Council adopts parking plan
Before Asheville City Council OKs the construction of a new parking deck near the Grove Arcade, they might do well to consider the parking shortages in and around Pack Place.
"Our problem exists now: It's not three years away," said Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers. The Grove Arcade has yet to be renovated -- whereas Pack Place and the surrounding businesses need parking assistance now, Myers told Council at its Dec. 15 formal session.
Council members were on the verge of adopting the recommendations of a recently completed parking study of downtown, Biltmore Village and Haywood Road. That's when several Pack Place representatives urged Council to include them in the process. "We have the problem of finding parking," said Pack Place Board Chair Linda Nelms. Since the cultural center was renovated, visits to its museums, art gallery, and auditorium have "increased exponentially," reported Nelms.
While applauding Council's comprehensive parking plan, she and others noted that buses bringing children to the center must compete for parking places; elderly visitors find it difficult having to park in decks several blocks from the center; and customers of neighboring businesses are often unable find a parking place at all. "We're already there -- we're in existence," declared The Health Adventure's Diana Bilbrey.
Blue Moon employee Ukiah Morrison suggested turning what he termed the "open-air crack market" behind Biltmore Avenue into a parking deck -- "as long as it's not so high I can't see the sunrise in the morning."
Whether Council investigates building a new deck or adding street-level parking at City/County Plaza and near Pack Place, everyone affected should be involved in the process, urged Jill Arrington, administrator for Eagle/Market Street Development Corporation. She noted that a temporary bus-parking solution had been worked out with Mount Zion Baptist Church officials, but that permanent solutions are still needed.
Pack Place Financial Director Neal Evans pointed out that the nearest parking deck has no more spaces available for long-term users.
City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that city staff will come back to Council with details on how to implement the study's recommendations, which include: increasing parking-meter rates to 50 cents per hour, to discourage all-day meter-feeding; building a new deck near the Grove Arcade; investigating whether the Rankin and Wall Street decks can be enlarged; passing an ordinance forbidding meter feeding; and investigating ways to add parking spaces at City/County Plaza and along Biltmore Avenue, near Pack Place.
"The fact is, we don't have any money to build parking decks at all," said Mayor Leni Sitnick. The proposed Arcade deck is expected to cost more than $8 million, city staff have noted -- although the cost can be offset, in part, by increased parking fees and fines. But since Council members were discussing hypothetical decks, Sitnick said, they should plan ahead to address the Pack Place problem as well, whether by building a municipal deck or creating surface parking, through partnerships with private developers. Sitnick observed that land behind City Hall and the county courthouse might be a possible deck site.
Westbrook reiterated that staff will be returning to Council with costs and implementation schedules for the various parts of the parking study's recommendations, which include adding parking spaces in Biltmore Village, and striping Haywood Road to provide two consistent through-traffic lanes and better marked parking along the entire length of the west Asheville road.
"Parking has been an issue [with] the Downtown Commission as long as I've been a member," said local attorney Scott Jarvis. He praised Council, staff, the study consultants, business owners and the public for working together to resolve it.
Council member Earl Cobb commented that the situation was the best of news and the worst of news: It's bad news that the city has a parking problem, but it's also good news, because it means that Asheville's downtown, Biltmore Village and Haywood Road are economically viable communities, attracting more and more visitors, residents and businesses.
On a motion by Chuck Cloninger, seconded by Barbara Field, Council voted 7-0 to adopt the parking-study recommendations and direct staff to implement them.
A bridge falling down
Suzanne Malloy wasn't exaggerating when she told Council members, "You're facing a difficult decision today."
Six months ago, city staff urged the demolition of the unused Zealandia Bridge, a stone-and-mortar structure mentioned in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. The old bridge is crumbling and creating a public-safety problem. But preservationists have urged the city to find a way to save it.
However, the bridge's fate is no clearer today, reported Assistant Public Works Director Malloy. Staff have now finalized estimates for repairing the bridge: $20,000 for a short-term fix that would get it through the coming winter; a midrange fix for $54,000, which would get it through the next several years, or a long-term repair ($350,000) that might include making the bridge part of a greenway link between the city's Beaucatcher Reservoir and White Fawn properties, both of which offer great views of the city.
The problem is that no one knows whether preservationists can raise the money. Robert Griffin has offered to pitch in $5,000 toward saving the bridge, and Joshua Warren has formed a Save the Bridge fund-raising committee.
But nothing substantial has been raised to date, and the city been unable to contact one of the property owners involved. And recently, residents of nearby Windswept Drive petitioned to have the bridge demolished, Malloy reported.
Preservation Society Director Harry Weiss explained that support for saving the bridge has been difficult to muster, although it's a "bona fide historical asset." The cost for restoring it wasn't known until recently, which made fundraising difficult, he said, calling it "a lonely bridge, an orphaned project" with, as yet, no defined connection to the city's greenway or parks master plans.
Council member Cloninger remarked that he was hesitant to commit $54,000, when Save the Bridge might not be able to come up with the rest of the funds. He also questioned what level of interest exists for saving it.
Weiss, Griffin and Historic Resources Commission member Jody Kuhne all responded that there is interest in saving the historic structure, but that it would easier to rally that support if the project were seen as part of an overall greenway or parks plan for the ridge.
Council member Field asked if the city could wait 30 days before making a decision, to give staff time to get firmer commitments and a plan of action from the Save the Bridge committee. Warren was not present to respond.
"That's possible, but winter's coming: We have to push it," warned Malloy.
Staff are afraid that the bridge will further destabilize, if something isn't done before cold weather sets in. Precipitation, mixed with freezing temperatures, could cause the old mortar to crack, dropping rubble onto the road below, Westbrook added.
"I know this is really difficult, but is there a staff recommendation?" asked Field.
Malloy smiled and laughed, hesitating to offer one.
Westbrook came to her aid, explaining that staff had already recommended demolishing the bridge, which would cost an estimated $7,000 in staff labor. "But there are some variations," he said: Demolish it and salvage the materials for later use in a parks/greenway project on the site; implement the midrange repairs, using either contingency funds or money from the city's General Fund balance; or make the midrange repairs, while giving the Save the Bridge committee a time-line for raising the remainder (and paying back the city's initial $54,000 expenditure).
Malloy said that none of the options are easy ones. She added that, in a meeting between staff and preservationists, "We talked for three hours, and our heads hurt [afterward], because tough decisions have to be made."
Council members' heads seemed to hurt, too. Field attempted a motion to give the issue 30 more days to be sorted out, but it got lost in the ensuing discussion.
Said Sitnick, shaking her head, "I'm not willing to risk the $54,000." She noted her disappointment that more hadn't happened in the past six months. Seeing Griffin raise his hand in the audience, she asked, "Something's happened?"
Griffin repeated his offer to pitch in $5,000, and urged Council to give the committee a chance.
Preservationist Betty Lawrence added that the bridge has cultural and historic significance, although it's been neglected by the city for years (Malloy had explained that the bridge is unused, and hasn't been a high priority). Lawrence urged Council, "You've got to seize the moment."
"All of us support the bridge," Cloninger responded. "But we've got to make a prudent decision. We have no idea at the moment if Save the Bridge can raise the money." He said he would support giving the group 30 days and staff more time to secure the needed easements from adjacent property owners.
Sitnick asked if someone wanted to make such a motion. When Field said she already had, Sitnick quipped, "You made a motion? It's been so long ..."
Sellers seconded Field's motion (which she had to repeat), and on a 7-0 vote, it passed. Council will revisit the issue at its Jan. 12 meeting.
Sitnick added that she'd like staff to take any necessary safety precautions that they deem necessary in the interim -- "if we should have snowfall -- if we should have a winter!"
"Or any water," Malloy added -- wryly, if not dryly.