‘A very dark and impenetrable place’

by David Forbes November 6, 2016

A growing backlash against city staff, pit of despair vexations, downed trees, arcane communication strategies and a busking agreement as Council heads towards Halloween (and Election Day)

Above: A slide from a presentation at the Oct. 25 Council meeting about the so-called “Pit of Despair” across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence.

The tone of Asheville City Council’s Oct. 25 meeting, with autumn in the air and Halloween (and Election Day) looming, was set by a malfunction, as Council chambers’ usual audio system wasn’t working.

In response to this incident (it remains in question whether gremlins lurking in City Hall’s ancient corridors were involved), city staff rigged up an iPhone to stream the meeting, gave Council members a single microphone to pass around and lashed an old podium (with a working microphone) beside the current one.

It didn’t stop there. Part of the meeting focused on the fate of the notorious “pit of despair” across from the Basilica. One commenter called the city bureaucracy, which faced criticism from multiple quarters during the meeting, a “dark and impenetrable place.” A presentation on the city’s arcanely-worded communication strategy even involved an inadvertent pentagram, though it didn’t seem to offer them much protection from the criticism or controversies that roiled forth at the meeting. All that was missing was someone shouting “beware!” in an appropriately ominous tone.

But all seasonally-themed and occasionally humorous coincidences aside, the meeting revealed major gulfs between parts of the community and the city staff that de facto holds much of the day-to-day power over Asheville’s government. This time the discontent emerged not from frequent critics or gadflies, but from people who’ve worked with the city for over a decade on multiple issues like food security and transit. The meeting also showed — when it came to the aforementioned pit — that a particularly thorny downtown issues remains vexing both for Council and the citizens trying to hammer out a solution.

But at the same time some conflicts came to the surface, a two year-long fight over busking finally saw a halt, as busker advocates and the city reached a deal about new rules.

Fare weather friends

Generally, Asheville offers free bus fare on election day, and Council was set to approve that this year on its consent agenda; a list of usually uncontroversial items that passes in a single vote at the beginning of the meeting. This time, however, the move ended up drawing up some debate.

Intended as a straightforward way to help bus riders (many of whom have limited transportation options and budgets) get to the polls, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler criticized the move, doubting it had any impact and pushing for the usual $1 fare charge to remain in place.

“We had, I thought, agreed that we would look at the effectiveness of whether the fare free day actually increases voters,” Wisler said. In this year’s primary, she noted, while “there was no real way to figure out how many people riding the bus actually voted but ridership was down that day, on average. Also, the Multimodal Transportation Commission did not recommend a fare free day because they didn’t think it would be effective in increasing voters or reducing barriers to voting and it would cost the city lost revenue.”

“While I agree with the objective I don’t think fare free day works,” Wisler continues, though she was in favor of keeping the city’s para transit, for locals with disabilities, free. She wanted staff and the multimodal commission to study the issue “and come up with an alternative.”

But Council member Julie Mayfield noted that the city’s Transit Committee had voted to recommend the fare free day “this time around.”

Council member Gordon Smith said he appreciated Wisler looking at the issue “critically,” but favored the measure and wanted to make Election Day automatically fare free “from here on out. If people who lived here just knew election days were fare-free, then we wouldn’t have to be doing the promotion every time” and would encourage more ridership.

Kim Roney, a member of both the transit and multimodal committees, said that the fare free day was a boon, and that Wisler was wrong to dismiss its usefulness to local voters, especially as on election day they can only vote at their specific precinct location.

“I have used the bus, even to get a short distance through the rain, to get to my poll, I can’t possibly have been the only one,” she told Council. “On election day, when you need to get a polling place near where you live, that’s when you need it.”

Council member Keith Young backed Smith’s idea of making the free fare “permanent, so it doesn’t come up every election cycle.” Mayfield added that the city could do so when it considered its fees and charges next year. Council passed the move 6-1 over Wisler’s objections.

The pit and the pendulum

From there attention turned to the fate of the infamous “Pit of Despair.” This plot of land across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence has ended up a major flashpoint for debates over public space and the future of downtown. Originally intended for a parking deck, that proposal fell apart in the face of major public backlash in the mid-2000s, while an (also controversial) push to put a McKibbon hotel on the site collapsed in 2013 amid a lawsuit from rival hoteliers.

The city, which spent millions in combined costs on buying the properties and demolishing the old buildings that were there still wanted to sell the site to some outside party, and it became a major issue in the last election. The ensuing fracas pitted advocates of a “St. Lawrence Green” or similar public space (who gathered 4,000 signatures for the proposal) against defenders of the city’s position who asserted they needed to recoup what they’d spent and bring more economic activity to the area by selling it. While over a fairly small plot of land, it roped in issues of public space in a gentrifying city along with skepticism about local government’s response.

In this case, elections changed the political terrain. Two of the victorious candidates in last year’s Council races — Young and Brian Haynes — support a public space on the site, as does Council member Cecil Bothwell, a vocal and active backer of the St. Lawrence Green effort. Nevertheless, as the year ended Council members new and old made it quite clear they were still sharply divided on what should happen to the space.

They decided to send the dilemma to committee. Overseeing a new approach to the plot went to the Asheville Design Center and a city-appointed group of 18 community members representing everyone from buskers to business groups that the city hashed out in March.

Joyell noted that at this point the ADC had tried to refocus the discussion less around what should be at the site than what actions the public wanted to be able to do there.

“Form follows function,” ADC Director Chris Joyell said. “We gathered public input from a variety of sources, attempting to reach everyone from neighboring stakeholders to citizens throughout Asheville. We received well over 1,000 comments and no surprise, they cover everything from a grassy park to a parking deck and everything in between.”

ADC had captured those comments in “a massive database” and sought to make it easier for the public to use and search. The 18-member group had their own list of 17 benefits they would like to see in the space, and Joyell acknowledged that ‘some of those benefits appear to conflict with each other, but the team is intent on striking the right balance.”

But some might work together. a slide noted that trying out ongoing uses like bike parking alongside rotating ones like a farmer’s market, movies, public art performances and a food truck court could give the city vital information about what might finally go in the controversial space.

Andrew Fletcher, chairing the group (and representing the Buskers’ Collective), praised the “pace of conversation” and the “tremendous amount of information it had gathered of ideas “both practical and whimsical” to try to provide staff and Council with a menu. The group, he added, had neither the expertise or the guidelines from city government to do so.

The temporary uses could engage “vast amount of Asheville residents in many different ways, and won’t that be a vast improvement?” Fletcher then displayed a slide with “Pit of Despair” crossed out.

“I know we’re not close to breaking out the silver-plated shovels and the oversize scissors are going to stay wherever they live for a little while longer,” he continued, but hoped some temporary uses of the area would shine some light.

While praising the committee’s work Council, however, clearly wanted a more narrow list of definite recommendations in the near future, and they swung back and forth on how exactly who needed to take the next step in this complicated saga.

“What we talked about is asking the group now to narrow this down to a recommendation for Council, maybe two or three things from the temporary use list,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said.

Bothwell asked if two or three were sufficient, noting the group’s example that multiple uses could be tried in the space in a relatively short time.

Fletcher asked Council to set a line on exactly how many uses Council wanted the group to cut out.

“While that all looks like a lot of fun, that looks like a site or a venue that has a full-time manager overseeing the transition between all these activities,” Mayfield said. “The more we’re asked to recommend the more that space takes, as compared to saying it’s a home for food trucks and the city puts up some tables and sunshades.”

Fletcher said that the group didn’t assess cost because that was more properly a city decision than one for the citizen task force.

“We need you to stay focused on making a recommendation,” Manheimer said. “I know we can get on a tangent when we start talking uses and costs and those can remain unknown.”

“If it’s a dozen things then it’s pretty much each person on the task force putting in their favorite thing,” she continued. “That doesn’t necessarily give me any idea about where there’s necessarily consensus.”

A list of narrower options would allow staff to more accurately estimate costs, she concluded.

Fletcher noted that if it were just two or three options he felt it would be too limited. Perhaps Council wanted the list narrowed to several amenities (like bike racks) that could be ongoing and several more temporary activities (like performances)?

“We certainly don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into something just one person’s interested in,” City Manager Gary Jackson said, recommending the group prioritize its recommendations.

Young wanted the group to pursue uses that didn’t require much oversight.

“You’re looking for things to activate it now: quick, cheap, easy,” Bothwell said, wondering if Council members could pick a dozen of the existing recommendations then seeing where those lists overlapped.

“We could do that, but we created this task force to make a recommendation,” Manheimer said. “I realize you guys are struggling with consensus, you’re struggling with process. We did the same thing for a really long time.”

A few people in the audience chuckled as Manheimer stretched out those last three words, and she concluded by recommending the group take a vote or decide a similar way to come forward with clearer recommendations for the space.

“If you need less options, we can bring less options,” Fletcher said.

“Many less options,” Manheimer replied.

“The key word is ‘temporary’ so I wouldn’t spin my wheels on it too much,” Young added.

“I think I can begin to imagine what you guys are looking for,” Fletcher answered.

Cut down

The next presentation began calmly enough, but it proved just a veneer over a much larger controversy, one whose depth would become more apparent over the course of the meeting. In 1997 locals in the historically African-American East End neighborhood started building an edible park on the site of the old Stephens Lee High School, later named after famed botanist George Washington Carver. Since 2002, the non-profit Bountiful Cities, in a contract with the city, has managed the space. The country’s first edible park, it received national recognition in discussions of how to deal with food insecurity.

But since 2014, a neighbor started repeatedly complaining about the lack of lighting, asserting that a more illuminated area would make the park “less hospitable” to the homeless. Despite John Gavin, the city’s parks manager, encouraging via email a meeting between the non-profit, neighborhood residents and city staff before taking any action or cutting down any trees, Neighborhood Coordinator Marsha Stickford wrote dismissively about Bountiful Cities’ work in the park in an email and noted the Asheville Police Department had multiple problems with the area, writing “we can make a case for needing to do whatever in order to get the lighting installed.”

In early October, without notification to Bountiful Cities, the neighborhood or the city’s own Sustainability Office, heirloom apple trees and part of a chestnut came down. City staff later claimed the whole incident was a mistake, and promised to meet with the non-profit to avoid any further problems.

Tensions between local food non-profits and city staff has been increasing for about a year. During the January retreat, some Council members even criticized Jackson and other top staff for not taking the Food Action Plan, aimed to decrease the city’s food insecurity — by some measures WNC’s hunger problem is among the worst in the country — seriously. Around the same time, some leaders of the Food Policy Council, a coalition that includes Bountiful Cities, asserted that staff were straight-up ignoring the policy elected officials had passed.

Conflicts didn’t stop there. In February the city planned to move trees from the Montford Recreation Center’s orchard. The Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club rallied a petition with over 1,000 signatures against the move, claiming the trees wouldn’t survive. Facing public pressure, the city let the trees stand.

Despite that bubbling cauldron of context, Communications Director Dawa Hitch didn’t talk directly about the controversy or what specific breakdown in the city’s communications led to the mistake — no staff members were named and no events detailed. Instead Hitch offered an abstract overview of the city’s communications strategy.

“Communication, effective engagement and transparency are all core values of this organization,” Hitch said. “Managing relationships has also been identified as a focus area by the management team so over the next year we as a team will intentionally be focusing on improving communications across departments both internally and externally in our day-to-day operations.”

She acknowledged that this was all “more an art than a science” but one she hoped would “minimize misunderstandings.”

To that end, she claimed, the city would focus on “investing in a diverse communications portfolio” “encourage a culture of engagement in the organization” and “effectively managing engagement in the community.”

Parks and Rec Director Roderick Simmons was a bit more specific, asserting that the tree removal was due to an “miscommunication internally among staff. The project started before we were ready to launch it.”

Simmons said he’d reached out to East End residents and Bountiful Cities to try to “balance competing needs” for the lights and trees. Criteria for tree removal were now being updated to notify the public in a more timely fashion.

Bothwell suggested Bountiful Cities could graft from the existing stumps to replace the trees more quickly.

Jackson said that if the city had followed its strategies, the “important stakeholders” would have been aware of any work being done in the park, so “everybody knew exactly what was going to happen” and that “satisfactory expectations were communicated.”

But that didn’t quite happen, he admitted. “I think there are lessons to be learned across the board, as Roderick said. Internal communication was not as coordinated as we would expect it to be.” Parks and rec’s own managers, he added, didn’t even know about the work until the day it was happening. In the future the city’s plans should hopefully solve that.

“None of this is typical,” Mayfield claimed, encouraging city staff “not to get too hidebound in process” when it came to notifying community members. “There just needs to be a core commitment that the right people are at the table when the decisions get made. I hope that is every public servant’s instinct.”

She added that the public should hold the city accountable when things didn’t work.

The reaction of the public however, at least the members there that night, was mixed, and many weren’t exactly satisfied with staff and Council’s answers.

“The incident is a communications incident but also shines a light on some important work we can do together,” Kyra Milan, the food council’s coordinator, said, encouraging a different approach from thereon. “I’d really like to see us move towards the ‘collaborate’ and ’empower’ end of the communication spectrum and that was obviously something that was missing in this particular incident. We’d like to move from notifications towards engaging with people, specifically working low-income and low-wealth communities.”

“The city was quick to apologize over this and I do want to acknowledge that apology,” Darcel Eddins, Bountiful Cities’ director, said. “But I do want to acknowledge that this has created a lot of conflict and a lot of tension within the community, especially because this is just a few months behind the Montford Park” incident.

“A lot of people have put a lot of volunteer hours into this and they feel dismissed by the city. There was a lot of communication that went out, two years back and forth and Bountiful Cities was only mentioned one time,” Eddins continued, referring to Stickford’s exchanges with the neighbor pushing for the light installation.

The tension was heightened she said, by the fact that Bountiful Cities makes a good faith effort to work with local government, “we might be blunt, we might be truthful, but we collaborate.”

But she claimed that there remains a lack accountability for city staff’s mistakes.

“Someone issued that work order,” Eddins said. “We’ve been working for the city for a long time now and when we want something from the city, it’s a process for a work order.”

Nicole Hinebaugh, also of Bountiful Cities, praised the city’s Sustainability Office in its work on the food plan, but noted staff there were never consulted.

“This all could have been easily prevented with a simple e-mail or walking across the hall and picking up a phone,” she said.

The problems with city staff extended beyond the issue of trees and the food plan claimed Vicki Meath, the director of Just Economics, a non-profit that’s worked with the city extensively on living wage and transit issues and she asserted that the problems demonstrated in the edible park snafu were more the rule than the exception.

“What happens here extends beyond this issue of the edible park, it extends to how our city communicates with community groups in general,” she said. “I would ask to take a serious look at this and flag it as a concern. We need to look at who gets listened to, who gets invited to the table, who gets responded to.”

Meath referred to similar problems long fight over the fate of Asheville bus system, another iceberg of an issue. Last year, rider advocates and the driver’s union highlighted major problems with buses being late and breaking down, asserting a lack of accountability from management company First Transit and from city staff that ignored mounting concerns for well over a year. Facing public pressure last year, Council and Jackson agreed to put the system’s management up for bid, allowing for a new company to possibly take the reins. But earlier this year controversy flared up again when city staff recommended renewing First Transit’s contract despite the numerous problems.

That drew major criticism from the union, Just Economics and even the city’s own Transit Committee, which unanimously voted against renewing the company’s contract. Tensions with staff also escalated during that process, as transit staff falsely told committee members that they didn’t have key documents about the details of First Transit’s bid.

In that case city staff’s process also ended up running afoul of federal rules and, in June, Jackson claimed responsibility for mistakes in the process and the city went back to the drawing board.

Meath said the parallels between the two situations were too hard to ignore.

“My organization has been leading a transit campaign in communicating with city staff,” she said. “The vast majority of the time it’s been us constantly fussing and following up and them never coming to us, even though they know we’re there.”

“Marginalized people, poor people, people of color in this community do not feel like they are listened to,” Meath concluded.

“This obviously is an acute issue for a certain segment of our community when this event happened,” Manheimer said. “Council wanted to show that internally this issue has been addressed and have an opportunity for public discussion of it.”

Smith expressed his appreciation of the speakers and quoted Carver that “service measures success.”

“The people that came up here to speak tonight are certainly service-minded people,” he said. “This is a really unfortunate way to get to a bunch of improvements, but it really does feel like we stumbled upon across a springboard of some sort.” He was optimistic about the possibilities for “rebuilding trust” and moving forward with the food plan.

But the public wasn’t done with expressing its current distrust. An East End resident backed up Meath’s assessment later, in the open public comment portion of the meeting, harshly criticizing staff (with the exception of a good word for Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball) for the way she’s seen them deal with multiple issues in her community.

“I’m a big fan of the fruit and nut [club], not a big fan of staff,” Dawn Nelson said. “There seems to be this wonderful, service-oriented aspect of the Council itself that wants Asheville to be the unique and wonderful thing Asheville can be. Then there are these wonderful citizens who are doing these crazy and wonderful things.

“Then there’s staff and that seems to be a very dark and impenetrable place,” she continued. “Things seem to disappear in a welter of process and powerpoint and ‘best practices.’ I’d just love to see a little more attention to actual personal access instead of process.”

A busk break

The other major item Council dealt with had, for many years, also been a controversy between city staff and part of the community, in this case the city’s buskers. However, this time both were in Council chambers to announce that they’d finally reached an agreement.

City staff, including some of the APD’s downtown unit, had started crafting a potential wave of new restrictions on busking starting in September 2014, including limits on performance sizes, permits, background checks and a ban on amplification. Local buskers organized fierce opposition to this push (though a formal proposal hadn’t come forward to city government yet), supported by thousands of signatures on a petition drive against the possible restrictions. Council’s Public Safety Committee decided shortly after not proceed with any new restrictions for the time being.

Months of back and forth followed between the Asheville Buskers Collective that emerged from that initial political battle and the city, with some involvement by the Downtown Association and local residents and business owners. The buskers claimed that staff’s approach treated them more as a nuisance than a key part of downtown’s culture and attractiveness, and infringed upon a basic right (busking is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment). Staff asserted that the popularity of busking caused real noise and congestion issues and needed to be be balanced against other aspects of downtown. Last April, the Council committee again chose to take no action.

But in a tense meeting last August, after what the buskers asserted was almost no notice or involvement, staff came forward with proposed restrictions to curb busking in four major spots: in front of Woolworth Walk, the Flat Iron sculpture, Pack Square and near Spiritex. By limiting the space performance could take up and how close they could be to each other, the restrictions would have forbidden busking at the Spiritex spot entirely.

The battle continued, as the buskers countered that those locations were some of the main ones that allowed their mostly working class demographic to make a living as performers, something the restrictions would end. The city’s proposals, they believed, were made without real knowledge of what they faced and continued to treat them as obstacles rather than partners. In the general election for Council seats last year, the only candidate to endorse the proposed restrictions – then-Vice Mayor Marc Hunt — lost, something the buskers claimed as another sign of public support for their position.

Nonetheless, as recently as five months ago it looked like this battle would continue for a long time to come. While Pack Square was dropped from the list of areas the city looked to restrict at a June public space forum staff proposed more restrictions than before, including schedules and requiring buskers to register. Buskers strongly objected and asserted (including in a Blade opinion column) that the restrictions would force many buskers to leave and that city staff had, despite its repeated invocations of an open process, introduced harsh proposals with little notice and no serious consultation.

But over the following few months, staff’s proposals lightened considerably. In September, they came forward with suggestions for much lighter restrictions only on the Flat Iron and Woolworth sites, leaving the Spiritex site intact. Rather than boxes limiting the space a performer could take, the city only specified the spot where an audible performance should be centered. While wanting a definite, legal time limit on the new rules, the buskers’ group didn’t outright oppose them. In September the Public Safety Committee moved them forward and the mood on Oct. 25, after two years of political fighting, was now largely one of agreement.

“Boundaries will be marked as will a minimum six foot passageway for pedestrian traffic, educational materials will be developed, distributed and will be available through the city’s website,” Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston said. Council would receive regular reports and staff planned to roll the changes out within two weeks.

“You brought together a very good, messy conversation,” Mayfield said.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Public Safety Committee for allowing this to come through now instead of earlier,” Fletcher, speaking for the Buskers’ Collective, said. “This is a good thing, we support it and I think this is going to help address some of the public safety issues that are signs of success. It’s a sign of vitality of our city that we’re dealing with this in this way. Most cities deal with a lack of busking.”

He added that most cities had bad approached to busking; few had developed truly good ones. “I thank staff for trying to invent a new wheel on this, that was what was required if you were going to maintain the culture we have here.”

Council members were effusive, nearly talking over each other in trying to be the first to make the motion to approve the new rules. Young noted his approval was because the buskers had backed the move.

Smith said that due to the whole process, city staff had actually identified that many of the problems in downtown initially tied to busking weren’t due to busking at all.

“Some of that is the pedestrians themselves, some of it is light poles that are in places there need not be light poles or other impediments to people moving through. It’s been through this partnership with the artists downtown that we’ve been able to better identify how to make this whole civic space be more productive and flow better for everyone.”

The new rules passed unanimously.

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