UNCA should rethink parking plans

The 300-space gravel parking lot proposed for the UNCA campus is a shortsighted solution that sends the wrong message to students, faculty, staff and the community at large.

The best way we can reduce our collective impact on the environment is to help our children make better choices in life. Both as parents and as community members, it is our charge to help the next generation be smarter, healthier and wiser than we have been. And the choices we make about developing and preserving land set a profound example for our youth. We should be providing healthier, more responsible options; we should teach higher values and set a higher standard.

UNCA seems a logical place to blend youthful ideals and learned wisdom. Besides preparing students for both work and life, the university can serve as a model for how we choose to shape our city. In the past, UNCA has done just that. The members of the UNCA land-use-management team have been innovative and forward-thinking in their approach to designing and constructing new campus buildings.

But the university’s parking policy stands in sharp contrast to this. Until now, the school has chosen to simply build more parking lots to accommodate on-campus population growth. At this point, however, that approach is beginning to generate negative consequences. When we place a higher value on 300 parking spaces for freshman campus residents than we do on three football fields’ worth of trees and green space, we have clearly lost our way.

Even from a strictly economic standpoint, this makes little sense. Students, faculty and staff already pay $75 per semester for parking, and the high cost of building and maintaining the current parking structures ensures that no reduction of this fee is in sight. According to the American Automobile Association Web site, the cost of owning and maintaining a vehicle is roughly $8,000 a year. And as the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket, we should help our college students save money while enjoying healthier interactions with their community?

In the short term, the university needs to focus on alternatives that can be implemented by this fall. There are a number of options for easing the parking crunch that would cost no more and take no longer than building a new parking lot. First, the college should explore limiting freshman campus residents’ access to parking. Forging a stronger relationship with the Asheville Transit System would help make this feasible. And finally, redefining the current parking areas and redirecting traffic could create additional parking spaces without sacrificing trees.

UNCA also needs to beef up its partnership with Asheville Transit, as Warren Wilson College has done. If the university provided funding for more frequent bus service with extended hours, students would get safer, more reliable transportation with the benefits felt citywide. An aggressive advertising campaign and maximizing use of the transit service during new-student orientation would help incoming freshmen adjust quickly. Having student volunteers use the bus system as they travel throughout the city on Community Service Day would also help new students make the switch. These steps should significantly reduce the immediate freshman demand for more parking spaces.

Next, the school needs to look at making University Heights a one-way thoroughfare. This would enable much of the current paved area to be converted to parking spaces. On-campus traffic is minimal during the summer siesta, making this the perfect time to redraw spaces and lanes for increacing parking spaces. These measures would cover the increased demand for parking for the next several years.

That would give the college a few years to develop and implement a reasoned and responsible plan for meeting long-term parking needs while promoting sustainability. Here are some ideas. Student organizations could help manage car-share and bike-share programs; the city and the college could encourage bicycle commuters by aggressively promoting the use of the greenway that runs right by the campus (and is soon to be extended along Broadway). The university could lobby for a reconfigured parking-fee structure, charging more for on-campus parking and less for people who car-pool. Creating an affordable student bus-pass program and staggering class schedules in relation to peak parking times could also significantly reduce demand. In addition, having a pedestrian-friendly campus could help UNCA admissions staff promote the school to prospective students and conference attendees.

Other comparable-size schools have successfully used such measures to address their parking issues. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., has 4,380 students, 219 faculty and 483 staff. The school provides a total of 2,015 parking spaces — and only 323 of them are set aside for the 1,000 campus residents. That’s about as many spaces as UNCA’s facilities-management office is now proposing to build. In 1998, faced with an over-capacity parking system, Evergreen instituted a student bus pass paid for by a voluntary transportation fee of $30 to $45 a year. This significantly reduced the number of cars coming to campus, buying Evergreen five years before it needed to provide more parking. At that point, redrawing campus parking and eliminating needless medians created 300 more spaces.

Like many readers of this publication, I enjoy walking in the forest more than walking through a parking lot. I also see the need for this community to find economically and socially viable solutions to growth issues. UNCA needs to publicly take the W.T. Weaver parking lot off the table as a short-term solution. I urge UNCA students to make their voices heard to the university’s leadership before retreating into the fun of summer break. And I call on the Asheville community at large to lend their time and wisdom to help UNCA leaders make safe and environmentally responsible land-use decisions. Whether on campus or elsewhere in the city, converting green space into parking lots should be seen as a last resort — to be considered only after all other avenues have been explored.

[Asheville resident Bryan Freeborn serves on the Asheville Transit Commission. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Evergreen State College.]

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