By Virginia Daffron and Carolyn Morrisroe
As members of Asheville City Council on Jan. 23 expressed exasperation at the abrupt manner in which the N.C. Department of Transportation recently unveiled plans for widening a portion of Merrimon Avenue to five lanes, about 40 North Asheville residents gathered to learn more about the project — with the goal of opposing the DOT’s proposed design.
Held at the North Asheville Community Center and promoted via social media, the neighborhood meeting was organized by Open Streets Asheville, a local group that promotes physical activity, wellness and resilient community. The organization will hold another meeting on the same topic on Saturday, Jan. 27, 4-6 p.m., at the community center at 37 E. Larchmont Road.
Clark Mackey, an Asheville web designer who presented an overview of the DOT proposal, explained his transformation from occasional bicycle commuter to transportation activist. The turning point came when 10-year-old Alexander Bautista-Gomez and 5-year-old Milena Alejandro-Bautista were killed crossing Fairview Road on foot with their babysitter on Dec. 1, 2016.
“This changed me,” Mackey told the gathering. “My feelings are very specific: I cannot be idle while kids are killed crossing the street. I am directly responsible, because it is my tax dollars and my political will that creates these roads.” The children’s deaths, he continued, are relevant to the changes proposed for Merrimon Avenue, since the DOT’s proposed design would create a widened, five-lane roadway very similar to the one on which the fatal accident occurred.
Lucky number 13
Mackey gave a presentation summarizing NCDOT Division 13’s plans for the busy commercial street, which were first rolled out at a public meeting at the North Asheville Community Center on Jan. 8. On Jan. 3, Division 13 staff announced the Jan. 8 meeting in a release. According to some attendees at the Jan. 23 neighborhood meeting, the DOT had sent notification of the project to property owners close to the project site by mail before that.
At the Jan. 8 meeting, Division 13 staff, who are based in Asheville, detailed plans to widen Merrimon Avenue at its intersection with W.T. Weaver Boulevard to an area close to Fenner Avenue on the project’s northern end. Along with a new center left-turn lane, the $2.8 million project would also widen the existing lanes, add a 2-foot bicycle lane and a 2-foot gutter on either side of the roadway, and add 6-foot sidewalks on either side of the street, according to project documents (also see project overview here). At its widest, said Mackey, the transportation corridor (including the roadway, bike lanes, gutter and sidewalks) would be 75 feet wide, 36 percent wider than its current footprint.
In the area of the intersection of Merrimon Avenue and W.T. Weaver Boulevard, Mackey said, the road’s curve would be slightly straightened, and the connection of Clearview Terrace to Merrimon would be replaced with a retaining wall. Turnings into individual business locations along Merrimon are shown as rounded on project plans, increasing the speed at which vehicles can make those turns, Mackey explained. The speed limit on Merrimon Avenue is 35 miles per hour, but the upgrades were based on a 40-mile-per-hour design speed.
While the project will require excavating and completely replacing the roadbed where Reed Creek flows under Merrimon Avenue, the project plans call for routing greenway traffic up to the street level to cross Merrimon Avenue before continuing along W.T. Weaver Boulevard, according to Mackey. Project drawings support that conclusion; no under-street passageway is shown.
The DOT’s plans for the project, Mackey said, violate many of the department’s own policies and fail to take into account city and neighborhood plans that call for implementing “Complete Streets” planning principles whenever new road projects are designed and built. Those principles, he said, include specific design approaches to providing safe bicycle lanes, pedestrian sidewalks and crossings, bus stops and other amenities. Rather than maximizing vehicle speeds, Mackey explained, Complete Streets principles emphasize allowing all road users to get where they need to go safely.
Bruce Emory, a member of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission who lives in North Asheville and attended the Jan. 23 neighborhood meeting as well as the DOT’s Jan. 8 meeting, said the earlier meeting drew around 200 residents. Emory said public sentiment at the meeting appeared fairly evenly divided between those who supported the DOT’s plans as a means of easing congestion and those who maintain the changes would decrease safety for pedestrians and bicycle riders.
Minding their business
Tami and Bill Helfrich, owners of the YoLo Asheville frozen yogurt shop at 505 Merrimon Ave., attended the neighborhood meeting and expressed their anxiety about the possible impact of the changes on their business.
“We’re very upset about this — you can quote me on that,” said Bill Helfrich. The couple say they feel blindsided by the DOT’s proposal, which they first got wind of from a small sign advertising the Jan. 8 DOT meeting. Not realizing that the meeting so directly impacted their business, they didn’t attend. After reading about the meeting in the Asheville Citizen-Times, however, they became increasingly concerned.
“It’s crucial for us. Our sign is right where the new lane is going to be,” said Bill Helfrich.
“Also our bike rack, and we have lots of bikers that come to our business,” added Tami Helfrich. “We’re really concerned about all the walkers and bikers. They’re our customers. We love that families ride out of their neighborhoods to YoLo.”
Attendees at the Jan. 23 meeting seemed unified in opposing the DOT’s plans for Merrimon Avenue. Neighbors worried that the DOT’s plans would change Merrimon Avenue from what Mackey called a “neighborhood collector street” into a major transportation artery. They pointed out that Broadway Avenue was widened a number of years ago to provide a quick connection between Interstate 240 and downtown and said the character of Broadway shouldn’t be duplicated on Merrimon.
Amy Kemp of the nonprofit Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods commented that the DOT’s project promotes the interests of private vehicles at the expense of those traveling by public transportation, on foot or by bicycle. “Literally, it discriminates against people that cannot afford cars, that are elderly and have to walk,” she said.
Norwood Park resident Christopher Pratt spoke at the Jan. 23 meeting and on Jan. 24 summarized some of his concerns in an email to Asheville City Council. The DOT’s plans, Pratt wrote, present “many disruptions and complications for the adjacent neighborhoods. The projects do not meet the Complete Street criteria, including that it does not sufficiently address the needs of neighbors and others seeking to get from their homes to the Merrimon businesses and return home easily and safely. This includes pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers, and it essentially discriminates against neighbors without cars, children, the elderly and disabled. Consider how difficult it is now for able adults to cross Merrimon. It also does not address the existing greenway at the intersection with W.T. Weaver Boulevard.”
Residents also spoke out against what they saw as a lack of public notice and a short timeframe for providing input into the DOT’s plans. Written comments are due by Jan. 29. Comments referencing TIP U-5781 and U-5782 should be directed to NCDOT consultant Kim Bereis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Mackey, the DOT made it clear at its Jan. 8 meeting that it did not envision further opportunities for public input, meetings or discussion after Jan. 29. In a later conversation, NCDOT Division 13 spokesperson David Uchiyama disputed that such a message had been conveyed at the Jan. 8 meeting.
The nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization Asheville on Bikes has taken a position opposing the project. More information is available on the organization’s website.
From City Hall
Meanwhile, as residents conferred, Asheville City Council took up the Merrimon Avenue plans as “new business” at its regular meeting on Jan. 23. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler expressed displeasure that NCDOT unveiled a plan for Merrimon Avenue that did not line up with the city’s transportation vision. “About a week ago, NCDOT held a public forum to explain what their plans were,” she said. “I attended that with several members of City Council, and there was a large gathering of the public who came out and I — and I suspect the majority of Council — was really disappointed in the fact that there was a very detailed plan put together with no input from city staff, no marrying up with the city’s Complete Streets Plan, with the [Asheville in Motion] Plan, Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, the Comp Plan, pretty much any plan.”
Wisler asked city staff to work closely with DOT to open the Merrimon Avenue planning process back up to include more feedback from Asheville residents. “It’s not a good plan, but even more importantly, to really ask DOT to change their policies and procedures so that nothing happens in Asheville like this where DOT imposes a plan without any input from our citizens or our city staff,” she said.
Council member Julie Mayfield pointed to 19 other DOT urban road projects in process in Asheville that she said shouldn’t be worked on without city staff and transportation advocates at the table. “These are our streets —I realize DOT may technically manage them — but they are our streets, they are the fabric of our city, and we are the ones who live with them every day,” she said. “We have to get that working relationship right for these 19 projects and all the ones that come after them, starting with the Merrimon Avenue project.” Mayor Esther Manheimer, who said she has lived near the Merrimon project area for a long time, said even she was not aware of DOT’s plans. “I knew in theory that this project was on the list; I didn’t realize it had risen to the top of the list,” she said. “And I certainly wasn’t aware, like everybody else, that anyone was drafting a plan for it.”
Manheimer suggested that the process would go more smoothly if DOT involved city officials and residents prior to developing plans. “It’s obviously going to be more effective and work better for DOT to engage the community on the front end and work with the community coming up with a draft plan instead of doing it this way, which seems to involve a lot of work and then a complete reset,” she said.
Many residents have e-mailed the city to share their feelings about the Merrimon Avenue project, Manheimer said, and she welcomes those comments but suggested people should also copy the DOT on those emails.
Ken Putnam, Transportation Department director, told Council that while the DOT’s deadline for comments is Jan. 29, he has already confirmed with the DOT that if City Council passes a resolution at its next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, DOT will accept it.
A Jan. 24 news release includes a statement from DOT engineer Cole Hood about the public comments due by Jan. 29: “Comments and decisions will have a significant influence on how this proposed project moves forward. We have worked with a lot of partners for a lot of years on the development of this project and we look forward to seeing where it goes next.”
Xpress’ news department did not receive this release immediately upon its distribution, nor did our news department receive the announcement of the Jan. 8 meeting. Based on information shared by Uchiyama, it appears the press releases were sent to an email address more frequently used for technical issues rather than news. Xpress acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining up-to-date email lists.
According to the Jan. 24 NCDOT press release, “Once comments are evaluated, changes in the project proposal will again be presented to the public for input. Meanwhile, state environmental documents are being completed this spring. Right-of-way acquisition could begin late this year, and construction could start in late 2019.”
Uchiyama declined to answer specific questions about the project plans. Hood had not returned a call seeking a comment by 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 24. According to Uchiyama, Hood was out of the office in the afternoon.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 24 at 2:29 p.m. and again at 4:30 p.m. to reflect additional information received from the NCDOT spokesman.