“I think it’s going to break West Asheville apart,” proclaimed Jimmy Hungerford, president of the West Asheville Estates Neighborhood Association, at Asheville City Council’s Nov. 30 community meeting. Many West Asheville residents now oppose the Interstate 26 connector project, hoping it’s not too late to stop it.
“It’s going to take away affordable housing,” continued Hungerford, “and I believe the connector should go around Asheville, not cut it in half like they did in Winston-Salem. It’s just wrong.”
About 20 residents, including members of the I-26 Awareness Group, echoed Hungerford’s complaints about the Department of Transportation’s plans. The massive $140 million project, which calls for removing 106 West Asheville homes and 60 businesses to make way for construction, is set to begin in 2002.
“Chicago only has eight-lane highways,” noted neighborhood resident Mary Silva. “I cannot believe a city of millions has the same needs as Asheville.”
“We’ve come a long way in our neighborhood,” asserted Rick Miale, president of the Westwood Neighborhood Association. “Why affect our quality of life so we can funnel people from the Midwest to the beach?”
Resident Ralph Holliday spoke out against the connector, and then challenged Council members to say where they stand on the project. Several of them said they oppose it, and have in the past, but have received little support from the community.
“Since I’m leaving off [Council], I’ll tell you what I think,” said Council member Earl Cobb. “That’s the biggest mistake they’ve ever made — to run that thing down the center of West Asheville.” However, he added: “I think it’s a done deal. They [DOT] are determined. The people of West Asheville need to come together. When I would make a racket before, all I would hear is silence.”
Council member Chuck Cloninger said he could see Asheville becoming a national role model for other cities seeking to infuse community input into DOT plans. He mentioned some of the alternatives proposed by traffic engineer Walter Kulash — such as fixing safety hazards on the Smokey Park Bridge, and creating a boulevardlike atmosphere on Patton Avenue — as a great place to start.
“I certainly would favor some of these creative ways,” said Cloninger. “I’d like to see if Mr. Kulash could represent us [City Council] and approach the DOT. There may be tremendous potential for design changes. We are told they are very receptive to changes proposed by the community.”
Cobb later said that anyone who wants to know what the planned project would look like need only consider Interstate 40 to the west: “It’s a funeral procession of 18-wheelers. They [DOT] can put it any way they want, but we don’t need it.”
Mayor Leni Sitnick told the audience that her own DOT wish list includes improving the Smokey Park Bridge and building a separate loop through northwest Buncombe County.
“Why in the world do we need a road the size of the New Jersey Turnpike, or I-85 outside of Atlanta, Ga., I don’t know,” said the mayor. “Why bring those tractor-trailers down through town, polluting our air … scaring our senior-citizen drivers and carrying hazardous wastes?”
Sitnick said such a loop could create an industrial corridor for Asheville, which would spur business investment and provide new job opportunities.
When asked what action, if any, City Council would take to delay the connector project, Mayor Sitnick responded: “I’m willing to write a resolution against it tonight. But it can’t happen without community support. It needs to happen, and you need to make it happen soon.”
Cloninger agreed, saying there needs to be a citywide effort to force the state to slow down and make changes. “With the DOT, there is a certain inertia to what they do, when the ball gets rolling,” he warned.
Fireworks and gunshots
Citing information obtained from the Southern Poverty Law Center, West Asheville resident Sylvia Montgomery asked City Council what precautions are being taken to prevent violence from disrupting Asheville’s First Night celebration.
“I’m very concerned about Y2K and hate groups in this area,” said Montgomery, adding: “I have actually canceled my First Night plans. With fireworks and gunshots — I’m really concerned, and I’m going to be staying in my house. I’d like to know what the city’s plans for the police, the National Guard — whatever — are.”
Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino said that every city’s police department has some counterinsurgency plans, and Asheville is no different. “The city of Asheville has some well-played-out plans for what will be a very large Y2K event, with lots of people coming out to celebrate the New Year,” he responded. Additional officers will be on duty in various areas, he explained, adding that he doesn’t expect big trouble, beyond the problems typically associated with large, festive crowds.
“Are you prepared for a lot of trouble?” Montgomery asked.
“Yes, we are,” Annarino fired back. “We’ve been preparing for a whole year, and we’ve taken a lot of precautions. We’ve got a big intelligence network … and we’re ready, on this side, for a pretty big event.”
A sidewalk lament
Susan Sparboe, representing the Fairfax Avenue Neighborhood Association, got a quick lesson from City Council on the city’s backlog of sidewalk requests.
“We’ve got lots of senior citizens and families with young children walking around our street,” said Sparboe. “It would be great to get a sidewalk, for safety reasons. What are our chances?”
“Doubtful,” replied Public Works Director Mark Combs. “We have $38 million in need for pedestrian thoroughfares and sidewalk connectors, and we get $300,000 a year for maintenance.”
Mayor Sitnick said most of the sidewalks in Asheville were built by the city’s original developers, and that later builders have simply avoided the high costs of putting them in. Noting that the city now requires developers to contribute money to a fund for building new sidewalks, she then asked Sparboe — implying that she won’t see Fairfax sidewalks any time soon — “How old are you?”
Walking the community beat
More than 20 police officers serving West Asheville, and based in their Haywood Road substation, introduced themselves to neighborhood residents. Many of the officers, some with more than 15 years on the force, grew up in West Asheville.
Resident Jimmy Hungerford praised the local officers for their fine police work, but also asked for some additional “speed abatement in West Asheville,” a recurring theme that night. Chief Annarino indicated that some traffic-calming measures are in the works.
Sitnick closed the community meeting by urging those present to “Go beyond tonight: speak to your neighbors, speak to your family, and tell them [the Council] is here to serve you.”