- Free speech at the Transit Center
- $60 million in water improvements needed to keep pace with growth
Parking on downtown Asheville’s south side could become much easier in the near future. While the Buncombe County commissioners were considering funding a large parking deck on Coxe Avenue at their Sept. 16 meeting (see county commissioners’ report elsewhere in this issue), City Council gave an informal OK to a proposed mixed-use development on Biltmore Avenue that would create 437 additional spaces. The proposed project would be adjacent to The Ellington, a controversial, 23-story hotel/condo development approved by Council last year. The city would buy a portion of the property and build the parking deck, investing an estimated $15.3 million.
Council members hope to sign off on the deal—a partnership with Public Interest Projects and the Georgia-based McKibbon Hotel Group—at its Oct. 14 formal meeting. Although no vote was taken on the project known as 51 Biltmore, Council members seemed impressed with the plans and were intent on getting the terms set in time for a final vote next month.
The development has already been unanimously approved by the Downtown Commission and the city’s Technical Review Committee. Next stop is a formal review by the Planning and Zoning Commission, slated for Oct. 1.
The mixed-use project would include the 145-room Aloft Hotel, 4,800 square feet of retail space along Biltmore Avenue, and a city-owned parking garage with public restrooms. It would also involve a strip of land along South Lexington Avenue that’s targeted for future construction of affordable-housing units.
The initial concept called for nine levels above grade on the Biltmore Avenue site—a parking lot owned by Public Interest Projects—and four more underground. But the Downtown Commission was concerned about the building’s height and about having a parking deck fronting on Biltmore Avenue rather than retail space. To gain approval, the design team moved the lobby to the second floor, created a balcony to accommodate it, and expanded the building’s footprint to the adjacent Hot Dog King property (which PIP has under contract).
The current plan calls for a seven-level parking garage that would be accessible from Biltmore Avenue and Aston Street (one-way) and South Lexington Avenue (two-way), Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball explained.
The retail spaces and hotel would face Biltmore Avenue. Public restrooms would have direct access from Aston Street, and a space for public art would be created to soften the façade on that side and create pedestrian interest, noted Ball.
Although Council members seemed enamored of the project, Ball warned that final approval would require an intensive effort: Besides approving conditional-use zoning, the city would have to finalize a downtown-development agreement, a parking agreement, a land-purchase agreement and a construction-management agreement, among other hurdles.
“This is a tremendously complicated project,” cautioned Pat Whalen, president of Public Interest Projects. A McKibbon representative, however, said, “We would think this would be outstanding.” Whalen, who chairs the Downtown Commission, was also a key player in designing The Ellington and getting it approved.
Council member Carl Mumpower voiced some concern about tackling such a project during tough economic times. “Parking as a utility makes sense,” he observed. “But we have a responsibility to protect taxpayers.” The city would buy the land from Public Interest Projects for about $3.1 million and spend another $12.2 million building the deck, according to the staff report. The deck is projected to run a roughly $650,000 annual deficit at first, which would be covered by other city parking revenues. Once the debt is paid off, the facility is projected to turn a profit.
“We try to be conservative,” said Whalen, noting that the surface lot on Biltmore where the project would be built is the most-used lot in town. “I have not seen a downside to this garage,” he added. “It seems like a slam dunk.” Whalen also argued that the economic downturn could actually be a good thing when it comes time to solicit construction bids from companies hungry for work, not to mention the current favorable interest-rate environment.
If approved Oct. 14, the project could get under way next spring, said Whalen.
Don’t tread on me
Council unanimously asked City Manager Gary Jackson to work out a policy to protect free-speech activities at the Transit Center on Coxe Avenue downtown.
Currently, people attempting to pass out literature, make speeches or register voters are routinely asked to leave or move to the adjacent sidewalk. Transit Center management is allowed to do that, City Attorney Bob Oast explained, for operational and safety reasons, because the center is a “use-specific facility.”
Local activist Gilean Kearns was recently booted from the site while attempting to register voters, and he subsequently complained to City Council. After some discussion, Council members said they saw no reason why nondisruptive free-speech activities couldn’t be conducted on-site, despite concerns about traffic flow, pedestrian and passenger safety, litter and other issues raised by the center’s management.
City Council instructed Jackson to come up with a policy and report back in a week.
“Of course we should allow First Amendment activities on city property,” said Council member Robin Cape. “I personally cannot support us keeping people from engaging in a civil manner.”
Mumpower asked whether there have been any problems with such activities in the past, and Oast said no. Council member Brownie Newman said that as long as the activities were reasonable, nondisruptive and not offensive to what amounts to a captive audience waiting for buses, then the city shouldn’t stifle free speech.
Asheville’s growing thirst
A continuation of the area’s current population boom over the next 30 years would mean the city would have to spend millions to improve and expand water service—and would probably have to tap the French Broad River as a supplemental water source, said interim Water Resources Director Robert Griffin.
Last updated in 1995, the city’s Water Master Plan projects future growth and the system updates needed to accommodate it, Griffin explained.
In June 2007, the Water Resources Department partnered with the Atlanta-based Jordan, Jones & Goulding to update the plan. At that time, Buncombe County’s estimated population was 243,565, the consultants said. And though some Council members questioned the growth model, which was performed by a JJG subcontractor using census data and trends, the projections show that number growing to 285,088 by 2017 and a whopping 368,135 by 2037. The bulk of the growth is expected to be in southern Buncombe County.
In light of those projections, the system’s water-treatment capacity would need to be increased around the year 2025. Between now and 2037, the consultant projects 14 pipeline installations, one pump-station replacement, one new pump station and additional water-treatment capacity, for a total estimated cost of nearly $60.5 million in 2008 dollars—not including the annual cost of replacing aging pipes or maintaining any line extensions the city might accept from developers.
Although Council members discussed the possibility of imposing impact fees on developers in the future to help defray costs, a JJG representative said, “The dollars are pretty big … but the amount of improvements you need is not overwhelming.”
City Council voiced support for an initiative by Council members Jan Davis and Bill Russell to create a teen driver-safety program to be conducted by the Asheville Police Department. Licensing and implementing the program, which was designed by the nonprofit National Traffic Safety Academy, would cost $8,500. Participants would pay a $105 fee to offset the program’s operating costs.
Before committing funding for the program, however, Council asked Russell, an insurance agent by trade, to see what money might be available from insurance-industry sources. Otherwise, all Council members said they thought the program would be a boon to safety at a negligible cost to the city.
The intensive defensive-driving program, said Russell, has drastically reduced serious accidents and deaths in other areas.
“It’s like drivers’ ed on Red Bull,” he said. “It’s awesome. It’s phenomenal.” About 60 percent of teens ages 16 to 18 are involved in some sort of auto accident, noted Russell, compared with less than 15 percent of program graduates.