In our modern-day search for convenience, visitors to the Asheville Mall appear to have won out over Kenilworth Forest residents: Asheville City Traffic Engineer Michael Moule recommended that City Council members leave Brackettown Road open as a two-way side entrance to the mall.
"All three options for restricting [Brackettown Road access] would increase [traffic] congestion throughout the entire [Tunnel Road] corridor," Moule told Council members at their Aug. 10 formal session.
As part of their review of a proposed mall expansion, Council members were considering whether to close the road altogether, make it one-way, or leave it as it is -- a two-lane entrance that intersects White Pine Drive, just a few yards away from where it ends at Tunnel Road. White Pine Drive provides the only access to the Kenilworth Forest neighborhood, Mayor Leni Sitnick emphasized.
Although neighborhood representative Phil Noblitt wasn't pleased with Moule's recommendation, he tried to be diplomatic -- while pressing a philosophical point: "Is it better to inconvenience some people occasionally, or [neighborhood] people all the time?" Mall traffic, said Noblitt, often blocks White Pine Drive as drivers make a right turn from Brackettown Road. He urged Council to require the mall's owners, CBL and Associates, either to close the access or make it a one-way road.
Having recently observed traffic at the intersection, Moule told Council members that he hadn't seen a single motorist on Brackettown come to a complete stop at the White Pine intersection, as they're supposed to. But drivers did appear to first look up the hill White Pine ascends on its way into Kenilworth Forest, and to yield to neighborhood traffic coming over the rise, he added. "It's a behavioral problem. ... People are aware they're supposed to stop there."
City Council members -- attempting to accommodate residents' concerns about safety and convenience, but leaning toward keeping Brackettown open -- suggested a number of options: Forbid trucks to use the White Pine/Brackettown intersection; redesign it as a straight T-intersection; install a blinking red light, to encourage Brackettown traffic to come to a complete stop; or move the intersection up the hill -- farther from where White Pine joins Tunnel Road.
"That would put [traffic] closer to the neighborhood," noted Sitnick, when Council member Earl Cobb made the latter suggestion, adding, "And [residents] don't want that."
Meanwhile, Moule insisted that shortening the length of the cycle at the light where White Pine meets Tunnel Road -- and at other intersections near the mall -- would do more to ease traffic congestion and reduce the waiting time for White Pine residents exiting their neighborhood than any of the other suggestions.
Council member Chuck Cloninger asked whether redesigning Brackettown's intersection with White Pine would help. The current layout almost makes a T. But, he said, it "sort of sloughs off to the right," making it easy for motorists to move into White Pine without stopping and block traffic, Cloninger reflected.
Creating a true T-intersection might make motorists come to a stop, conceded Moule. "But people are still going to jump out. There's already a sign that says, 'Don't block the intersection.'"
That left Council members wondering, What do we do now? Field, hinting at pressure to keep the road open, said it was her understanding that Council had to vote on the issue that day, because the mall developers might have to nix their plans, depending on which way the vote went.
But City Attorney Bob Oast responded that the purpose of the Aug. 10 discussion was to give staff some direction on whether Council members intended to keep the road open, make it one-way, or close it altogether. Council wouldn't be taking a formal vote on any aspect of the proposed mall expansion until Aug. 24, he emphasized.
Council member Barbara Field remarked that it is a symptom of our society's preoccupation with speed that having to wait 150 seconds (the current cycle length at the White Pine/Tunnel Road intersection) vs. 120 seconds (Moule's proposed cycle length) should be such a big deal. "Maybe it's a guy thing, but I don't mind waiting," she declared.
As Field began explaining that waiting at lights gives her a chance to do things like change radio stations, an impatient Cloninger interrupted, urging Council to steer clear of such "tangents" and stick to the agenda. "We're blabbin' up here," he observed.
After that, Noblitt voiced his concern that neither Moule's report nor CBL's traffic study takes into account another entrance -- into the Sears Automotive parking area -- that could, perhaps, absorb more traffic. And, he added, Moule's conclusion that Saturday peak-hour traffic would create "unacceptable" congestion and delays amounts to a brief inconvenience for mall visitors, as opposed to the ongoing headaches neighborhood residents experience every day of the week.
"The Brackettown Road entrance is vital to the day-to-day success of the mall," countered CBL representative Michael Lebovitz. He reminded Council members of the property- and sales-tax revenues the mall contributes to the city, as well as the mall's regional economic impact. He asked that Brackettown be left as is.
City Manager Jim Westbrook added that motorists' failure to come to a complete stop is a "sub-issue" -- and a pre-existing condition -- not directly related to the mall expansion itself. He suggested that Council should let staff work with mall owners and Kenilworth Forest residents on some possible solutions to the traffic problems at White Pine.
Sitnick said she'd like to see staff review traffic at the intersection after the mall expansion is finished and the North Carolina Department of Transportation reduces the cycle lengths. As the hour approached 7 p.m. (the meeting had started at 5), Sitnick added, "This Council is ... spending this much time because we are concerned."
By consensus, Council directed staff to follow Moule's recommendation that Brackettown Road be left as is. But staff, mall owners and residents should work on ways to improve safety and reduce congestion at the intersection, Sitnick amended.
Council members took a brief break, and Noblitt just shook his head as he and other Kenilworth Forest residents filed out of Council chambers.
Signs point to ... postponement
Asheville City Council members couldn't see the sign for all the legalese. When city staff attempted to present four proposed ordinance amendments -- all related in some way to Haw Creek residents' request that they be allowed to erect a community sign pointing the way to neighborhood churches and the like -- Council members interrupted them almost immediately.
"I have a problem with this," interjected Barbara Field. The issue, she said, is too complicated to bring before Council during a formal session, without first giving Council members background information and a chance to ask technical questions during a work session.
City staff, for example, recommended amending the Unified Development Ordinance to give the city the authority to "summarily" remove illegal signs and buildings.
"What does 'summarily' mean?" Field asked.
It means the city could take action without first having to take the offending property owner to court, replied City Attorney Oast. The city doesn't have that authority, although it did before the UDO was adopted in May of '97.
"How do you enforce the sign ordinance now?" asked a bewildered Vice Mayor Ed Hay.
Zoning Code Enforcement Director Sharon Allen explained that staff must first notify the building or sign owner that they're out of compliance. Then, if the owner takes no action, the city's legal department steps in, assessing civil penalties and/or taking the owner to court.
"There's a difference between taking down a sign and taking down a building," complained Field, an architect. "I'd hate to see us tear down a building just because we disagree with [the owner]. ... Are we confusing signs with buildings?" she asked staff.
Not exactly, Oast replied, explaining that state statutes give the city the authority to summarily take down buildings or signs that endanger public health or safety.
"What we're talking about here [are] things that have been built illegally," Allen added, emphasizing that the city had had this authority before the UDO was passed.
But Council members apparently still had too many questions to be willing to take up formal-session time on the issue (and the three that were to follow it, all of which had to do with various types of signs).
Field begged staff to prepare a work-session presentation on the four topics -- "so we can be fully educated." She turned her request into a motion, which Tommy Sellers seconded.
But there was another issue: when to schedule the presentation. "Can't we just leave [the date] to staff?" asked Cloninger.
Council members agreed, voting unanimously to postpone the public hearing on the topics, indefinitely.