- Council approves veterans memorial
- Multilingual signs here to stay
Asheville City Council members are still settling into 2009, tweaking the priorities laid down at their January retreat and adjusting to the ramifications of a slumping economy. Nonetheless, they took two votes during their Feb. 10 meeting that showed strong support for the city's developing greenway system. One approved construction of a key portion of the system; the other showed that Council stands firm in its desire to preserve rights of way for future greenway projects.
As part of a 6-1 vote that approved most of the evening's consent agenda, City Council authorized the Arden-based JLS Co. to build a 1.2-mile stretch of greenway along the French Broad River from Carrier Park in West Asheville to Hominy Creek Park. A $300,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation will cover roughly half of the $635,000 contract.
The city's Greenway Master Plan, adopted in 1998 and updated twice since 2000, envisions a 29-mile network of trails, bike paths and parks throughout the city. It has been lauded by cyclists and proponents of alternative transportation for providing a healthier and more environmentally friendly way to get around Asheville while preserving open space.
Council member Carl Mumpower cast the lone opposing vote, saying the current economic situation makes it a bad time to spend tax dollars.
"This is nice but not necessary," said Mumpower. "I think necessary is going to be important in the days forward."
In a separate vote, also 6-1 with Mumpower voting "no," Council approved two conservation easements allowing RiverLink Inc. to restore stream banks in Malvern Hills Park and West Asheville Park. The work will be funded by a $440,000 North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant secured by RiverLink.
Mumpower did join his colleagues, however, in unanimously voting to preserve a narrow downtown right of way the city owns that could become part of a future greenway. The agenda item, a requested street closing, has come before Council several times since Dec. 2.
Wallack Street is a dead-end road off Southside Avenue between Asheland and Coxe avenues. The north/south street runs behind several pieces of property fronting on those avenues, and a 1977 urban-renewal project privatized both ends of Wallack, leaving only the middle portion still in the city's hands. Meanwhile, the driveway for one of those properties, owned by the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, takes a wedge-shaped chunk out of the city-owned parcel.
The owners of those properties had asked the city to close the remaining portion of Wallack Street, and ABCCM, noted Public Works Director Mark Combs, has already made improvements to the city property, including erecting a fence. Accessing the city's strip of land, City Attorney Bob Oast explained, would require crossing private property, and the city would probably have to buy the other two sections in order to proceed with the greenway.
Last November, however, the city's Greenway Commission recommended denying the closure, and since then, greenway proponents have been showing up at Council meetings en masse to support keeping the property available for future use. City Council has twice sent the project back, instructing the commission and city staff to try to work out a compromise. But with the issue once again before Council, Combs reported that their efforts had come to naught, saying, "Staff was not successful in negotiating such a deal."
For Council member Robin Cape, however, the complications didn't constitute enough of an obstacle to justify dropping the possibility of a future greenway there. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say we have a lot of pieces of property [on the Greenway Master Plan] that the city does not own -- that's why this costs money," noted Cape, adding, "We still own pieces of property that we can knit back together."
Greenway Commission Chair Marc Hunt pointed out that the closed stretches of Wallack Street belong to the Asheville Housing Authority, saying, "We like to think we can work with them." Although the right of way is only a small piece, he said, it is critical to the vision of a greenway linking downtown and the River District.
And despite the failure to work out a compromise, Oast reported that ABCCM is agreeable to closing only the east half of Wallack Street, which contains their driveway and fence, with the understanding that the city could renegotiate the property's status if and when the greenway came through. That would preserve a narrow corridor on the western half (No owners of adjacent property spoke at the meeting.)
Meanwhile, the groundswell of public opinion wasn't lost on Council member Bill Russell, who warned that in the wake of the Parkside debacle, this is not a good time to be handing out publicly owned property. Even the prospect of relinquishing the small wedge occupied by ABCCM's driveway made him nervous. "For those who have just joined us, triangular pieces of property can create quite a bit of controversy," he observed.
But Cape, who initially made a motion to deny the closure outright, said she was comfortable with the compromise. "The potential for redevelopment of that corridor is there," she said. "We are saving a width of land that can be used for a public greenway."
Cape made a motion to grant the amended closure, and it passed unanimously.
Mere blocks away from Wallack Street, Memorial Stadium was also finding itself at the heart of a compromise. It was nearly six years ago that Mumpower, inspired by a Mountain Xpress story (see "Assault and Memory," July 9, 2003), took up the gauntlet of erecting a veterans memorial at the appropriately named Memorial Stadium at the south end of downtown. Mumpower championed forming a committee, courted Rep. Charles Taylor (who was then the city's congressman), and kept the idea at the forefront of many Council discussions.
But both the memorial and the proposed stadium upgrades took a hit when Hurricane Katrina jacked up the cost of construction materials. "The bottom just fell out of it," Mumpower told Xpress in 2007. "It's basically a dead end."
And the situation has continued on a downward slide as the economy has tanked.
Now, however, Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons says he's ready to move forward with building a smaller memorial at a cost of $215,000 -- but Mumpower doesn't want it.
Citing the dire economic situation and his record of voting against accepting federal funds (the money comes from a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant), Mumpower said he wouldn't support the construction.
"We mock these men and women who have sacrificed to see us spend a quarter-million dollars that is borrowed money," he declared. Mumpower also said he opposes spending federal grant moneys on nonessentials during the current economic crisis, predicting that veterans facilities will need the money more as the economy grows more troubled.
Others who served on that now-defunct committee would probably still support the scaled-back monument, he noted, adding, "They would say I'm full of nonsense."
Council member Brownie Newman was willing to follow his colleague's lead, saying, "If [Mumpower] doesn't recommend it go forward, I think we should follow that direction."
But it was no longer just Mumpower's pet project, and others on Council were ready to move on it.
In response to a question by Cape, Simmons said: "We spent a lot of years on this project. We just want to get the project done."
Council member Kelly Miller supported the project based on Simmons' assertion that construction would provide 20 to 25 jobs over the course of four months. "That seems like a pretty good deal to me," said Miller.
Mumpower dismissed that notion, however, saying most of the jobs would probably go to illegal immigrants anyway. "The question is, are we creating jobs for Mexican citizens or citizens of this country?" wondered Mumpower. (He didn't indicate whether he would have had the same reservations if the monument were to be built to his original plan.)
In the end, Council approved the scaled-back memorial on a 5-2 vote, with Mumpower and Newman opposed.
Speaking of speaking Spanish...
But Mumpower wasn't done with the subject of immigration, having also scheduled a presentation to his colleagues opposing the newly installed bilingual directional signs around the police station. Among other things, said Mumpower, the English/Spanish signs constitute "implicit acceptance of illegal immigration."
Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan explained that the signs are required by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as by an executive order by President Clinton, later affirmed by President George W. Bush. The intent, said Hogan, is that a person's language should not prevent them from seeking emergency assistance. And Asheville, he noted, was recently audited by the U.S. Justice Department (along with Greensboro and Charlotte) and found not to be in compliance with the law.
"Whether you agree or disagree, I don't think we have any choice but to comply," said Hogan, adding that the law requires such signs to include any language that is prevalent in the region, meaning Asheville will probably have to accommodate its Ukrainian population as well.
"You have not seen the full extent of what they would have us do," agreed City Manager Gary Jackson.
Mumpower conceded that noncompliance could result in the withholding of federal funding, a prospect he called "blackmail." But in recent months, he has repeatedly made it clear that he intends to vote against accepting any federal or state money.
Cape, however, praised the spirit of the law, saying she's found comfort in seeing English-language signs while traveling abroad, and she'd like to extend the same hospitality here in Asheville, especially where emergency services are concerned.
"When someone needs the police, I want them to know we want them to find them," she said, noting that some immigrants, especially older ones, have a harder time learning English. "This is a nation of immigrants. People assimilate in different ways."
No motion was made to eliminate the signs, so no action was taken.
Mayor urges bond purchases
The day before a House/Senate conference committee was due to begin work on reconciling the two bodies' versions of the economic-stimulus package, Mayor Terry Bellamy appealed to Asheville residents to undertake their own financial stimulus: buying U.S. savings bonds.
Bellamy's pitch came at the end of Council's discussion of the veterans memorial, but earlier that day, she'd sent out an e-mail urging city residents to invest in the bonds.
"I've started a campaign," she told Council members, "looking at how we dealt with times of need after World War I, World War II and 9/11. Our country bought bonds."
After the meeting, Bellamy told Xpress that she'd begun researching the idea in response to community anxiety about the massive federal spending plan.
"I kept hearing concerns about how much we are spending and borrowing against our future," the mayor explained. She is touting the bonds as a way to invest in the country while realizing a return on that investment down the road.
Bellamy said she plans to push the idea, hoping it will gain momentum in Asheville and turn into a national movement.