- Asheville water supply still OK
- City offices may move to Innsbruck Mall
Despite earlier reports that an alternative bridge design produced by a local volunteer group was on track for consideration by the N.C. Department of Transportation, it's actually still a step or two behind the other options, a DOT engineer told Asheville City Council members during their Aug. 19 work session. Meanwhile, the design -- already significantly altered during back-and-forth between an outside engineering firm and the state agency -- may still see some further changes.
The news came as part of an update by DOT officials on the status of that option, which the agency calls alternative 4b. The Asheville Design Center's plan, which has won widespread community support and an endorsement by City Council, is not on the list of options to be included in an environmental-impact study that's now in the works, until after it's been shown to the public at a Sept. 16 presentation in Asheville covering all the remaining options.
"All of the options must go through a public process," state Board of Transportation member Alan Thornburg told Council. "That is a matter of policy."
Meanwhile, DOT Project Engineer Derrick Weaver remained vague on both the status and the future of the project design, noting that other alternatives have been unexpectedly cut in the past due to technical concerns. Alternative 4b is also "a little bit behind" the four other remaining alternatives in the review process, he told Xpress after the meeting.
The Asheville Design Center -- a volunteer effort by local architects and engineers -- cooked up the plan last year. Noting the widespread controversy surrounding the I-26 connector and the substantial impact of a plan that would cut through West Asheville and replace the Smoky Park Bridge, the team sought to produce an alternative that would have a smaller footprint, leave more land available for infill development, and make Patton Avenue a boulevard connecting West Asheville to downtown.
The state agency reacted with skepticism at first, resisting the plan and preferring its own proposals, but City Council and the Buncombe County commissioners were sufficiently interested to hire the Tallahassee, Fla., based Figg Bridge Engineers (which partnered with Chicago-based transportation engineers H.W. Lochner) to go over the plan with the DOT and bring it into compliance with the agency's technical requirements.
The result of that collaboration began to emerge in July (see "A Bridge Too Far?" July 30 Xpress), and Design Center members quickly noted that the plan had been significantly altered, with the expressway now running above Patton Avenue rather than below it -- significantly impacting the ADC's goal of transforming Patton into a walkable and bikeable thoroughfare. But at least 4b was still in the running, a Design Center representative noted in July.
Weaver painted a substantially different picture, however. The plan has not yet been included in the environmental-impact study, and the DOT hasn't finished calculating the estimated cost. (Thornburg said the cost would be similar to the agency's own option 4, but that both 4 and 4b would be more expensive than the others.) He also said that further refinements to 4b may still be needed -- particularly concerning on- and off-ramps. In short, the future remains unclear until after the public hearing.
Council member Brownie Newman wasn't happy with the news. "It was my understanding from some previous conversations that, in essence, a decision had already been made to include 4b in the environmental-impact study," he said.
Weaver said that wasn't entirely correct. "I'm not going to tell you that we're not going to include it, because I fully think we are," said Weaver. "But we have to go through this process. There may be something that comes up on the way that knocks it out as an alternative."
Undeterred, Newman pressed on, saying that it sounded as though the DOT's current analysis of the plan amounted to the same thing as the EIS process. "Why not just go ahead and say it's in?" he asked. Changing course, Weaver then responded, "It will be included in the environmental-impact document."
Newman also said he expects a good show of public support at the Sept. 16 presentation, asking whether that would factor into the DOT's ultimate decision.
"A lot of the excitement in the community is the opportunity for redevelopment for the city," noted Newman. He also voiced concern about the flipping of the connector/Patton Avenue configuration.
Weaver assured Newman that public opinion would be a factor, though he later told Xpress that it's only one of many considerations in deciding whether or not to move forward with the alternative. But at this point, said Weaver, "I do not see why [the design] wouldn't be considered."
The DOT's presentation of the remaining alternatives for the I-26 connector will be held Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel. A special session for elected officials will be held in the morning; a public reception will run from 3 to 6:30 p.m., with the formal presentation starting at 7 p.m.
Plumbing the depths
As drought continues to grip Western North Carolina, rumors and speculation about the state of Asheville's drinking-water supply and the need for conservation measures persist.
Meanwhile, the city has been hearing from people concerned about what they consider dangerous waste of water and wondering why the city isn't stepping in. "Some people may see something and not know the whole story," noted Mayor Terry Bellamy.
But according to Leslie Carreiro, Asheville's water production superintendent, the city's water supply is still in good shape, and the department has no plans to ask people to conserve.
After Council's the last water update, back in April, the city lifted the voluntary conservation measures put in place in October 2007. Since then, the Bee Tree Reservoir has come back online, putting Asheville in pretty good shape, said Carreiro.
Meanwhile, consumption has remained below average, she noted, even without formal action by the city. The North Fork Reservoir is now 12.42 feet below the spillway, she told Council. Because of the risk of flooding highlighted by the 2004 floods, the reservoir is intentionally kept about 5 feet below the spillway to allow for heavy rains, Carreiro explained. That means the drought has brought the water level down about 7.5 feet. If the drought continues another 10 weeks, the level could sink to 26 feet below the spillway, she continued, adding, "The good news is that in 10 weeks, we will be getting into [late] October," which is around when wetter weather typically arrives.
Carreiro said the city's Water Resources Department has been getting calls from residents wondering when conservation measures would be put in place, explaining that the computer-modeling system the city uses to tread the fine line between too much and too little water calls for maintaining the status quo for at least the next 10 weeks.
"Our drought model kept saying we don't need to, we don't need to," Carreiro reported.
For Council member Robin Cape, however, that just underscores city residents' natural inclination to be conscious of their consumption.
"Asheville is in tune to this," she said. "We don't have to ask them to conserve." Additionally, noted Cape, the $4 million water-line-replacement project now under way throughout the city is plugging leaks as it goes. "We are undertaking major water-system repairs. That's a conservation measure."
Meanwhile, other communities in the region don't have the luxury of three drinking-water sources, and many are experiencing shortages.
"There's been misrepresentation that Asheville is unwilling to sell water," said Bellamy, noting that Hendersonville already buys 1 million gallons a day from Asheville. "We're willing to be good neighbors in this time of need," she continued.
City Manager Gary Jackson, meanwhile, said he's talked with officials in Hendersonville, which has imposed mandatory water restrictions. Although Asheville is prepared to sell its neighbor up to 3 million gallons per day, Hendersonville has chosen not to go that route, said Jackson. He also told Council that there've been some conversations with Marshall, which has no lines connected to Asheville and would need trucks to move water.
No other communities have approached Asheville for water, outgoing Water Resources Director David Hanks told Xpress.
Asheville water customers looking to pay their bills in person may someday find themselves delivering their checks to the Innsbruck Mall, if a proposal by Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson pans out.
As part of a presentation on space shortages in the city's office buildings and other facilities, Richardson said staff is exploring moving all of its customer-service offices to the mostly empty Tunnel Road building, which now houses a Department of Motor Vehicles office and a Christian bookstore.
The move would free up about one-third of the first floor of City Hall -- space sorely needed for other offices -- while consolidating customer services at a single location. The mall is a good fit, said Richardson, because of its accessibility and abundant parking. The parking situation at City Hall, he noted, will only get worse with the new Pack Square Park eating up former spaces there.
"These kind of moves are significant opportunities -- they are adventuresome," Jackson said about the idea.
The Innsbruck scheme has been under consideration for about a year, Richardson told Xpress later. The city would lease the space from the mall's owner, he said, though he declined to give firm dollar figures.
Staff will continue exploring the idea, said Richardson, and report back to Council at a later date.