Ask nearly anyone what "Asheville" means to them, what makes it a place worth living, and you'll get dozens of answers: nearby natural beauty, laid-back attitudes, a thriving arts and music scene, good restaurants and beautiful preserved architecture, family ties that go back generations, a culture of community involvement and activism. More often than not, you'll also hear that Asheville long held onto the feeling of a small town, unlike Charlotte or Atlanta, that it's easy to get around, accessible and personal, but lately traffic congestion and a general feeling of rundown-ness pervade the city. Ask anyone why Ashevilleans distrust the recent development boom, and the answer will always be, "The infrastructure can't handle it."
The city will likely continue to grow and fill in. There are no plans to build a wall around city limits or freeze all new building. Such a move would certainly tip off a bidding war that quickly runs off the last of Asheville's low- and middle-income residents, as the city rapidly converts to a vacation community for those who can afford it. Yet the city could grow and, if it keeps up its infrastructure as it does, still feel like a small, accessible place. As a longtime West Asheville neighborhood advocate, Rich was vital to solving problems with truck traffic on Haywood Road. As a member of the city's Multimodal Commission, Rich has pushed to make West Asheville parking, road redesign, the I-26 Connectors, and many other crucial infrastructure catch up with city needs.
Five Principles for Catching Up Infrastructure:
1. Get the hotel tax.
What does this mean? Asheville hotels charge their guests a 6% surcharge which, by law, can only be used by a Tourism Development Authority (TDA) for advertising hotels and projects that increase tourism. This fund is bigger than it was ever intended to be, over $14 million dollars in 2017, yet most of it goes to bring more tourists to Asheville -- meaning more traffic, more police needed, more low-wage jobs, more wear on our roads and water system -- instead of addressing the impact of the tourism we already have. Rich would work to change the state law that divides up that money, meanwhile pressing the TDA to recognize Asheville's streets and sidewalks, arts and independent businesses, as valuable tourist draws, so we can start using hotel tax money for fixing infrastructure and providing affordable studio and retail space for locals who are being priced out of our market. Ultimately the city's goal should be a dedicated income stream from Asheville's thriving hotels for all local infrastructure needs, but in the meantime there are concrete steps to start to make room tax money work for us.
Additionally, the city is considering a menu of funding options for transportation, from special improvement districts to bonds to private partnerships. Details are yet to be released, but the early draft is encouraging. No development without infrastructure in place, no getting around to it when it's needed today. We've got to get on top of this already.
2. Take charge on new development.
What does this mean? Big new developments like on Sweeten Creek and Mills Gap produce traffic studies that are supposed to show their effect on traffic will be minimal. Even a fairly large development on a busy road can easily claim to make 3-5% difference in the background traffic over 20 years. What happens when four or five of these are approved on the same stretch or road in a short timespan? A rapid increase of congestion that no developer is accountable for. Requiring that developers measure the cumulative effect of projects approved around the same time, as many cities and states do, gives a clearer picture of what your traffic will look like in 1, 3, and 10 years. If a new development adds to an already-beleaguered road, it doesn't get approved until the infrastructure catches up.
Next, expand the "McKibbon standard." Since 2016, when the developer renovating the BB&T building downtown offered living-wage jobs, dedicated local retail space, and improved sidewalks around the property as a condition of approval, a new set of expectations has started to form about how developers would contribute to the community. The city should continue to expand the standard, with sidewalks, adequate parking, local art and livable wages becoming the norm for any project under consideration.
3. Bring the focus to neighborhoods with substandard infrastructure.
What does this mean? After focusing resources on downtown and the River Arts District in recent years, the city will begin prioritizing projects for "geographical equity," making sure no neighborhood or area of the city continues to be neglected. Neighborhoods and local districts will have a say in deciding their own projects (including by participatory budgeting) since they know their own needs best. A renewed focus on repaving broken streets, fixing bus stops, and correcting stormwater and Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) problems will mean more repairs where people live and work.
Two sites, the Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel and the K-Mart Plaza on Patton, should be ground zero for extensive city investment and planning, including affordable housing and new transit hubs that increase service times in East and West Asheville and reach as far as Leicester, Enka-Candler, and Swannanoa. From these nodes, major transportation corridor planning will reimagine Patton and Tunnel to the city limits, making them safer and less-blighted city hubs outside downtown.
Meanwhile, a n inordinate number of Asheville streets are controlled by the state Department of Transportation, not the city, meaning getting necessary safety problems fixed is a slog through bureaucracy. This includes all of Asheville's "big name" roads: Biltmore, Merrimon, Brevard, Patton, Tunnel, Sweeten Creek, Hendersonville, and so on. Taking over total control of those streets, and most crucially their expensive, high-maintenance bridges, would be a huge weight on the budget, but the city can't blame the issue on Raleigh anymore. Rich will partner with DOT to fix problems that are costing lives, but he will be adamant about DOT living up to its responsibility to North Carolina taxpayers, as well. I-26 widening and new bridge construction through Asheville is on schedule to start in three years. Current plans needlessly claim hundreds of homes and businesses through eminent domain and leave out important ways for locals to get around. We only have one shot at getting it right. It'll be around forever when it's done.
4. Get a college on the West Slope.
What does this mean? The west side of downtown, currently underdeveloped, snatched by hotel developers, short on green public spaces and arts, is crying out for one thing: The city should partner with a local university (UNC Asheville, Western Carolina University, NC State, or some other) to develop West Slope as a satellite campus with public plazas and a performing arts facility. As land currently tied up in the spaghetti of exit ramps to I-240 is reclaimed by the I-26 Connector Project, it should be added to the public use and trust.
5. Fix parking -- downtown and beyond.
What does this mean? The city needs new parking decks near the Indigo Hotel and South Slope. This shouldn't be a budget burden -- all Asheville parking decks provide positive cash flow to the city -- but building decks, especially on expensive land, can require a lot of upfront money needed for other projects. The city should make smart partnerships with downtown developers like French Broad Food Co-op to add parking capacity and reduce the upfront costs, at the same time working to reduce the need to park downtown, especially for downtown workers, by introducing better, park-n-ride bus service. In West Asheville, resident permit zones and partnership with the churches will reduce the drag on Westsiders of living in a popular restaurant-and-tourist destination.