Jan Davis remained unconvinced, asserting that reopening the bridge would spark a higher increase in crime than it was worth.

“It's better than it was a few years ago, but it's still not where it should be today,” he said. “No one should [have to see a death like Gilmore's]; no one should have that happen. But no one should see their child being sold narcotics or have a flow of clandestine trade that takes lives just as surely as a speeding car down the interstate.”

According to staff estimates, it will take several months to get the bridge and the adjacent sidewalks ready.

Common values


The Montford Commons project reappeared before Council seeking economic incentives. The proposed 250-unit, middle-income development would occupy a parcel on Hill Street behind the Chamber of Commerce.

On July 27, Council members, while praising the project, balked at what the developer was requesting: a decade’s worth of property-tax exemptions plus fee waivers totaling about $170,000. They also noted that the budget is extremely tight, and most of the units wouldn’t quite meet the city's affordability guidelines.

In the interim, staff had negotiated a compromise with the Frontier Syndicate: five years of tax exemptions and a 50 percent fee waiver. Nonetheless, staff still recommended denying the incentives, saying they wouldn't fit with Council's incentives policy.

Council member Cecil Bothwell, too, asserted that the deal would entail one exception too many.

“We've got a 100-unit project in Kenilworth; there's a bunch of apartments on Biltmore; there's a bunch of apartments that aren't luxury,” he noted. “More affordable housing is being built by the private sector than a year ago. I'm real uncomfortable with picking and choosing who gets the benefits.”

But Vice Mayor Brownie Newman argued that the discrepancy perhaps meant the city’s policy should be changed.
“Though this isn't affordable housing, it is middle-class; it's not super high-end,” said Newman. “There's a lot to be said for this proposal. It does not fit our current policy, but maybe we need one that says we support midpriced housing in key areas. Sometimes it's through seeing development like this come forward that says, ‘Maybe we need some new policies.'”

Manheimer also saw it as a win-win, particularly given the additional infrastructure the city would receive (sidewalks, sewers and road improvements).

“This is not asking the citizens of the city to write a check,” she said. “They're asking us that if they complete their project, and if it leads to an increase in property-tax value, can they be remitted five years’ worth of that increase to offset the cost of infrastructure. We get a project supported by HUD because it's providing workforce housing, it has a green-building component, it's in a walkable area, it's infill, not suburban sprawl. That's something, as a city, that we should be supporting.”

In the end, proponents narrowly won the day: Council endorsed an incentives deal on a 4-3 vote, with Bothwell, Smith and Council member Bill Russell opposed. City staff and the syndicate will now work out the details.

Disabling the disabled


During the public-comment period, downtown resident Dani Wallace condemned a push by the Asheville Downtown Association and downtown merchants to steer people with handicapped-parking placards away from metered spaces and toward the parking decks. The group says it’s pursuing this goal because some people are occupying metered spaces for days without paying for them.

“I live in the Battery Park Apartments, and disabled people are simply parking where we live,” Wallace, who’s disabled herself, told Council. “We are subjected to false accusations by the business community in a media blitz I find unbelievable.”
Calling the proposed measure “very mean-spirited,” Wallace said she and her neighbors face “harassment from merchants for just parking near our homes.” In particular, Joe Minicozzi, the association's executive director, is unfairly targeting disabled people, she maintained.

“We are not welcome; I myself have been accosted and harassed,” said Wallace. “Businesses take up far more spaces than the disabled — their employees park there hour after hour — but I don't hear any complaints about them.”

Holding fast


Also during public comment, homeless street preacher Chris Chiaromonte lambasted Council, saying he'd been fasting for 14 days to draw attention to the plight of the poor and homeless and to protest his being banned from city parks. Chiaromonte says the city has given him no clear way to appeal that decision.

“I will not stop this fast. I will be standing on the steps of City Hall until I physically cannot go back to my camp and go back and forth, at which point I will lay down on the steps until I die, if necessary,” Chiaromonte vowed.

He had earlier entered the Council chamber carrying a sign reading "This is a fast in protest to the cruel and inhumane treatment of the poor and homeless!" but removed it as instructed by city staff.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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