Asheville City Council candidate interview: Lael Gray

Mountain Xpress: A major issue in the city is affordable housing, what steps are you going to take to make housing more affordable?

Lael Gray: I’m actually really mostly impressed with the affordable housing plan that’s in existence, I’d like to see us continue our efforts there. I think that some steps could be taken to make the process more palatable to neighborhoods, including better communication between neighborhoods and planners at the onset of these different developments. I’d like to see us also do a little bit of education and advocating around what affordable housing actually is and what it looks like and means to the community.

I think that right now there’s an unnecessarily adversarial tone going on between neighborhoods and affordable housing advocates, and I really think that most people I talk to in neighborhoods are not at all against affordable housing, they’re not at all against density, but I think there needs to be some trust built up. So I’d like to see City Council work in that role of helping to educate and helping to advocate and also facilitate conversations between neighborhoods and affordable housing.

Let’s take one recent example that was controversial: the Larchmont. How do you think that could have been handled better and would you have voted for the final project as it came to Council?

Most likely I would have, I haven’t looked at it all that closely to see what the specific plan looks like. My general sense when I first heard about it was that Mountain Housing Opportunities does a really great job and my sense about Mountain Housing Opportunities is that I trust them to do a good project.

At the same time, the people who live in that neighborhood may not have that experience, so I think this is an area, from what I understand, the neighborhood had some valid concerns. I feel if neighborhoods think their valid concerns are being addressed through the course of a project, you’re going to come out with a better project.

The city’s faced a number of up-and-down, mostly down, budget years lately. If there’s a budget shortfall that you’re looking at, are you going to rely more on revenue or cuts to make it up and, if so, what specific revenue or cuts?

I would prefer to focus on revenue. Sometimes you have to make cuts, and I think that’s an option you want to look at to see if there are areas where you could. But my general sense is that we need to be creative about ways to increase revenue if we possibly can.

I realize that’s a source of major frustration for City Council members right now, is that there aren’t that many venues for raising revenue. That would be my preference, but the options are limited, like a bond referendum. I would personally love to revisit the hotel sales [occupancy] tax.

Getting the state approval for that?


A major platform goal of yours is better, safer, more efficient transit. But of course there have been less subsidies for that in recent years. What transit improvements do you think are top priority and how would you pay for them?

I think we need a transit system that people want to use, that people find efficient to get to work or to shopping. For example, my parents retired, they live a block of Merrimon Avenue and their choice to live there was because at some point they’re not going to want to drive as much and one day they decided to take the bus to Tunnel Road.

It literally took them all day to get to Tunnel Road and back from Merrimon Avenue. It was quite an adventure with transit and confusion. To me that just points to the fact that it’s not a user-friendly system and I think what we’re doing is marginalizing people who are forced to use it because they don’t have a car. I would like use to be much more aggressive in restructuing our transit system so that it’s not just what we can scrape by with for the people who need it.

As for how to pay for it, if there were easy answers to this, we’d be paying for it. I think that there are ways we need to be creative. If we make it a priority — and I think it needs to be a priority for a number of reasons — it needs to fit in the overall picture when we’re talking about greenways, bike lanes, and sidewalks, we absolutely have to be talking about public transit as a priority for our community. I’d hope we could reach out to the Regional MPO, to the Department of Transportation and find ways we can look at our transportation system in a holistic way instead of just leaving it on the shoulders of the city. Into and out of and around the city, the entire transportation system needs to be looked at.

On that note, one of the proposals for funding some of the more brick-and-mortar infrastructure needs has been a bond referendum. Are you in favor of looking at that?


You mentioned the department of transportation. Relations with Raleigh, especially the General Assembly, have been somewhat strained. What approach will you take to those relations if you’re elected?

I think it’s vitally important for us to build those relationships up, that is one of my goals as well. I really see City Council as not only in the business of directing what happens in the city staff and making policy, but also as public relations for the city. We have to be reaching out to a variety of folks, we need to be reaching out to people in Raleigh, legislators, we need to be reaching out to the business community. I just see us as being facilitators of relationships on many, many levels, both inside and outside of the city.

One issue of controversy about development, specifically downtown development, has been the changes passed as part of the downtown master plan, shifting more decisions to the Planning and Zoning commission and away from Council. Would you vote to reverse those changes?

First I need to undrstand specifically what they are. I’ve looked at the ordinance that passed and it’s really complicated. I look at the downtown master plan, which is not really complicated and go “wow, this is terrific.” I look at the ordinance that passed and I have some questions. I really want to be completely clear on what those rules mean and what parts of those are good and what parts need to be changed.

On the development thresholds?


Speaking of downtown development, would you have voted for 51 Biltmore?

That’s a really good question. I think some of the issues around 51 Biltmore involve the city’s involvement in paying for it and the whole parking issue. One of the things I’m advocating for is ways to reduce our use of the automobile, and ways for us to reduce our dependency on cars. So many development issues, for me, seem to boil down to cars. This development here, a lot of the controversy is around the parking deck. The Larchmont, a lot of controversy is around how much traffic it’s adding to that road going onto Merrimon.

Same thing with Caledonia [Apartments], if you’ve been up there and looked at that road, it’s a teeny, tiny little road and so much of the concern there is how many cars we’re adding to the area.

So when I look at all these development questions and cotnroversies, a lot of it boils down to transportation. I know it seems like a stretch, but in all honesty I feel like if we start addressing our transportation issues in this city and we start setting up a priority to minimize our need for cars and start providing other ways for people to get around, I feel like some of these controversies are going to be irrelevant.

One other issue that’s emerged with the city is the accountability of staff, especially with the APD, with Chief Hogan resigning, there’s an interim chief, the evidenc room is sealed off. There was the whole mess with the sexual harassment suit and the officer involved in that still being employed. Do you think greater accountability’s needed from the APD? If so, what steps should be put in place?

I think it’s very important for their to be accountability on the part of the police department. We have to work together as a community and we have to be able to trust each other. If the police department is seen as having some level of corruption and not taking action to resolve those issues, then we all lose out as a community. Definitely “yes” on accountability.

As far as what steps could be taken, it really has to start at the top. It’s a management issue, so whoever is put in charge needs to really be held accountable for what’s happening in the police department, and there needs to be more transparency.

What approach are you taking in your campaign and how do you think it’s going so far?

I think it’s going amazingly well. I got into this a little late. I spent a lot of time vetting the job. I wanted to be sure that the job of being a City Council person was the right fit for me. So I spent a lot of time thinking about it, asking questions about it, talking about it. I ultimately decided that, yeah, this is really something I’d be good at, something I’d want to do.

I feel like I started out with a bit of a disadvantage in terms of time. That being said, I’ve been working incredibly hard to get out and meet people, talk to people, talk about things I’m passionate about, the issues I’ve already been working on in the community. What’s been interesting for me is that I know so many people in the community. I’ve done so many different types of things in the community, so many different types of community service. I’ve had several careers here, being a business owner and also working for the Jewish Community Center.

I’ve found people know me from the one place I’ve worked with them, so it’s interesting to talk about all the things I’ve been working on, to help people understand how much involvement I’ve had in the community.

Are there any other issues you’d like to speak on?

The issues I’m personally passionate about are the environment. I think that needs to be the number one priority of all of humanity. I feel like every decision we make, that should be the underlying priority for us: what are we doing to get ourselves off fossil fuels? How are we going to, locally, set an example, for how we can make a change in the infrastructure of the city in order to, as closely as possible, eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels.

So that’s a huge priority for me, it then gets into the whole question of transporation, it gets into the question of energy efficiency. There’s so many opportunities there to create jobs while we’re building infrastructure. Everbody’s talking about this green economy, wanting to bring that here. Absolutely, I totally agree with that,I think there’s a lot of opportunity in that regard.

The other thing I’m working on, and deeply passionate about, is education. Particularly, I’ve been working on early childhood education.

One of my other passions is working on race relations in the community. In my work with Building Bridges, one thing I’ve been very concerned about, and talking with our board of directors about is what’s going on in our public schools, with the achievement gap and how minority students are performing in the schools and how our schools are best going to serve minority populations. There’s been a lot of brainstorming going on and it’s good to see Asheville City Schools addressing that. But from my perspective, there’s more that we can do to address the needs of families before they actually get into the school system. I think that there needs to be some kind of support measures put in place for families with young children from birth through kindergarten.

I really like the model the city has established to end homelessnes and I think that’s something the city might really look at to form these kind of public-private partnerships, to provide supports for working families. That’s something that I’d like to look at.

Speaking of relations in Raleigh, that actually brings up the plans floated around to dissolve the Asheville City School system and merge it with Buncombe County. Would you oppose that if it came up in Raleigh during your tenure?

Yeah, I would. I think Asheville City School system is a very good school system. I personally feel smaller is better when it comes to managing that kind of system. I think we’re serving a different population in Asheville than in Buncombe County. That’s not to say I think Buncombe County is not doing well, I just think there’s different needs and a different focus. I have a child at Asheville High, I would absolutely support continuing to have the Asheville City School system.


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