For over a year, North Asheville drivers and bicyclists have honked their horns and rung their bells on both sides of Asheville’s great pavement debate, the Merrimon Avenue road diet.
Meanwhile, inside several specialty shops along the mile-and-a-half stretch from UNC Asheville to Beaver Lake, hawkers of shoes, homebrew equipment, crystals and haircuts continue to sell their wares and services, building community amid the slower traffic, and their opinions — like their specialties — vary widely.
Before the 2022 redesign, the northern stretch of Merrimon Avenue resembled the current southern stretch — between W.T. Weaver Boulevard and Interstate 240 — with two lanes of traffic in each direction, separated only by two yellow painted lines. Then, fueled in part by the City of Asheville’s comprehensive plan goal of making city streets “more walkable, comfortable and connected,” the N.C. Department of Transportation converted the more northern stretch to a “4-3 concept,” with a center turn lane and one lane of traffic and a bike lane in each direction.
Drivers and some business owners have complained extensively on social media and at City Council meetings about the change over the last year, saying traffic has slowed and more people are avoiding the thoroughfare, dissuading potential customers. Some business owners even started a petition drive to revert the road to its former alignment.
The City of Asheville and NCDOT agree that the project was complete as of July, including finalizing the timing of traffic lights along Merrimon, says city spokesperson Kim Miller.
“The traffic signals are in their normalized patterns — which lanes and directions have green, yellow, red and the approximate timing of each cycle — and have been for some time,” says David Uchiyama, spokesperson for NCDOT. “During the winter, we will focus on signal timing optimization for the Merrimon corridor, so drivers may notice some small incremental improvements throughout the optimization process.”
The city and NCDOT are working to set up an initial meeting to review crash data in the coming weeks, Uchiyama adds.
On a late November afternoon bike tour of the road, an Xpress reporter took a wobbly Schwinn Sidewinder bike north to hear opinions from all over the road — from frustration to indifference to disappointment — in stores of varying specialties.
Runnin’ down a dream
Jus’ Running has been selling running shoes, gear and sports nutrition products in North Asheville since 1998. But more than just preparing people for runs, the shopkeepers run with them, says store manager Savanna Waites.
Since he bought Jus’ Running in 2002, owner Norman Blair has hosted free track workouts every Tuesday at the store and is a major supporter of the local running community at large, Waites says.
Additionally, Jus’ Running hosts a Wednesday pub run in West Asheville and three races a year, including the popular downtown Turkey Trot 5K on Thanksgiving Day. On the day Xpress visited the store, the phone rang incessantly, with customers from all over the region asking questions about the upcoming holiday run.
The store even has its own running team, which anyone can join. Members must wear a store-branded shirt in a couple of races a year and volunteer for a certain number of races or greenway cleanups yearly, and they get free shoes from the store, Waites says.
“It’s a great way to create community, represent the store, bring people together and give back to races and the greenways we love running on,” she says of the running team incentive program.
That community helped keep Jus’ Running’s business up while road construction created a bit of chaos for a period late last year, Waites says.
After construction was completed, she says, business went back to normal, and the store rarely gets complaints from customers about the road creating difficulty getting there. Because of Jus’ Running’s position close to two traffic lights in quick succession to the south, customers wind up taking multiple rights and driving through the neighborhood behind the store during heavily congested parts of the day, she notes.
But overall, Waites says the road diet hasn’t had much of an impact on the store, and she estimates there’s been a slight uptick in bicyclists riding by the store, some stopping in for sports nutrition.
A quarter of a mile up the road, Raven and Crone manager Jess Amarantes is creating a different kind of community, regardless of the atmosphere on the asphalt.
In business for nine years, the Pagan supply store moved from a location closer to downtown to its current spot in the Merrimon Square shopping center near CVS about a year and a half ago.
Amarantes says the neighborhood has been great to them, but their customer base comes from all over, including across state lines, in part because of their unique offerings. Raven and Crone sells crystals, candles, incense, oils, oracle and tarot decks, locally made art, Pagan literature and just about anything a local witch could need.
Above all, though, Amarantes says, the store offers a place of belonging and answers to questions that can be hard to ask.
“Community is a big deal here,” she says. “For me personally, I feel like it’s so hard to openly be in any of these practices in the South at times. We try very hard whether you come in and you know everything or you come in and you know nothing, we treat you exactly the same. We want you to come in and feel comfortable being able to talk to any of us.
Every staff member has a specialty, and no matter what a customer’s question or situation may be, from personal spiritual practice to Pagan history to a question about sensing an unseen deity at home, there is someone at Raven and Crone who can help, she says.
The store hosts events for local artists, book clubs, book readings for children and other gatherings throughout the month. There is a “healer” on-site almost every day, offering services like tarot readings or reiki sessions, Amarantes says.
“It’s a big deal for people to come in and ask if we can help,” she says. “We pride ourselves on being here to help as many people as we can, no matter their background.”
As far as the impact of the road diet on business is concerned, Amarantes shrugs it off as basically irrelevant.
“Sometimes it’s supereasy to get in here, and sometimes you have to sit there for a minute because there’s a ton of traffic. It’s a road.”
Predictably, opinions on the new bike lanes are well-formed less than half a mile further north at Gravelo Workshop, purveyors of high-end bikes and coffee drinks.
Owner Matt Ball has been selling and fixing gravel bikes here for less than two years and says the neighborhood has embraced his niche addition to what he calls Asheville’s “bike corridor.”
Less than two miles separates Youngblood Bicycles near Hillside Street and the Asheville Bicycle Co. just south of Beaver Lake, but Ball says his coffee shop vibe and gravel bike specialty have fit in well wedged between the two longer-term neighbors.
At Gravelo, there will be no pushy sales pitches, and Ball instead invites anyone to come in, grab a coffee and get some work done between talking bikes or catch a bike race on television from the store’s couch.
Ball uses that laid-back atmosphere and a weekly group bike ride to enhance the North Asheville cycling community, which he says was already sizable when the store opened in the neighborhood.
That community, like Ball himself, strongly supports the road diet, he says.
“Most people are happy to see the traffic slow down,” he says. “I think it’s great. I just wish they’d slow down even more.”
Ball suggests the NCDOT install dividers between the bike and car lanes to further distinguish the two because he sees many cars using the bike lanes and larger-than-average shoulder in front of his store as a second car lane during rush hours.
As it currently stands, Ball says, many cyclists still avoid Merrimon Avenue because the traffic patterns are unpredictable and unsafe.
Instead, many use the parallel Kimberly Avenue, but they might use Merrimon for convenience if it was safer than it is now, he says. Even still, he says he sees “significantly more” bicyclists and pedestrians using Merrimon than before the road construction.
“It’s a definite improvement.”
Almost cut my hair
A stone’s throw farther north, at Asheville Barber Co., the opinions veer sharply from the bike shop’s optimism.
Upon the mention of the road diet, Tedd Clevenger, who owns nearby Asheville Brewers Supply and happened to be getting his hair cut during Xpress’ visit, jumped at the opportunity to vent.
“People have to break the law every single day when they pull into my business,” he says, referencing northbound traffic turning left through a stream of cars.
Turning left out of his business can be extremely difficult at times, he adds. Many choose to use back roads instead of Merrimon, further adding to neighborhood traffic.
Clevenger says he had one customer so frustrated by the road change that he pledged to never come back and purchase his homebrew supplies online instead. So far, he’s kept that pledge, Clevenger says.
For Tyler LaCosse, owner of Asheville Barber Co., the change has led to about half his clients being routinely five-10 minutes late to appointments, he says. And no matter the time of day, he hears complaints about the change, he says, while acknowledging that barbers are known for providing unpaid therapy services for those who occupy their chairs.
Everyone complains, but right now, they’re complaining about traffic, he says.
Further, Clevenger, who says he offers shop benefits to bicyclists, argues Kimberly Avenue is a safer alternative for those on two wheels.
Delivery trucks that used to block one lane of traffic now clog bike lanes and part of the only car lane going in a particular direction, causing more issues, Clevenger argues. And LaCosse says trash day can also cause more congestion than previously.
“I’ve not seen a parade of bikes out here. Cars are out here using the bike lane as a turn lane, going 45 [mph],” LaCosse adds. “We’re on borrowed time. It’s less safe. There’s the same amount of cars, using less travel lanes, which puts cyclists in jeopardy.”
LaCosse says he also sees cars driving up to a mile or more in the middle turn lane, adding to the chaos for those attempting a left turn.
“It wasn’t broken; now it’s weird,” he says. “Now people are speeding on Kimberly.”
All that being said, business is so good the barbershop has added a fifth chair to replace the old keg cooler, instead selling canned beer out of a red refrigerator. The conversation — and laughter — in the shop is as robust as ever.
Back out on the road, nearing 5 p.m., car traffic is flowing, albeit slowly. The bike lane is wide open, but the Schwinn only goes so fast.