Council delays consideration of 24-hour downtown restroom

VANDALISM CONCERNS: Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas said that the proposed restroom facilities are built to be more resistant to vandalism and easier to clean. Screenshot courtesy of the City of Asheville

Asheville City Council postponed a vote on the installation of a prefabricated 24-hour restroom outside the Rankin Avenue parking garage at its Jan. 23 meeting over concerns regarding the project’s cost and maintenance. Council previously voted to allocate $650,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds for the new facility in May 2022.

The project aims to fill the gap left by the city’s last 24/7 restroom at 29 Haywood St., which closed in March 2020 and never reopened. City officials cited increased maintenance costs, drug use and vandalism as causes for its permanent closure.

“One of the biggest things we noticed with the bathroom at 29 Haywood when we tried keeping it open 24/7 was that as soon as it was unstaffed, vandalism and other issues would occur,” said Jade Dundas, capital projects director. “That often led to additional downtime the next day. Depending on the severity of the issue, that might have been several hours to half a day.”

As previously reported by Xpress, the proposed restroom is set to be a Portland Loo, a 7-by-10-foot single-stall structure that would provide enough room for a wheelchair, bike or stroller. Dundas said the facilities are built to be more resistant to vandalism and easier to clean. Additional site lighting and security cameras will also be installed to mitigate issues with vandalism. The bathroom’s blue interior lighting also makes it difficult for intravenous drug users to find a vein for injection.

Council member Kim Roney expressed her support for the project, noting that she has had to help sanitation workers to clean human excrement off the sidewalk on multiple occasions.

“It is very unpleasant, and I don’t even have a place to wash my hands afterwards because the bathrooms are closed,” Roney said. “Because this is such an important public health investment, I intend to support it.”

Additionally, Roney applauded the project’s accessibility.

“This is designed for maintenance and high-traffic use, unlike our port-a-potty in the same location,” said Roney. “I also think that [the ADA compliance] is so important. We are talking about making our sidewalks and our mobility infrastructure ADA compliant, but our port-a-potty isn’t.”

Other members of Council were more apprehensive. Mayor Esther Manheimer expressed concern regarding the project’s cost, particularly with other public bathrooms in the area on Haywood Street and Pack Square.

“People often ask me, ‘How come you have to spend $650,000 on a bathroom?’” she said. “It’s not just the bathroom that we are paying for; you also have to run all of the utility services to the site. It is a lot of money, so I just want to make sure that we fully look at our other current facilities that are within a block of this location and just make sure there isn’t a way to open those so that they are more available.”

Manheimer said the city is in early talks with the Asheville Downtown Association, whose offices neighbor the Haywood Street facilities, to help reopen and maintain those bathrooms. Manheimer also suggested partnering with shelter operators to provide bathrooms on nights and weekends.

“We are looking at other things that we still need to fund, so I would really like to see where the discussions [with the Asheville Downtown Association] land before we commit to this project,” said Manheimer.

Council member Sandra Kilgore echoed Manhiemer’s concerns, also mentioning potential issues with the facility’s maintenance.

“I am really concerned about this facility’s maintenance and cleanliness, and I am curious if it will really address the needs that we have downtown,” Kilgore said. “I think that by exploring the restrooms that we have now, including their service and hours, we could make them more accommodating. … But just to have a bathroom there that we still are not maintaining 24 hours, is that really doing what we want it to do?”

Dundas noted the possibility for the bathrooms at Pack Square and Haywood Street to be reopened with 24/7 availability but said that the city “would have to consider full-time attendance.”

With questions remaining around the project’s feasibility and the potential for more affordable options down the road, Council opted to postpone a vote on the issue until February to give city staff time to reassess the project and provide alternatives.

In other news

City Council also heard a presentation from Elyse Marder, spokeperson for the Realignment Working Group, which was created by the city and tasked with assessing the city’s engagement with advisory boards and commissions. Marder summarized the input that the group received from the Board and Commission Experience Survey, which was distributed to all current and past board members (up to 10 years) in November 2022.

According to the presentation, board members felt strongly supported by city staff but noted high staff turnover as a hindrance. Additionally, Marder noted that board members were most dissatisfied with interactions with City Council, citing issues with communication.

“The overarching theme from the comments is a feeling of powerlessness,” Marder said. “One member wrote, ‘Serving on the board was a complete waste of time. Great people. Completely powerless to make recommendations or changes.’”

The Realignment Working Group made no formal recommendations, but Marder noted that recommendations would be presented in the coming months.


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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15 thoughts on “Council delays consideration of 24-hour downtown restroom

  1. Mike Rains

    After a recent succession of obvious mismangement/lack of funding fiascos:
    – Thomas Wolfe Auditorium shut down/venues cancelled due to broken HVAC systems,
    – Asheville parking decks need $13M in immediate maintenance/repair,
    – Asheville bus sytem out over $5M for inoperable electric buses,
    – Asheville city buildings/staff space in need of millions dollars for repair/upgrade,
    – APD remains grossly undertaffed due to inadquate pay structure to attract and RETAIN qualifed police officers,

    it should be painfully obvious that Asheville is way over-extended in what it tries to accomplish versus what it has resources (money and staff) to do. So it is more than smart to scrub this bathroom project as it wouldn’t be managed properly any way.

    The primary root cause of this is Asheville’s constrained geographic tax base compared to virtually all other medium -to-large cities across the state. In otherwords, Asheville doesn’t have a big enough geographic area to spread out and provide the tax revenue to support the needs that all cities have (higher homelessness, higher crime, public venues, effective bus system, decent street maintenance, maintenance of tourist districts, etc.).

    Instead, in relation to Asheville, Buncombe County has a much higher geographic property tax base than Asheville AND…. this disparity/inequity is only going to get worse as development potential within the city limits is……limited; whereas, the vast majority of development growth will occur in the county.

    There is only one good solution to this mess (which was created by Asheville’s unique water system history and the state imposed Sullivan Acts) and that is a CONSOLIDATED City/County government. One government, one election, one set of administrators, one law enforcement agency, etc. etc. The cost savings would be huge and the spending priorities would quickl ,yalign with the appropriate needs.

    True leaders in this region must see this as the optimal arrangement and particularly in light of Asheville’s unique and ongoing tax base limitation. Willl there be any action or will local leaders continue in their “silos” of power and kick the can down the road another decade?

    • indy499

      Zero chance that will happen. Unincorporated county residents are subsidized by city residents because we all pay the same county taxes and those $ are not spread evenly, eg, the county pays for the policing of unincorpoated residents but not Asheville’s.

      Bureaucrats and politicians are never going to propse that their jobs be eliminated.

      • Mike Rains

        I”m fully aware of the inequity involving Asheville taxpayers who pay county taxes to support Sheriiff functions in the county only.

        Last October I sent county and city leaders a detailed study that showed that Bucombe County rightly owes Asheville over $6M/year for county taxes Asheville pays but receives no benefit (Sheriff policing out in the county). I only received a muted response from BC Chairman Newman to the effect he ddin’t think the Commission would support this request. But I am not done with my efforts.

        It is clear though that the county and Sheriff’s office have been putting on a marketing blitz to make Asheville citizens think they’re getting lots of law enforcement support from the Sheriff’s office. We are not. The downtown patrolling on weekend nights is mere window dressing.

        Asheville needs this $6M / year back from the county to adequately fund APD to signifcantly reduce all this crime in the city as well as routinely enforce traffic safety violations which alone would likely save a dozen or so lives a year based on the pedestrian and bike fatalities we seem to have routinely.

        How about sending a strong message to your county commissioners and city council members promoting this clawback from the county? You can tell them I sent you.

        • Think a little

          It just seems odd that this commenter rolls through a number of “letters” making the same disingenuous rant regarding city versus county coffers. Apparently, the joyous individual would prefer to ignore that it was their personal decision to reside where the tax levies were the highest and ignore that the city continues to overspend both its budget and likely its remit on oddly fantastical platforms without fully addressing basic infrastructures. This constant backroom push to annex all outside entities and revenues into a poorly run albatross just doesn’t make a lot of sense. You chose this path and burden, but why is it suddenly your mantra to take what isn’t yours to supplement your poor decisions? Ask the city to actually budget and execute within its means and reasonable expectations. Asheville isn’t some grand large metropolis. It is a small town where overt expenditures and dreams of grandeur far exceed actual realities.

          • Mike Rains

            I won’t deny that past and current Asheville governments have spent tax monies on things I would not consider a priority; especially since the city’s tax base is so much lower than other comparable cities.

            That said, I also realize that because Asheville has been hamstrung with lack of annexation, Buncombe County could do a lot more to equalize this tax base lopsidedness caused by water woes/Sullivan Act dating back to the Great Depression.

            Basically, my gripe is that BC residents greatly benefit from many of things Asheville offers for which Asheville taxpayers are footing the bill. County residents are NOT.

            Even with the water system, county water customers are getting a sweet deal (when they have water!) in that the most expensive parts of the water system to operate and maintain are in the county areas (mountains, pumps, tanks, low customer density, etc.). But they only pay the same amount as Asheville customers.

            So what about eliminating: Nature Museum, Municipal Gollf Course, Civic Center, Wolff Auditorium, Aston Park Tennis Court, Memorial Staidum and the Tourists? What about eliminating all the fine restaurants and breweries in downtown Asheville that county residents enjoy?

            Buncombe County would be nothing much without Asheville. Think about that.

          • luther blissett

            “why is it suddenly your mantra to take what isn’t yours”

            Just a staggering lack of self-awareness.

        • indy499

          I agree with your position, but you should be fully aware there is zro chance of consolidation. A check for services not provided would be great though.

          This issue has been raised with the mayor and finance head and I genuinely think they don’t understand this obvious inequity. Or else Brownie has pictures of them they don’t want out.

          • Mike Rains

            Regarding ….”This issue has been rasied with the mayor and finance head…”.
            I’d be interested in any specifics you might have of when and by whom? Thanks.

    • James

      Mike, in this I agree with you 100% – consolidation of government is what we need. Too much duplication of effort for the tax base we have. And a city that seems incapable of delivering on the basics.

    • Lou

      So many ugly dirty areas around this town that could use a smart looking public shower and restroom, maybe a couple of washers and dryers and a water cooler. A basket full of snacks, fresh towels, etc. Everyone enjoys clean clothes and a clean body and full stomach. Why can’t we just be decent humans? Caring, kind humans?

      • JT4784

        Put your money where your mouth is. You pay for the water, electricity , daily cleaning, and replacement of it all as it gets destroyed by vagrants. I’d love to see people like you actually implement your unicorn fantasies.

  2. HendoHendo

    Whether you agree with the bathroom or not, the incompetence is staggering. The funds were approved for it in March 2022, and now, almost TWO YEARS later, they’re delaying a vote because they need more time to explore other options? LOL This is why nothing ever gets done. This is why the survey also referenced here says that serving on advisory boards is a waste of time. The rest of us would be fired from our jobs if we worked this way.

  3. JT4784

    I’m a moderate Dem and even I’m embarrassed by Asheville. This would all be laughable if the city wasn’t wasting millions of working people’s dollars. You can’t be successful loving the homeless while slapping down the productive souls who pay for your indulgences.

  4. Hiram

    Anyone have any idea how much the city spends yearly on consultants? Maybe a yearly amount going back 5 years, 10 years?

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