From Mission Hospital's aging facilities to Charlotte Street's troublesome traffic, proposed and potential development plans in two different sectors ruled conversation during a breakfast meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners on Friday, Sept. 6.
The two presentations given to an audience of roughly 30 people centered on past problems, current conditions and prospective plans for the North Asheville street and the local hospital campus.
“Hospital buildings are built with concrete and steel, and they're quite inflexible places,” said Brian Moore, who serves as Mission Hospital's director of public policy and regulatory affairs. “We've got really significant amounts of our physical facilities that are now hitting age 50 and above. The short story about that is obsolescence.”
He continued, “Each year at Mission Hospital — just our Asheville facility — experiences nearly $55 million in depreciation. Every year that clock ticks.”
The challenge, Moore said, only increases in complexity when considering external factors affecting hospital budgets like the Affordable Care Act and the state's decision not to expand Medicaid. However, Moore said that leadership at Mission Health hopes that modernizing the local hospital campus will not only update its buildings, but will elevate the quality of care delivered — starting in its emergency department. The price tag for all the changes, he said, is estimated at $350 million.
“Our emergency department, like many emergency departments across the country, are the focus for many of society's issues and problems. They're overcrowded. We have to deal with issues of behavioral health and the shortfalls of that. Typically, it's a tough environment,” he said. “We found that our emergency department is configured less than optimally and not designed to meet the capacity of what we're doing today.”
On average, the emergency department at Mission Hospital sees more than 105,000 patients.
But the need for a redesign of the Mission Hospital Campus goes beyond the emergency department. Moore said that hospital bed room sizes need to be changed due to changes in technology used and cultural expectations that family members may want to spend the night with their loved one who has been hospitalized. Other proposed changes include the addition of 289 beds, 14 operating rooms, an emergency department with 84 beds in its bay and 18 observation beds, along with public and support space.
In an assessment of the current hospital campus, Moore said eight facilities were identified as aged, capacity constrained and/or in need of infrastructure investment. The current plan, Moore said, is to build a tower on a 6-acre area near the current Heart Center on Hospital Drive.
“Two hospitals that used to be major competitors across the street from one another, [that are] now under one system, were never designed to operate as a single system [when they were built],” he said, citing that nearly 12,000 transports occur between Mission and St. Joseph's campus every year.
Then there's the traffic levels on the other side of town. City Transportation Director Ken Putnam reported that the traffic count for Charlotte Street averages 14,000-20,000 vehicles a day, with most of the traffic occurring between the interstate ramps and Chestnut Street. For comparison, he noted that the entire stretch of Merrimon Avenue sees 18,000-20,000 vehicles a day.
This same information was shared recently at the Aug. 27 Asheville City Council meeting, where proposals to reduce Charlotte Street from four lanes to three lanes were discussed. At the meeting, Don Bryson, who worked as the consultant on the assessment, called that idea “a solution in search of a problem” unless it looks at the project in a more comprehensive way than just changing the number of lanes.
At the CIBO breakfast, Putnam elaborated on the study's findings of the corridor. One part of the study looked at the effects of changing Charlotte Street from four lanes to three lanes in the years 2015 and 2035. Putnam said that if the road stays as four lanes, people can expect minor delay increases by 2015 and moderate delay increases by 2035, noting that congestion will likely begin to spread to more times of the day.
Currently, Putnam said, most of the congestion on Charlottee Street occurs in the morning, around lunchtime and in the evening.
In the scenario of changing the corridor to three lanes, Putnam says expected delays would increase. However, there's a distinct difference if the four-lane road reduces to three lanes: The worst delays would occur on side streets.
“So if you're trying to enter Charlotte Street anywhere along that corridor, you may be the first car in line, you may be the second car in line, but as time goes on, you might be the fifth or the sixth car in line and that's what you'll begin to see,” Putnam explained.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, who is chairing the Planning and Economic Development Committee that will receive staff recommendations in November, said she gets more emails about Charlotte Street than she does Hendersonville Road in terms of pedestrian concerns.
Putnam says that when city staffers explore the three-lane option, they would likely have to put serious consideration into underground utilities in order to 'gain the distance' required for the proposed project.
Concerned about the implications the three-lane change could have on his business, the owner of Fuddruckers asked about traffic congestion up Chestnut Street.
“Some of the projections would show under a three-lane section as much as 800-900 feet. That's three football fields,” Putnam replied.
The owner said that people need to know that information, and then asked Manheimer to comment as someone who lives near the Charlottee Street corridor herself.
"I don't think we're going to be contemplating that [3-lane plan]. I don't think that's acceptable. I think what we're talking about here are a lot of different iterations,” she responded. “I trust that staff is going to bring forward a proposal that does not result in that car backup because that's not going to be functional. All that will do is drive cars into the neighborhood and add more congestion to Merrimon Avenue.”
Manheimer continued and said, “I think that given the limited resources in that corridor, the priority would be to address cars and the sidewalk situation. In other words, if there's only room to enhance the sidewalks and improve the driving experience, and you're going to have to give up on-street parking or bike lanes, that's really a reality and we realize that. We're not trying to be ideologues about this.”
From here, the City's Planning and Economic Development Committee will receive input from city staffers and then reach out for more public input. The question, Manheimer said, is whether the topic will be brought to a City Council meeting or to City Council's annual retreat in January.
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 140.
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