The wheels roll

by David Forbes February 7, 2016

Transit comes under major scrutiny as activists push for an end to evening hour cuts, the box is banned, questions are raised and, yes, another hotel comes before Council

Above: Asheville City Council member Keith Young. File photo by Max Cooper.

Welcome back, readers. After weathering the aftermath of a car wreck (I’m fine) and my computer’s ability to connect to the internet ceasing to function, we’re back in action. Here’s what happened recently in the halls of government. We’ve got more, including an analysis of all the intrigue going on at the Council retreat, coming up this week. Thanks for your patience and understanding. — D.F. 

Once again, some key action on the day of an Asheville City Council meeting didn’t happen in City Hall. Instead, it started at the Asheville transit station a few blocks away, where about 20 people gathered on Jan. 26 — amid riders hopping on and off buses — holding signs and calling for improvements to the transit system.

As Asheville’s population has grown and housing costs have spiked, successive Councils have sworn to make improving the system a priority. However, it’s also faced some major issues, even as in 2012 it saw a redesign and marketing campaign roll out. In recent years, the city has expanded service on Sundays and holidays, but saw major issues around management and maintenance arise, as both the transit union and rider advocates have asserted that the system has been systematically mishandled and that oversight from city officials is unclear or lacking. After some pushback, Council agreed to open the process for choosing a management company to new contenders.

The major rider advocates’ group is the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality group, which emerged out of a program run by local non-profit Just Economics. The group has continued to push for reforms, also provoking some route changes and helping to save the fare free zone downtown when city staff sought to eliminate it. Going forward they wanted a clearer complaint system, more public input on future plans and some stop changes to improve services.

One of the issues the group highlighted was actually a restoration of some services the system had lost. Some of those were stops that were eliminated that the group was seeking to reintegrate. Another involved when services ends: many routes used to run until 10 p.m. But in 2012, when the city rebranded the bus system as ART (Asheville Redefines Transit), one of those redefinitions was to stop service on many routes far earlier — at 6:30 and 7 p.m.

“We believe it is important to extend evening hours to improve transit riders access to maintain jobs and to get and from basic needs like groceries,” Just Economics Director Vicki Meath said.

“We absolutely understand that evening service costs money and the system is currently underfunded, but we believe it has to start with the will of the city community and the will of city leaders to prioritize those needs,” she continued.

The result of that particular redefinition, Transit Commission member Calvin Allen asserted, was that Ashevillians who relied on the bus to get to work or access services had a harder time than before.

“Before they changed it to ART I was having to go work an hour early, waiting a whole hour just to clock in, but when they changed it I’d have to wait a whole hour just for the bus to come,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of things that need to be changed to help workers. On Southside, service stops at 7 p.m. so if they don’t get off work before, they don’t get a bus home. A lot of these things need to change.”

He also noted that one reason the campaign began was because some of the stops the ART transition removed hurt elderly citizens who relied on the bus.

“In this type of economy that has the focus of low-wage jobs that are tourist-based and jobs extend later than 6:30 or 7 p.m.” Meath added. “We’re talking about extending all bus routes until at least 10 p.m.”

Working with UNCA professor Ameena Batada, Just Economics surveyed 138 riders, as well as businesses and service providers, finding that all of the riders and an overwhelming majority of the business owners wanted extended evening service.

From there, the activists set out to take their concerns to City Hall, where Council started meeting about an hour later.

Banning the box

The first two meetings of the new Council following its appointment in December had seen no lack of conflict. Both meetings were long, and brought up major issues like development, hotels and more. This one would prove a bit shorter (though Council would meet for two solid days in its annual retreat at the end of the week). Right out of the gate, a controversial South Asheville development was delayed until April after facing concerns from nearby residents about traffic and a lack of appropriate infrastructure.

The first major item was technically on the consent agenda, a series of routine matters usually passed unanimously in a single vote, but was singled out for more attention.

Most employers, both public and private, ask job applicants to check a box noting if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony. For many, this proves a bar to even getting an interview, even if the crime was non-violent or many years ago. In response, a national movement has sought to “ban the box” to give ex-offenders a chance to secure a job or at least have a better shot at applying for one, in the process removing barriers that hit marginalized communities particularly hard.

Locally, that push has gained strength over the past year and now Council looked to ban the box on applications for city jobs, and upon his election Council member Keith Young pushed for the city to adopt it. The city of Asheville employs over 1,100 people.

The city’s H.R. Manager, Shannon Barrett, said the step would allow them to consider a potential worker first and foremost on their job qualifications, before conducting a background check at a later point in the process, creating “more of an equal playing field for applicants.”

“I think this resolution embodies a road map that our city will collectively follow and hopefully municipalities and local governments around the state will continue to follow the direction that this Ban the Box initiative is setting,” Barrett said. “For formerly incarcerated families to move forward, everyone deserves the opportunity for gainful employment. That’s how our community grows.”

Dee Williams, one of the leaders of the local Ban the Box movement, expressed her appreciation to Young and the city leaders for taking the step, noting that it came after extensive community organizing. She emphasized that Mission Hospitals had earlier agreed to drop the box as well, and that Buncombe County (another major government employer) was next, along with a jobs training program to “train people that have been convicted to take the lead.”

Williams laid out the cause’s case in an opinion column for the Blade late last year.

Council member Cecil Bothwell said he’d received some criticisms of the move, but “I keep reminding them that we used to consider our prisons as correctional institutions and realized that when people had served their time they had done that and hopefully found a better way to live their lives. I think this is a really important step to let people get through that application process and then explain their situation to an employer.”

Council member Gordon Smith praised Bothwell — along with Young and Williams — as a “champion internally” for banning the box. With that, Council passed the measure unanimously.

A gentrification antidote?

As the city’s seen rising housing costs, stagnant wages and increasing gentrification, concerns about the future have increased, with community members and city officials taking notice. So, apparently, has the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave the city a grant last year to brainstorm ways to deal with Asheville’s specific problems with a lack of equitable development.

Planner Sasha Vrtunski headed up that process from the city’s end, and said the goal was to make sure “everyone, especially those that are disenfranchised or underserved, are included in decision-making and have an opportunity to thrive.”

“As our city grows and there’s increased investment, how can we make sure our entire community is benefiting?” Specifically, the efforts focused on neighborhoods near the river, considered some of the most “vulnerable” and having a high concentration of poverty and segregation. It paired with the city’s own earlier study efforts seeking alternatives to gentrification.

While Vrtunski emphasized that many of the initiatives, like efforts for more economic development within the African-American community or building community land trusts, weren’t specifically city-run, but that local government could help with coordination or assistance. She also said that while local government’s ability to compel developers to invest in the surrounding community was limited under North Carolina law, the recent voluntary donation by hotelier John McKibbon or Green Opportunities’ job training programs both provided examples of how private businesses and non-profits could help a gentrifying area.

Smith promised that Council’s Housing and Community Development committee would take up the land trust issue shortly adding that while cities typically don’t lead such efforts, they could help to convene one. Vrtunski added that road changes in Livingston — at the center of the area where the gentrification study was focused — would also be the subject of an upcoming public meeting. Smith replied that any such changes should be accompanied by the city looking at how to make the area friendlier to locally-owned businesses “that folks are willing to see grow up in that area.”

Smith, who’s currently running for a Buncombe County Commissioners’ seat, noted that he was working on an initiative to provide capital for such businesses (a few days later, he would announce the measure as Buncombe Community Capital at Council’s retreat).

Another hotel (but in a different spot)

Like the meeting before it, one of the votes also revolved around a hotel. In this case, however, it wasn’t an “upper-upscale” edifice going up on prime downtown real estate. The project was on the outskirts of the city in South Asheville. It had already been approved in 2013, but after a previous hotel chain backed out, Hyatt Place’s design required some changes, including more rooms and a slight reduction in the number of parking spaces.

“This is basically the same project,” engineer Justin Church, representing the developer, said.

However, since 2013 the political environment around hotels had changed, and that meant that the project came in for a bit more stringent questioning than before. Tuch noted that the project was deemed appropriate because of its proximity to the airport.

Smith noted the deal with hotelier John McKibbon that Council agreed to at its last meeting (increasingly called “the McKibbon standard”) — donating to affordable housing and public infrastructure improvements, pushing for the city getting a portion of the hotel room tax and paying all full-time workers a living wage in exchange for city approval — at the previous meeting. The standard has been controversial, with some critics at the previous meeting asserting that hotels still further gentrification and that the living wage concession, in particular, was no concession at all.

Nonetheless, Smith referred to that standard as a touchstone of how he expected hoteliers to act if they wanted his vote from now on, and inquired if the hoteliers Church represented were interested in such contributions, though noting that Church might well not have the authority to answer.

“That’s probably not anything I can commit to,” Church said. “That’s what I figured,” Smith replied, noting that he should have communicated with the hoteliers earlier and that he’d have to think about how to vote on approval

Church noted that when the project was first conceived, the land wasn’t in the city.

“I agree it would nice to exact other conditions from the developer,” Bothwell said. “But having already approved this in the past, it feels like it’s a done deal: it’s a small expansion of the plans.”

With that, the project passed 6-1, with Smith against.

‘Really, really hard’

Periodically, board seats open up. In this case, among several boards the city considered, the Downtown Commission, which sets policy for the city’s core, attracted particular attention and a competitive bunch of applicants.

“Amazing candidates, it was really, really hard to do this,” Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said. “For the people we don’t choose tonight, we hope you choose to stay involved.” The sentiment was echoed by her colleagues. “I wish we had this pool of applicants every time,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said. “The most difficult choice I’ve ever had to make on a board or commission,” Bothwell noted.

Recently, terms for four seats on the Downtown Commission ended. At the current commission members’ recommendation, Council reappointed three of those four members. But the remaining seat was open, leaving Council to choose between 14 applicants (they decided to take a closer look at four). At the meeting, the votes would split between two – local business and civic leader Franzi Charen, notably of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, and Andrew Fletcher, a musician active in the Asheville Buskers Collective.

Charen ended up getting the nod, though Bothwell and Young supported Fletcher.

As the city has grown and downtown has become a focus for debate about its future, the commission attracted more notice, as the rush of applicants showed, though the city has maintained its policy of allowing boards to recommend their own successors and automatically reappointing any member who wishes it to a second term.

Putting the question

Over a quarter of the meeting was taken up by questions and comments from the public during Council’s open comment time.

South Asheville resident Vijay Kapoor thanked Council for delaying the apartment complex near Mills Gap Road and answering residents’ concerns.

“It struck a bit of a chord with the folks in South Asheville,” Kapoor noted, and raised larger concerns for the area. “Despite all of the rapid growth we’re seeing in South Asheville, we don’t yet have a transportation plan for South Asheville generally or even specifically this particular intersection, which 18,000 cars travel a day.”

“Frankly, those of us who live in South Asheville need to step up, we need to partner with you all and we need to partner with city staff. Unfortunately, we’ve got to do it really fast,” he continued. In addition to the apartment complex, a proposed Duke Energy substation and road changes that could potentially prove a “mini I-26″ that the area wasn’t ready to handle.

Mayfield noted that one reason for delaying the project was to take a more careful look at planning for South Asheville.

Priscilla Ndiaye, chair of the Southside Advisory Board, called on Council to take seriously the need to renovate the historic Walton Street Pool and the concerns of the surrounding community. The group, formed to represent the concerns of the Southside neighborhood in the face of change and gentrification, has made the renovation of the complex a major priority and started an online petition that has attracted 845 signatures.

“Going into the retreat I’m asking you to seriously consider and have a critical conversation about what you plan on doing with Walton Street park and pool,” Ndiaye said. “I remember, as a young girl, the fair being held there, going over to the park, learning how to swim, taking life-saving courses. That swimming pool, that area even now serves a lot of community members, community members who don’t have the transportation to go to a recreation center.”

“We know there have been no repairs done, at least I haven’t heard of any,” so the time for renovation was at hand. The community heard rumors over the years about the possible removal of the pool, Ndiaye added.

“There are no plans to remove the pool,” Manheimer noted, though at one point A-B Tech had broached using part of the property to build another access point but “that, from the Council’s perspective, was abandoned.”

City manager Gary Jackson asserted that staff were assessing the condition of the pools and putting together a plan to potentially repair them.

Last year, Ndiaye wrote a column in the Blade laying out concerns about the fate of the Walton Street complex and the need to save it. During the retreat a few days later, Council decided to make parks and recreation one of their major priorities in the upcoming year’s budget. At a meeting with members of the Southside Community the next Monday, Young reiterated the importance of parks and rec facilities.

Young noted that he signed the petition. Ndiaye thanks Council for the clarification, and noted that the rumors of the pool’s closure amid its state of disrepair had “made the community angry” and she was glad to dispel the rumors.

Williams returned to the podium and encouraged Council to consider community benefit agreements and similar measures to ensure that development left less communities behind.

“All businesses operate with the permission of the citizenry,” Williams said. “Therefore, when they are in a capacity to benefit the community, they should be called upon to do so.”

So when a developer comes forward for approval, Williams added, the city should ask “how is what you’re doing going to benefit the community, especially a community like Livingston Street, which is the only distressed census tract in Buncombe County?” Then, she said, it needed to try to get those developers to find ways to make what they build directly benefit underserved populations or help with projects like the Walton Street renovation.

Short hours

Most of the question time was spent revisiting the topic that began this piece: the city’s bus system and the attempt to reverse the cuts to evening hours.

Meath approached the dais to present the concerns about the bus system and the need for better service.

“In the transition to ART from the old system, some of the routes that used to run until 10 p.m. now run
until 6:30 or 7,” she said. “Many transit-dependent riders lost their jobs and have had limited access to many of their basic needs.”

The survey of riders and business owners found that all of the former and an “overwhelming majority” of the latter supported extending

“that’s important to note: these transit-dependent riders, who are often low-income, were willing to put skin in the game to help the ridership.”

“We also absolutely believe that it has to start with the will of the community and the will of city leaders to prioritize this as a need,” she continued.

Council member Julie Mayfield, formerly the Transit Commission’s chair, thanked Meath and praised the People’s Agenda, asserting she supported their goals.

“I am committed to increase those investments “The evening service you talked about is one of the priorities that’s come up from the transit committee”

Smith appreciated the survey data and noted that even a chamber of commerce questionnaire had found that the businesses they represented wanted increased evening service as well, “so it’s the ridership and the business community calling for this.”

But Young, while praising the overall push for evening hours, had some concerns.

“I’m almost baffled: you said that riders lost their jobs, but they’re willing to pay a little bit more for other services,” he said. “I can’t honestly say that I will be thrilled to raise the fees on the backs of the folks who have the most skin in the game. I think that’s deplorable.”

Young added that he hoped to find other ways to fund increased service.

Asheville-Buncombe NAACP President Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, a supporter of the transit campaign, noted that the mention of riders being willing to see higher fares in return for evening service wasn’t meant to suggest that be carried out, but to demonstrate the degree to which riders desired the change.

“Just Economics is not advocating the raising of fees to pay for the service,” she said. “This just illustrates how important it is to people.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell said the city should look into hiking parking deck fees instead to pay for transit improvements,

“Since I’ve been on Council we have systematically worked through the to-do list on transit and leave it to the transit commission to tell us what the community’s priorities are,” Manheimer said. “I feel like we’ve done a good job knocking out portions of that list. Cost is, of course, the biggest factor. The only reason the rest of the list isn’t done already is because of the incredible cost of providing transit.”

This year, the city is set to spend $6.6 million on transit system operations, according to its official budget. About $1.7 million of that comes out of the city’s general fund, while the lion’s share comes from state and federal grants ($2.5 million) and other revenues the city gathers. The total city budget for this fiscal year is projected at $157 million.

“That has proven to be the one barrier, not the will of Council,” Manheimer continued. “The will of Council is there and the will of the people is there.”

About those hour cuts

The cuts to evening hours when the transit system was ‘redefined’ almost four years ago emerged as an important issue during this meeting and the ensuing discussion. Notably, however, this decision wasn’t taken because the transit system suffered a sudden funding collapse, it was part of the 2012 overhaul, or “redefining” of the transit system.

So why were those cuts made? Were city officials concerned about the effects – lost jobs and worsening access to services — that riders and advocates later described?

The Blade asked Mariate Echeverry, who heads up planning for the bus system, to clarify this situation. This was her reply:

The Transit master plan recommended consolidation of operating hours, as there was a gap between the day and evening service which created some confusion among riders, as well as operating challenges. The TMP performed on-board surveys that showed that evening ridership was low, and consolidating was necessary to make a good use of the resources. The hours were set based on ridership, which means that routes that had higher ridership would operate later.

City staff conducts surveys periodically. The last one shows that evening service was 10 % as improvement most needed, compared with 50% for Sunday service. The survey is available online.

The survey Echeverry refers to was conducted in 2013, jointly with Just Economics. When rating their top priorities for service changes, about half of the responses tagged “Sunday service” as the most-needed, while 10 percent replied that “all night bus” (notably, something different from evening service) was the top priority.

However, when rating the changes made in 2012 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being worse and 5 being “greatly improved,” about a quarter of the riders rated the time service ended as worse and about half were dissatisfied with that change. When riders were asked to pick their biggest problem with the new system, the earlier end to service placed second, just after complaints about buses failing to arrive on time at all.

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