Asheville city staffers, downtown stakeholders and local buskers turned out in force for the city’s monthly Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss a city proposal for a pilot program regulating downtown public space. The meeting, which was preceded by a community forum with downtown stakeholders, came amid tensions over pilot program, which would add regulations to several popular busking areas in the Central Business District.
“Usually we don’t have this kind of turnout for Public Safety meetings,” remarked Councilman Cecil Bothwell, chair of the PSC and one of three council members on the committee, along with Brian Haynes and Julie Mayfield. The forum began with a presentation by Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston, outlining the scope and purpose of the proposed pilot program, which he said was the result of over a year of stakeholder meetings and studies by city staffers.
“So many people love downtown Asheville,” said Featherston, who cautioned that with increased tourism and limited space, the city must be cautious of “overloving” downtown. “We have to consider how best to manage our space,” he noted. “It’s a balancing act.”
Differences of opinion
While stakeholders were in agreement over several aspects of the proposed plan — the creation of three incentive areas where street performers could sell merchandise, efforts to address traffic flow and behavior issues around Pack Square near Rhubarb Restuarant, and temporary closures of Wall Street for street festivals — they debated the increased regulations proposed around other “high impact areas,” specifically in front of the Woolworth Building and at the corner of Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue.
“The Asheville Buskers Collective does not support scheduling at any spot,” said Abby Roach, representing Asheville buskers along with Andrew Fletcher. She cited other cities in the United States that had implemented reservation systems, such as San Fransisco and San Diego. According to Roach, buskers in those cities experienced negative effects as a result of the reservation programs.
Fletcher added that reservation requirements at popular areas downtown would create an unfair environment for performers and would force those who rely on street performance to make a living to move to other cities. “Our success is a shared success,” he noted. ” Buskers respond to the landscape; we’re at those spots because others are there.”
Rhubarb owner John Fleer characterized the congestion issues at high impact areas — identified by Fetherston as the main need for increased regulation — as a crowd control issue rather than a busker issue. “We should look at defining standing areas for crowds, instead of restricting buskers,” he said.
Other business owners noted that issues at Pack Square seemed to stem from encroaching infrastructure and vendor carts in limited space, as well as behavior issues related to public drunkenness and hard drug use from individuals outside the busking community.
Fetherston noted that the city would seek to eliminate the pushcart location at Pack Square after this season. Timothy Sadler, an employee of downtown retailer Spiritex, said the company currently holds the permit for that spot. Sadler asked why Spiritex had not been involved in the decision previously and sought assurances that the pushcart would remain within the vicinity.
“People come to Asheville because they want sustainable, local products,” Sadler said. “I believe Spiritex is emblematic of that.” Fetherston responded that the city would try to keep Spiritex’s cart within the area, but he gave no definite answer about when that decision would be made or where the cart would be located next year.
Fletcher and several business representatives emphasized that congestion issues around high impact areas would be better handled by implementing design renovations, rather than enforcement on buskers. “[These regulations] seem to be a solution in search of a problem,” Fletcher contended, adding that police officers already have ample tools to address any violations or issues related to street performance.
While Fetherston noted that the pilot study could move forward with or without the spot reservation requirement, he insisted that some form of regulation would be necessary to provide city police with a clear course of action to assuage potential issues. “Unwritten rules are great until there’s a problem,” he said.
Busker representatives and city staffers also found themselves at odds over the proposed 100-foot buffer zones between performers in the high impact areas. Roach and Fletcher noted that such a requirement would be unfair to mimes, living statues and street performers with a smaller physical footprint.
Fetherston reiterated that the 100-foot rule would only apply to the high impact areas, with other busking locations continuing to operate under the current 40-foot rule. “We’re not trying to put anyone in a box,” he said, “we’re trying to best manage limited public space.”
Despite the differences in opinion, Fletcher said buskers were grateful to be involved in the process of policy making. He applauded several aspects of the proposed pilot program, including temporary closures of Wall Street, the creation of incentive areas and efforts to improve foot traffic flow around Pack Square.
Public Safety Committee urges further studies on downtown public space management
After a short intermission and the exodus of many crowd members who attended the forum, Bothwell opened the official Public Safety Meeting by approving the minutes from the previous meeting and opening the floor to public comment. Several audience members, including buskers, those who work downtown and residents, expressed reservations that increased restrictions on street performance would inhibit the vibrancy of downtown and implored the PSC to postpone implementing the pilot study until more alternatives could be explored.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said one longtime resident, who identified himself as “Joe“. He noted that tourists, pedestrians and drivers played a large role in unsafe conditions on the sidewalk and city streets. “Tourists think this is New Orleans, and they can walk where ever they want,” he said. “Please consider what makes the magic of Asheville before making ordinances.”
Others voiced approval of the pilot program. Russell Thomas, the building manager for the Flatiron building, said that while he had no problem with “good buskers,” but was concerned with street performers dominating the corner between Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue.
And John Kloeckner, who said that he’d been playing music for 15 years on the streets in Asheville, did not understand why other buskers were upset with the proposed regulations. “I think the regulations are a good thing,” he said, noting that outsiders coming to Asheville and misbehaving affect the image of buskers and the homeless population alike. “We’ve got to address problems before they worsen.”
After the public comment period, committee members weighed in with their opinions. Councilman Haynes said that while he was in favor of several proposals — specifically in regards to temporary foot traffic delineation and select closures of Wall Street — he would like to see a more expansive response to congestion from city staffers, with alternative solutions considered more thoroughly.
“I was expecting to hear more on why we can or can’t do these things, not just about buskers,” he said. Haynes added he was not in favor of scheduling street performers, and there were no ordinances he wanted to impose at this time.
Councilwoman Mayfield noted that “the city has been studying this for three years, and it’s time to start doing something.” She agreed with Haynes that more studies into alternative space management were needed, but was in favor of moving ahead with the pilot program without the spot reservation component. “These regulations are about efficiency and order, and don’t inhibit anyone if done properly.”
Mayfield also called for specific time markers where city council could evaluate the success of the pilot program.
Councilman Bothwell said more clarity was needed as to where the 100-foot buffers would be drawn from, and agreed this was more of a design issue than a matter of enforcement. He also expressed hope that temporary street closures could expand to other areas if the Wall Street pilot was successful, and suggested the 100-foot ordinance might be withheld until the city had evaluated the idea of street closures for festivals.
Ultimately, Bothwell, Haynes and Mayfield agreed that more staff work was needed to address and define the ordinances and regulations on the table. Bothwell instructed Fetherston and his staff to move forward with bench removal at Pack Square’s western corner near Rhubarb, to move towards implementing the temporary closure of Wall Street by the fall and to work on revising busking regulations by next spring.
While parts of the Downtown Public Space Management pilot study will be implemented later this year, city staff will largely go back to the drawing board in regards to busking regulations, and no definitive decisions are expected in the near future.