Down the road

by David Forbes April 11, 2017

Three major political issues — wrangling over the budget, short-term rentals and the ‘Pit of Despair’ — take center stage for Council, but many answers wait for another day

Above: a slide on ending the ‘Pit of Despair’ reputation of the city property across from the Basilica, presented in December by members of the city’s task force looking at possible options for the site.

The first half of Asheville’s local political year tends (not always for the best) towards deliberation rather than decision. Council, city staff and various boards will consider a lot of different things as they decide what to do with the budget, usually the single biggest decision of the year. Given the sheer political gravity that undertaking exerts, the usual question of “what the hell will the state legislature do?” and the matter of if the tax rate should go up, big decisions on anything usually wait until the May days when the budget is finalized or the later summer and autumn, after it’s already passed.

That phenomenon was on full display at the March 28 meeting, as the budget wrangling continued, this time primarily over possibly expanding transit services and where the city should direct its efforts towards sustainable energy. That last included a sometimes terse exchange over a possible program to help low-income residents bring their power bills down. While the city did make a step forward on the fate of the (in)famous property across from the Basilica, many of the big decisions on that issue are still to come. A zoning dispute also illustrated that Council remains sharply divided about the issue of Airbnb-style rentals.

Bus fees could go up while increased service gets delayed — The first issue on Council’s plate was one that’s proved contentious in recent years years: the bus system.

Asheville’s bus system provides essential services, especially to lower-income and working class people with limited transportation options. But changes in 2012 cut evening service hours, partly in an effort to focus service towards wealthier “choice riders.” That led to some local workers losing their jobs and some stops being removed or reduced in a move advocates later said hit marginalized communities particularly hard.

In 2014, the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality launched, focusing on an detailed set of reforms to make the system more workable for those who depended on it. As its efforts ramped up, the system implemented limited Sunday and holiday service, along with later hours on some routes. Over the last two years, attention turned to the basic function of the system, as rider advocates and the transit workers’ union asserted that mismanagement by First Transit, the company overseeing operations, combined with city staff ignoring mounting issues meant that many routes had major problems. One regional union official said Asheville had “fundamentally a dysfunctional transit system.”

An attempt to re-issue the contract to oversee the bus system ran afoul of major process and transparency issues last year, something advocates and some transit commission members pinned on city staff’s handling of the situation. Advocates have asserted that the city needs to do far more to ensure that the problems of the past few years don’t continue to worsen. But senior staff now claim that will mean paying $500,000 to $1 million a year more to ensure the system doesn’t repeatedly break down.

At the same time, pressures to improve service in a growing city are also there, and Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball laid out some firm numbers for what some improvements could cost. That included overdue improvements to the main bus station ($750,000), 10 p.m. service on all major routes ($915,000 a year, $2.5 million one-time expense for new buses), greater frequency on key routes ($1.8 to 2.7 million per year, along with $3.6 million for new buses),

To complicate matters even further, Ball noted that both state and federal funds for Asheville’s transit system could end up cut in the coming year.

That led to some discussion, though covered in jargon, about possibly raising bus fees (currently $1 a ticket). In previous years, this suggestion has floundered due to concerns a hike will further hurt cash-strapped people in a city whose cost-of-living is already incredibly high. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler noted the bus ticket price was far below making up the cost of the ride, though Council member Julie Mayfield responded that almost all transit systems are subsidized to some degree.

City manager Gary Jackson noted that, just to cover the cost of the new corporate bus contract and keep the system functional, he would look into “cost recovery,” usually city jargon for hiking fees on those benefiting from a service.

When it came to expanding service, the cash constraints meant Council wasn’t going the ambitious route. Mayfield noted that expanding frequency on one key route would probably be all the city could wrangle in the near future, though Council member Cecil Bothwell added that the bus system was one of the only tools the city has to reduce the public’s carbon footprint and pollution.

Tensions over energy initiatives, but some agreements reached —  At Council’s previous meeting Mayfield, who’s part of an energy task force along with representatives from Buncombe County and Duke Energy, had laid out a series of proposals for spending on energy programs. These included improvements to city storage facilities, an audit of how city properties use energy and partnering with the county and Duke on a marketing campaign to promote better energy usage.

But the main piece that had attracted notice at that previous session was a program of weatherization for low-income households. This was initially proposed as a two-pronged approach: it would reduce power bills that can strain some families’ budgets and reduce overall energy use, especially during winter when the power system can get most strained.

But it wasn’t without its own controversy. While Council member Gordon Smith proposed the city could use some of its affordable housing bond funds for the purpose, Wisler voiced said she remained concerned about “the squishiness of the numbers” and wanted the funds cut down. She didn’t support using the city’s general funds to back the low-income assistance piece. Manheimer was also skeptical, asserting that in other cities non-profits, not local governments, back such initiatives.

This illustrated a repeated divide on Council regarding services for low-income households. It also showed up last year in early negotiations over the bond referendum, when Manheimer and Wisler initially pushed for a far smaller amount of funds for affordable housing than their colleagues, though a their arguments didn’t win the day. Both did support the overall bond push, but have generally been more reluctant to devote city funds towards social services.

In this case, their reluctance didn’t sit well with Council member Keith Young, who replied “this is ridiculous” at their attempts to scale back low-income energy assistance.

“We’re forgetting the impact on people” who can’t afford energy improvements, Young said. “I’ve been there before.” He added that he wouldn’t support the energy efforts if they didn’t include income assistance. Bothwell agreed, noting that even if the city did use tax funds to weatherize low-income homes, it wasn’t a huge expense and could have real benefit.

After that back-and-forth, Council agreed to go forward with Smith’s suggestion to use some of the bond funds to back the weatherization efforts. Though in what’s shaping up to be a somewhat tight budget year, it remains an open question how much of the energy initiatives will survive.

Navigating the ‘Pit of Despair’

After Council’s formal meeting began, attention turned to a long-time issue: the fate of a slice of property across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Once the site of a number of structures, including a former parking garage and the Sister Cities of Asheville building, over the past decade the city pushed different proposals for most of the site, including a parking deck and a hotel. Both of those proposals floundered in the face of public backlash and lawsuits, respectively. As buildings in the area went down, they were replaced by gravel and a stark stone wall, giving the area the “pit of despair” moniker.

During the 2015 election the issue became a major flashpoint, dragging in larger issues about public space, gentrification and dissatisfaction with city government’s perceived coziness with developers. Supporters of a green or public space on the site won two out of three seats in that year’s election. Council remained sharply divided over what to do with the site, but the city stopped offering the site for sale and decided to designate a task force. Fourteen local organizations, from the Downtown Association to the Buskers Collective to the Friends of St. Lawrence Green, appointed members, and the city added three more.

However, the task force’s mandate was intentionally constrained: it wasn’t supposed to deal with major design questions, how much of the site should or shouldn’t be public space or who should own it. Instead it was to figure out some temporary uses and possible overall ideas “to inform future action on the site.”

Early in March, as the task force was wrapping up its work, Bothwell — a major advocate of a park on the site — blasted the group’s work as “a pile of crap” in an email to task force Chair Andrew Fletcher and Chris Joyell of the Asheville Design Center. Manheimer criticized him at the March 14 Council meeting, claiming his actions were an undue attempt to influence a city committee. He later claimed he was standing up for a parks advocate who felt bullied on the task force and claimed the email was private (though there are no such thing when it comes to government officials sending emails about public business).

But despite that previous clash the presentation was relatively free of major fireworks. The committee’s final report and recommendations passed 16-1, though the presentation also illuminated how many major parts of this issue still remain in Council’s court.

Fletcher, the busker representative as well as chair, said the group had “reconciled some contradictions.”

“People were expecting a big, glossy image of what’s going to be there, but that is not what we were charged to come up with,” he said. “We were charged to come up with a vision, not a design. A community can help create a vision and that vision can show a designer what success will look like.”

“Without compromise, the future looks like a pit of despair,” he continued. Locals had indicated, during input sessions the task force held, that they wanted a range of uses at the site, from passive enjoyment like a park to commerce to entertainment. Demands for an public space topped the list of amenities, but “private structures” wasn’t far behind.

“Lord knows we’ve been wrestling with this thing for a really long time,” Smith, who during the 2015 elections favored a sale of the site, said. He also praised the task force’s work as “heroic” and said he hoped that housing would be part of the eventual uses on the site. He then moved that the city commission a designer to use the task force’s input to narrow down the options further and come up with some more definite ideas.

“Once the property came off the market, we could switch to the question of ‘what'” and away from “park or development,” Mayfield noted.

Members of the public also weighed in, showing the range of opinions that remained about what to do, and how much the single site still tied into larger debates about the city’s future.

Sharon Willin claimed that affordable housing at the site for the “missing middle” was the top priority, given the housing crisis.

Activist Clare Hanrahan, who lives in the nearby Battery Park Apartments, said that many of the elderly and low-income in the area, “among the most vulnerable in our city” needed green and public space near their homes, especially as the city has steadily taken away benches from downtown.

“We live there, it’s our neighborhood,” Hanrahan said. “This is for our health and well-being.”

Coleman Smith proposed that the city draw on the experience of the site’s neighbors, along with local artists, when designers were looking at what to do. Mayfield agreed and later emphasized the importance of “significant public involvement.”

Council candidate Dee Williams, however, sounded a skeptical note, saying she believed the task force’s plans were leaning towards selling off the space in a damaging way.

“There’s a lot of us locals who don’t get a lot of opportunities to come downtown anymore,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people who voted in the last election got fed a bill of goods.”

“It looks like something else won the day,” she continued. “We have a tale of two cities here in Asheville. We have an affluent tourism clientele and then you’ve got just us folks who live like hell here.”

If the space did end up a commercial one, she said, it needed to help locals’ economic prospects.

Bothwell said that the city should try out temporary, short-term uses to further refine the design. But Manheimer and Smith replied those efforts were already in place.

But with all the optimism in the room, it remained clear that the big decisions over the fate of the site: how much will be public space and who will own it, remained undecided.

“I know this has been torture for a lot of people,” Manheimer said, but added that other communities were facing similar questions over public space and gentrification. She cited the example of Portland, Maine, where the public voted for a park that later had major challenges with its use because of design issues. It showed the need, she believed, to be deliberate about these kind of public space questions.

“I still feel like we’re at the beginning of a really long road,” she said. “It is a complex issue, though I do feel we’re applying the ‘Asheville way.’ I’m glad we’re taking one more step tonight.” With that, Council unanimously voted to hire a designer and took one more step toward a still-uncertain destination.

Historically problematic

The next controversial decision concerned both the fate of an individual site — the historic Parker-Patton House — and a much larger issue: Airbnb-style rentals.

Those rentals aren’t allowed in most residential neighborhoods, including the Charlotte Street area the house is located in. They remain a controversial issue, but a majority of Council currently asserts that letting whole homes and apartments become Airbnb-style rentals (known as “short-term rentals” in the city’s zoning code) worsens the housing crisis and damages residential neighborhoods. But the owner, attorney James Siemens, now wanted the go-ahead, which would allow him to stop renting two apartments on the property to tenants and start renting them to tourists or visitors.

Staff recommended against the issue, noting that it would remove two housing units in exactly the type of area where the city most needed them.

Siemens claimed he didn’t believe this individual case would set a precedent, “as this is the only property like it in Asheville” due to the constraints on it due to its landmark status. He said he hadn’t known lodging for visitors or tourists was prohibited when he initially received approval for the renovation.

“I hate to step into the STR politics,” he noted.

“You are there,” Manheimer replied. She also noted she was concerned it would set the possibility of property owners pushing for short-term rentals on a “case-by-case” basis.

Speakers were split on the issue. Some of the neighbors asserted that Siemens had renovated a local landmark and should get the go-ahead to rent out the units to tourists to off-set those costs, others that worried about the impact or.

“I’m the closest full-time resident to the project we’re discussing,” Andy Poozer said. “He [Siemens] has an excellent track record as a steward of our area.”

Manheimer and Mayfield noted that while Poozer might be the nearest property owner, two renters, who would lose their housing, lived on-site and other renters lived nearby.

Grace Curry praised Siemens renovation, but said this request should be denied due to nearby amenities “being ideal for housing” and the possibility that more tourists would increase traffic.

Patrick O’Cain, owner of nearby Gan Shan Station, said Siemens should get his way or “it may set a precedent moving forward so that other businesses don’t come to Charlotte Street because we can’t make these type of pro-business decisions.”

But David Rogers countered that “it’s obvious that we need housing in Asheville. This is an opportunity to flush two units of housing away or keep them.”

Jane Mathews, a frequent critic of short-term rentals, asserted that Siemens owned a significant amount of property and had received significant tax breaks, including a 50 percent cut in his local property taxes, for the renovation of the historic home.

“This is an exclusive and hefty benefit that few have and it is underwritten by you and me,” she said. “He knows full well that ignorance of the law is no justification of actions.”

Bothwell, generally a proponent of allowing more short-term rentals, said it was justified in this situation by other nearby commercial properties and the property’s unique status.

“If we approve this, we might see more of these,” Mayfield said, concerned about setting a “troubling” precedent for more case-by-case zoning in favor of Airbnb-style rentals.

“I didn’t hear any reason to change this other than the applicant wants to make more money, that’s not a valid reason to change the zoning,” Wisler said.

Smith was recused because he has a professional referral agreement with Siemens in his business practice. The remaining six elected officials split down the middle, with Young, Bothwell and Council member Brian Haynes in support and Wisler, Manheimer and Mayfield against, meaning that Siemens’ request was denied.

The Asheville Blade is entirely funded by its readers. If you like what we do, donate directly to us on Patreon or make a one-time gift to support our work. Questions? Comments? Email us.