No free parking

Based on my long experience examining and reporting on Asheville’s dance with parking spaces and lots and decks, and based on recent reading, I now question the development rules we are using which require developers to provide parking for new structures. While provision for parking SEEMS to be a solution, it has proven to be the problem in cities across the country.
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Most obvious are the malls and shopping areas which are required to provide parking for peak use. That is, the mall which is required to have spaces for all of the holiday shoppers during the week before Christmas and which sits mostly empty through the rest of the year. But there are also reasons to question the inclusion of parking beneath or adjacent to buildings that are not part of shopping malls. The evidence suggests that this only encourages auto use, which is not in a city’s best interest.

I haven’t reached any kind of conclusion on this matter, but thinking outside the box or the parking lot is one of the ways I hope to move Asheville into the 21st century.

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More thoughts on the Basilica of St. Lawrence

Opposition to the hotel proposed for the site in front of the Basilica has focused on the view of that grand church and how it might be affected by placement of a massive structure in its face. But I’ve discovered what I consider to be an equally iconic view that will likely be demolished by such a building. From Haywood Street, near the intersection with O’Henry Street, check out the view of Asheville’s gorgeous Art Deco City Hall. It’s framed by the Vanderbilt Apartments on the left and the BB&T on the right, and is one of the few perspectives on City Hall with a green mountain backdrop. We used to have some of that from Pack Place before the county decided to place its ugly jail high-rise to block that view.
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Whether or not you find that view of City Hall to be striking, there’s another question raised here. The city government can shape development on private land to a degree and those are the kind of rules we have wrestled with in formation of the Downtown Master Plan and the Unified Development Ordinance. The city is clearly not in the business of dictating whether construction should occur on private property, nor should it be (except for reasons of safety or overarching public interest—for example, steep slopes, stream buffers, etc.).

But at the same time, it seems very unwise for the city to be in a rush to cash in the property owned by the collective citizenry of Asheville. We bought it. And if we sell it, control of its use passes out of our hands. Once that happens it’s too late to say “oops!” Whether one considers it a change for the better or worse, structures on city land are not automatically and always better than creation of a park. And while some think we should cash in the property as quickly as possible to “increase the tax base,” this ignores the other side of the coin: the property will be worth more in the future. It’s money in the bank for future Ashevillians, and while a park can always host a building, a building almost never reverts to a park. And “increasing the tax base” is a quixotic adventure that has no provable benefit to current residents.

We have increased the tax base like crazy for almost two decades, and I would defy anyone to say that life in Asheville is demonstrably better for most citizens. (Good, yes. But life was good here in 1998, too, and good in 1980. I was here. I remember. Fewer restaurants and fewer gangs. Less bustle on the streets and less traffic. Fewer downtown condos and more trees. There are losses and wins.)

To top that off, with all that added tax money over those decades, we haven’t even been able to afford maintenance of the lovely Art Deco building where those development decisions have been made. The top two floors are uninhabitable due to leaks we apparently can’t afford to fix. So we’re renting private office space for city workers.

There’s something wrong with that picture and something very right about the picture I’ve posted with this story. Besides which, over 4,000 people have signed a petition asking the city to put a park in front of the Basilica. I haven’t heard about any petitions in favor of a hotel.

Moreover, the most consistent argument in favor of a hotel is that it would enhance the use of the Civic Center for conventions. That is a very 20th Century approach to our 21st Century priorities. Reduction of carbon emissions is going to have a tremendous impact on air travel because it is so much less efficient than train transport, so cities on bullet train routes will be more likely destinations for convention organizers. That does not include Asheville any time in the near future. Furthermore, conventions themselves will be less common as teleconferencing, even holographic conferencing becomes the norm.

The fact that only one developer bid on the site seems to write a big question mark about the scheme as well. An Orlando real estate analysis company advised Asheville to put a hotel there but that doesn’t make it the best use for Asheville’s current and future citizens. Let’s not be in so much of a hurry to cash out that we lose sight of where we’d like to end up.

A new spirit of patriotism: my filing speech

I delivered this speech on the steps of the Buncombe County Board of Elections after filing as a candidate for Asheville City Council, on Monday, June 6.
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I have just filed as a candidate for a seat on the Asheville City Council. I do so in part as an answer to President Barack Obama’s call for a new spirit of patriotism. It is also partly my answer to the first presidential speech I can remember hearing as a child, when another young president suggested we not ask what our country could do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country.

[photo by Edwin Shelton]

The patriotism I embrace is that of concern for the people of my country and my state and my community. To that end I echo Obama’s call for volunteerism, donating volunteer hours myself and encouraging others to join hands and hearts to lift up our community.

One lesson I have taken from our recent and ongoing economic collapse is that we shouldn’t count too much on passing along monetary wealth to our children. We have seen how suddenly dollar wealth can disappear due to forces far beyond our control. The important things we can create for our heirs are cultural and institutional. If we leave them well educated, with a society more firmly rooted in justice and equal opportunity and participatory democracy, we have left them more prepared to move ahead in their own lives. If we leave them an infrastructure that enables conservation of resources with cleaner air and reliable sources of water and food, we have handed them important tools for self-reliance. If we have moved along toward renewable energy systems and transportation modes that will work into the future, we will have given a lift not only to our children, but succeeding generations.

In Asheville, if we leave our heirs a city as beautiful as the city we have come to love, we will have left them both a beautiful place to live out their lives, and a place that will continue to attract others who patronize our businesses and bring new businesses into our midst, who purchase our arts and crafts and tune in to our music, who enrich our lives with their own stories and take home memories to share with others.

If, on the other hand, we guide our lives and our policies to enable short-term monetary gains, to use the resources of today’s taxpayers to underwrite pie-in-the-sky promises from outsiders only interested in cashing in on Asheville’s natural and cultural riches, we undercut our own and our children’s futures. We will burn today’s wood and leave ashes for those who follow.

I am convinced public policy should encourage conservation, through utility rate incentives and by using public borrowing power to help retrofit existing homes and businesses.

I am convinced public policy should protect current taxpayers rather than play the game called “increasing the tax base,” which has resulted in increased taxes for people in Asheville and hundreds of other growth-directed communities across the country.

I feel sure that a healthy, interdependent, locally focused economy can benefit the people who live here now, with increased job opportunities, particularly green jobs, and resulting in a community with higher real security in terms of food, water and energy.

And I have come to understand that the world is facing some very challenging times as we pass peak oil production and begin to address the most urgent crisis our species has ever faced, global climate change. The next decade will be critical in determining whether we make a smooth transition to sustainability or leave our children to ride an unpredictable roller coaster of economic upheaval and environmental disarray. Global warming is actually a local problem everywhere. It will have to be addressed city by city and business by business and home by home. It is a challenge we can only solve here and it is a challenge we can only meaningfully address now. If we succeed we will surely be remembered in our turn as the greatest generation and be ready to hand off that mantle to the next.

This weekend I celebrated the 4th of July like many of you, with friends and families, reenacting traditions that go back many years. In our case we went white-water rafting and canoeing on the French Broad river and camped up in Hot Springs. We shared sweet corn and watermelon and hot dogs while we sat around a campfire and stayed up late to watch fireworks while children played with old fashioned sparklers.

As happens so often when I’m camping, I thought about something my father taught me when I was a Boy Scout. He said, Cecil, when you leave a campsite, you should always leave it cleaner than you found it, better for the next person who comes that way. That’s a rule I have always tried to follow, where I camp, where I work, where I live. I even try to leave a few sticks of firewood as a gift to the next camper who passes by.

Of course, when you’re in a public campground, the sites are well used,the fire pit is a permanent fixture and there are remnants left by many previous campers. But out in the wilderness, I’ve always practiced what they call “no-trace” camping. That’s where you leave a campsite in the pristine condition you found it, so no one coming after would know that you had been there. If some thoughtless previous visitor left a mess, you clean that up too. In other words, you “keep it real” for the next person who comes along. I hope to serve Asheville as a member of city council for the next four years, and I will do my very best to leave this place better than I found it. I will do my best to keep it real.

Full System Development Charges Ordinance

I propose that Asheville enact an ordinance which requires new development to pay the full infrastructure cost to the city. Studies elsewhere have shown that fees and permits come nowhere near to covering the actual cost to taxpayers of subsidizing new development.

We are frequently told that we must “increase the tax base” for some unstated reason. The implication is usually that by increasing the value of taxable property in the city we will all reap benefits. But, in fact, we all share the costs, not the benefits. We end up paying more for traffic control, for schools, for municipal services, than most new developments pay for with the added taxes. So we all lose.

Researchers in Oregon have done the most comprehensive studies on this issue. As in so many other areas we could do a lot worse than to emulate plans introduced there.

Does the city want to hide the Basilica?

Many people have raised questions about the city’s plan to sell properties adjacent to the Civic Center, the Basilica St. Lawrence and the Grove Arcade to the McKibbon hotel chain. My questions about the proposal fall into three areas:
1. Why the rush? The city only obtained one “qualified” bid on the property. Why not reopen the bidding?
2. Who says a hotel is the best use for the property? The city hired a Florida-based real estate appraisal company which primarily works in very large cities, and their recommendation was for a hotel on the site. Yet our hotels are running at less than 50 percent capacity already. Do current hoteliers really need the competition? Is one more hotel the best we can offer our downtown businesses and residents? Will a new hotel have its own restaurants and shops to compete with existing downtown venues?
3. Are we best served by selling all of those parcels as one lot? To my knowledge there was no effort to sell the parcels separately or in other combinations—the city decided to follow the Florida plan. Perhaps there are more creative ways to enhance our downtown, including a set-aside for some park space. In other cities, residences and businesses adjacent to parks have a higher value.

Please help put pressure on City Council to reconsider this misguided plan.

The Downtown Master Plan

On the whole, I believe the Downtown Master Plan is worthwhile. The fact that almost no one is entirely happy with it makes it clear that compromises were reached and that the enormous amount of volunteer time that went into the document was well spent. Of course, all it is is a guideline and each piece of the plan will have to be legislated by Council. As ever, the devil will be in the details.

My brief critique:
1. I am inclined to oppose the creation of a separate management entity. All of the functions proposed for a new layer of government should be within the abilities of the current government structure. We particularly cannot tolerate a further insulation of important decisions from the people. City Council is where citizens can go to express their grievances and seek redress, and the further we distance the hard decisions from Council the lower the likelihood that citizens will be heard. I’m not clear why more large scale development decisions should be handed off to appointed boards. In larger cities in other states management entities have been created to focus on separate business districts within municipalities. Our state prohibits such district management, so the proposed entity would cover all of downtown, further reason why it looks like duplication of bureaucracy to me.

2. I question the imposition of a new downtown tax, and particularly oppose the diversion of part of such a tax (if it were imposed) to the Chamber of Commerce or Tourism Board. We need to be planning for an economy that will be almost certainly be less dependent on tourism. While any fees collected by a new downtown management entity would be subject to approval of the businesses involved, I’d like to see a pretty high bar for business buy-in if such a fee is implemented. (Climate change alone will dictate a massive shift in tourism habits, not to mention dwindling fuel supplies.)

3. I don’t understand the height exceptions in the Appendix. If tall buildings are more appropriate for lower elevations as stated in the main body of the document, why is there a loophole created for the tallest buildings to be on the highest ground? Whose plans were taken into consideration on this score? There is the suggestion that tall buildings improve the city’s skyline. I’m inclined to think that seeing the sky and the mountains is the best view we can have downtown and that intrusions into the viewshed should be carefully considered. (This doesn’t mean that I have a knee-jerk opposition to all tall buildings, only that we as a community should be thoughtful in our consideration of radically tall structures.)

4. Reading the original plan I saw more gloss than substance. But the final plan seems to meaningfully address serious design issues and advocate a form-based approach that could favorably affect our city’s future development.
Having talked with people who have worked on the DTMP, I have been assured that the proposed regs are more stringent than they might appear. Apparently the BB&T would not qualify under the new rules, nor would the prospective (but already permitted, and soon to be extended) Ellington Hotel.

5. Any new plan should reasonably include mandatory review and mandatory compliance with planning guidelines; however, NC state law only permits mandatory compliance rules in historic districts. There are two ways to approach this. We could either include designation of the entire downtown as a historic district in the DTMP approval process, or, as a minimal step, include a provision for citizen appeal in the guidelines.

As written, the DTMP permits a developer rejected at a lower level regulatory body to appeal upward to the Council. That seems fair. But fairness also dictates that citizens should be permitted to appeal projects approved at a lower level. Other municipalities provide for such appeals, under reasonable regulations (to prohibit frivolous challenges). We can too.

Truth in Labeling

Since announcing my candidacy for Council (and during last year’s race for County Commission) a number of mostly anonymous bloggers and commenters have accused me of being either a liberal, or, shudder, an ULTRA liberal.

It’s funny how labels work. I believe in conserving fertile soil instead of paving it. I believe in conserving whatever fuel we have in hand and finding new sources that pollute less. I advocate water conservation (and even recycle my bath water for flushing). I would prefer that we regain the clean air we had in the past. I believe in taking care of my friends and neighbors and building my local community, eating local food and supporting local businesses. My basic ethical position is that we should each leave every campsite cleaner than we found it, and the highest praise I hope for when I’m dead is that I left this planet a little more livable than I found it. Therefore, I am called a “liberal.” Looks to me like I’m pretty conservative.

Those who believe we should buy Chinese goods at the cheapest prices and export jobs, eat South American and Californian food no matter what the environmental consequences, drill for oil and excavate mines in our wilderness areas, bulldoze mountain tops and pollute rivers to dig for coal, cut down the old growth forests, permit bankers to operate Ponzi schemes, privatize or eliminate the government functions that protect our health and educate our children, build bigger highways and drop environmental protections are called “conservative.”

What, exactly, are they conserving?