Tiger, Tiger

by David Forbes September 16, 2014

As Asheville catches TIGER grants and plans big changes, a look at city government’s long grapple with the infrastructure beast

Above: an image of Riverside Drive and the front of the city’s development plan.

The staff and elected officials of the city of Asheville were in high spirits last Friday. After years of planning, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was in town to announce that the city government had grabbed a long-sought prize: $14.6 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER for short) funding to “complete an interconnected six-mile network of pedestrian, bicycle, roadway, and streetscape improvements,” as the official federal announcement read.

“With the help of TIGER, Asheville residents and visitors will soon have even greater access to their community with the ability to bike and walk the city’s streets more safely and securely than before, including the roads near the French Broad River and in the Southside neighborhood,” Foxx declared in the announcement.

There’s more on the way, with the city poised to snag millions more in grant dollars and Asheville City Council just backing an ambitious 104-page plan for Riverside Drive’s development. The Citizen-Times marveled that, combined with new development coming to the area, it means “the biggest change in over 100 years” for the district.

All told, “the plan is coming together,” Mayor Esther Manheimer tells the Blade.

The “East of the Riverway” area and more specifically the RAD has been the focus of no shortage of hopes — and serious questions about its tragic history, eviction of artists, affordability and gentrification — for some time now.

Dealing with infrastructure — bridges, bike lanes, roads, sidewalks, potholes and more — is about as basic as local government gets. It’s also one of the the thorniest problems Asheville faces, shaped by some of the very same factors that have contributed to the city’s success (or the approach of its government to dealing with those challenges, depending on whom you ask). The acronym for the federal grant is appropriate; for a long time, dealing with this issue has been a beast for multiple city administrations.

While the TIGER funding is significant, it’s also just one piece of a much larger challenge and a much longer history. The efforts to transform the RAD, to whomever’s benefit, are a test run for overhauling other neighborhoods (“innovation districts” as city officials are calling them) in an effort to break through these problems. Here’s a look at the obstacles, changing perspectives and the complicated attempt to grapple with this most bricks and mortar of all local government’s duties.

The road behind

The story is a well-known one now: Asheville was a languishing city for decades, until a reviving downtown helped jump-start growth. It’s put our city on a pedestal as an example that can save others from bankruptcy.

There’s a fair deal of truth to that, though like any glossy myth there’s a lot it leaves out. But the success was real.

One consequences of that revival was that the population grew quickly — Asheville went from declines in population from 60s through the 80s to double-digit growth rates since 1990 and the climb hasn’t let up since. In fact, the population shot up so quickly that it taxed the city’s aging infrastructure faster than those new residents and rising property values built up more cash to handle the situation.

Cities in North Carolina generally have incredibly limited revenue options. Property taxes, service fees and permits are about the only things local governments have direct control over.

At the same time Asheville’s population was booming, so was Buncombe County’s, with many of the new residents commuting into the economic hub of the city for work but living outside its boundaries. Even before the state legislature made annexations all but illegal, Asheville took an incredibly cautious attitude towards taking growing neighborhoods into its borders. On average, major North Carolina cities took in 53 percent of their county’s population growth from 1950-2000. In Asheville it was 19 percent. For every five people that moved to Buncombe, one moved to Asheville.

Annexation is an incredibly controversial issue and unique laws around water further limited the city’s ability. Whatever the pros and cons of forced annexation, however, the result was that the city was further constrained.

It also means that Asheville is the city in North Carolina with the highest difference between daytime and nighttime population. Tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands during the height of tourist season — of people using city infrastructure don’t pay property taxes to the city’s coffers.

In 2010, city staff laid out their take on the situation in the Financial Crossroads report. It analyzed the situation like so:

Among all cities in North Carolina with  populations of 50,000 or greater, Asheville has the highest daytime to nighttime population ratio, with more than 40,000 people commuting into Asheville for employment (taking the daytime population from 69,000 to nearly 110,000 based on the 2000 census). This data does not take into account people who come into Asheville for shopping or services nor does it account for the significant tourism industry in the city. An analysis of Asheville’s public safety data demonstrates that Asheville supports an even greater non-residential population. According to the University of North Carolina School of Government’s Benchmarking Project, Asheville takes more calls for fire and emergency services per capita than any of the other 17 cities involved in the project (178 calls per 1,000 people compared to the next highest city, Charlotte, which has 126 calls per 1,000 people). Asheville would need to add around 51,000 more people to its population to bring its call volume more in line with the state average, bringing its total population to about 125,000 residents.

On top of all this, infrastructure’s expensive. Really expensive. Laying down sidewalks, roads or greenways that will last for decades just doesn’t come cheap. While costs vary in mountainous terrain, sometimes widely, it’s not unheard of for a mile of sidewalk construction to cost more than $500,000.

These things are also complicated, with funding and authority a mish-mash of state, federal and local governments. While Asheville’s TIGER-fueled run is gaining it millions to turn towards revamping the RAD, it also is a good example of all the different entities a local government has to deal with to rack up the dollars for serious transportation funding without dipping into local coffers or taking on debt.

So as Asheville’s growth continued, its infrastructure stayed stuck in the past, despite occasional funds devoted from the city budget for more sidewalks here and there (since 2006 the city’s spent $3 million on sidewalks). East Ashevillians rallied against the infamous “goat trail” leading to the veterans hospital (current Council member Chris Pelly played a major role in pushing those changes) and a general dearth of infrastructure in their area. At community meetings throughout the city residents told officials they were unhappy with the lack of sidewalks and road maintenance. For many years, city roads were due to wait most of a century between repavings.

One method cities sometimes use to cut this particular Gordian knot is a bond referendum — using their credit rating to take out a big chunk of cash to fund major improvements.

At one time — until fairly recently, in fact — multiple Council members endorsed or said they were open to such an idea. It was a topic of discussion during last year’s municipal elections, and commonly broached in the years before, though no concrete proposal emerged.

But last year, Council and city staff started talking about areas where they felt they could get more bang for the buck. Without annexation — and repeatedly facing major budget crunches — the city shifted to a “return on investment” approach. Things — like the Bele Chere festival — that were judged to be a losing proposition were scrapped. Instead, city staff and Council wanted projects that would spur downtown-style redevelopment, complete with the increased revenue.

Combined with that was an increasing focus on areas like the RAD where city leaders hoped to spur such transformation. To some degree this is an attempt to try the downtown revival approach — or city staff’s version of it, anyway — in other areas as well.

Last year, the city passed a tax increase, and a major justification for the hike was improving infrastructure. The road repaving cycle was shortened by a few decades, and the city launched planning for the RAD overhaul along with a number of infrastructure improvements in downtown, part of a slew of “aspirational” projects designed to make the city more prosperous.

Chasing the tiger

Over the last year, discussion about a bond referendum’s virtually disappeared. Asked about pursuing partnerships like the TIGER grants and other RAD funding as compared to a bond, Manheimer says “this is actually going to get done. That’s a distinct advantage.”

Flowing out of the “return on investment” approach, the city is targeting its fundraising efforts and as many dollars as it can muster at the areas it believes will create more. Manheimer believes the revamped RAD will have benefits for people throughout the area.

“They’ll be able to enjoy easier use of the River Arts District,” she says. “There will be bike lanes and sidewalks, more places for enjoyment and recreation. Families will be able to spend time down there. It will beautify it and address some of the less-sexy issues with stormwater and that sort of thing.”

Right now, the city’s designated three “innovation districts”  — South Slope, the RAD, and Charlotte Street. In addition to trying to figure out ways to redevelop, get grants for infrastructure and use city-owned property, the areas are eligible for bonds tied to city sales tax revenue.

The new plan for redeveloping the area along the French Broad River may include a hotel, “thoughtful” development of some city-owned property (much of it currently derelict buildings) and the creation of “promenades” to combine with the road overhauls and, of course, the big brewery New Belgium’s building next door.

The city’s overhauls to the RAD, and the cash from outside entities that’s flowed to back them, give Manheimer optimism that brokering similar multi-partner deals might spur development in other areas the city hopes to turn into thriving — and lucrative — districts, though she also points to the city’s gentrification study as evidence that they’re taking the possible consequences of redevelopment into account this time around. The city will deal with any redevelopment, she claims, “as a community process, not something for just one segment of the population.”

“The trend in the industry, so to speak, is to identify these innovation districts,” Manheimer says. “There’s lots of different to do it. It may not be the same way for every area. I think every situation is different. Your city administration and Council need to be nimble to pull together any of these deals.”

So for now, anyway, the city’s opted to put together specific deals for specific areas instead of trying to cut through Asheville’s overall infrastructure issues with a big-scale solution. It’s the latest attempt to grapple a beast that, after decades of efforts, has remained elusive.

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