As if downtown Asheville didn’t have enough going on these days, the city is also looking at putting in dedicated bike lanes — and taking away a vehicle travel lane – on some major corridors.
To put it mildly, some downtown business owners are not happy. They feel like the plan to turn one of two vehicle travel lanes on College Street and Patton Avenue downtown into dedicated bike lanes will create traffic congestion, make deliveries a nightmare and reduce parking spaces.
The city announced the plan in March 2022, and the Citizen Times carried an article about it that month. Mountain Xpress also reported on the plan in September of that year.
But Patti Glazer, an architect who’s worked downtown since 1980, said the city made little to no effort to engage business owners or solicit their input before that, and not much since. She surveyed business owners downtown last October, walking east up Patton Avenue, then cutting over to College Street and coming back down west to Pritchard Park.
Glazer found again and again she was breaking the news about the bike lanes to just about everyone she spoke with.
“It was amazing to me that nobody had heard of it,” Glazer said. “I was first informing them. What became obvious was there really had been no public engagement, as far as the businesses that are going to be directly affected.”
This is a project the city is hoping to wrap up this year, by the way. About a month ago, Glazer and Nur Edwards, who owns Asheville Discount Pharmacy on Patton Avenue, arranged a meeting with Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and a couple of city officials, Glazer said.
It was a step in the right direction, as these kinds of projects are always controversial. The original plans have been tweaked considerably, adding in delivery zones, for instance, but business owners still want more input.
‘We probably didn’t do enough public outreach’
On that count, Asheville Transportation Director Ken Putnam had some good news Friday when I reached out to the city to see where the project stands.
“This project has been going on for a little while, and there’s been quite a bit of outreach and all this,” Putnam told me in an interview. “But, based on the feedback that we’ve been getting — including the feedback that you probably got – we listened and we agreed that we probably didn’t do enough public outreach.”
So now the city is looking for a place to hold “another face to face meeting with all the business owners,” Putnam said.
“The time frame on that is probably going to be sometime within the next 60 days,” Putnam said. “So this project is not being rushed. We’re not trying to shove it down anybody’s throat. We’re just taking a step back to make sure we cover all our bases.”
City Council already approved the project as part of its 2023 fiscal year budget, Putnam said. Once the city feels like it’s done enough public outreach, and the project can move ahead, Putnam said they’ll put it out for bids.
“If it’s over $90,000 — which we’re anticipating it will be — it would go back for approval of the contract (to council),” Putnam said.
The project mostly will involve restriping of streets, although it could involve some resurfacing, Putnam said. If everything moves ahead, “Our hope would be to totally finish this project this calendar year, probably some time in late fall, early summer.”
The city’s web page on the project notes the most recent draft design “attempts to respond to the input received” between February and September last year.
“The primary concern heard throughout the engagement events related to loading and delivery access,” the page states. “The draft design now includes over 115 feet of additional loading zone area.”
Business owners say that’s primarily on a small section of Haywood Street by the Wells Fargo bank building and won’t be adequate. They’d like more input on loading zones.
In December, the Downtown Commission recommended the project move forward and voted in support of it.
So, it looks like this project is going to happen, but maybe with some more public input.
It’s hard for me to stress just how important this is, and I’m glad to see Putnam acknowledge that the city could’ve done better in the notification department.
Because you may have noticed, these projects tend to get people very agitated. Just take a drive up Merrimon Avenue and talk to a few businesses, as I did last year.
That road diet stirred up a hornet’s nest, although I think people are coming around to it some. It would help if the DOT could finish up the actual bike lanes, though.
To be clear, the business folks I talked to downtown for this story, including Glazer, Asheville Discount Pharmacy Owner Nur Edwards and Weinhaus beer and wine store owner Hunt Mallett, all say they support biking and multi-modal travel.
“I’m totally not against biking – I’ve got one myself and do it, but in the area that they’re talking about, traffic is already slow enough that bikes can easily coexist,” Mallett said. “However, reducing it to one lane is going to be a problem for emergency vehicles, I think.”
He just thinks the plan is going to “clog everything up,” as it will reduce vehicle traffic to one lane.
“And the other thing is that all of this was kind of railroaded through the planning department,” Mallett said.
Edwards said she’s “definitely not opposed to bike lanes,” or “complete streets” as multimodal advocates call it.
“I think there’s been no public input, in terms of from the business owners and the people that are doing business on this corridor every day,” Edwards said. “And once we did get involved, the plan started to shift, because we were able to see the plans and voice our concerns.”
Glazer feels that businesses that have been downtown for a long time, weathered the pandemic and pay “really high taxes” — and took the risk to revitalize downtown — are now being asked to sacrifice by essentially giving away a travel lane and delivery zones.
‘It will make biking and walking safer downtown’
The city of Asheville is working with local non-profit partners Asheville on Bikes and Connect Buncombe on the project.
Asheville on Bikes notes the new bike lane on College Street would connect to the existing bike lane that ends at Spruce Street, and go to Pritchard Park. On Patton Avenue, the new bike lane would start at Pritchard Park and go to Biltmore Avenue.
On its web page about the project, AOB offers 10 reasons why Asheville needs these bike lanes and loading zones. Number one is pretty darn compelling:
“It will make biking and walking safer downtown. Asheville kills or injures more pedestrians and cyclists than any other city in North Carolina and it has maintained that status for several years.”
That’s a sobering message.
Mike Sule, who heads up Asheville on Bikes, told me that he understands “that not all the merchants got the message” about the project early on, although he does “push back that the city didn’t communicate” adequately. He said letters went out to businesses in February 2022, and “a whole timeline of communication touches has been made.”
“I personally have been in front of the Downtown Commission twice,” Sule said “I feel the city has done a thorough job of attempting to communicate this.”
“Does that mean that communications can be improved? That the city may need to look at its communications strategy and tweak things? Sure,” Sule said.
Glazer’s office is above Asheville Discount Pharmacy, and she said she was not notified about the project, and she has lingering questions about delivery options and parking.
“We haven’t gotten answers on a lot of the issues that still haven’t been addressed,” Glazer said. “They’ve kind of brushed over those.”
Someone who’s been a pillar of the downtown business community for four decades shouldn’t feel that way.
Sule has been heavily involved in the Merrimon Avenue road diet and other bike issues in town, and he’s not surprised the downtown plan has engendered controversy.
“Every one of these I’ve been involved in, there’s been people who’ve been agitated,” Sule said. “We’re dragging people into the future kicking and screaming.”
He was half-joking, but it has some truth to it.
“All of these safety improvements and maximizing the public utility of the right of way, they’re always controversial,” Sule said. “You can pick any city and see the same thing. This is well researched stuff.”
Sule points out that the construction of the Arras Hotel downtown caused a lane closure downtown for an extended period of time, and everyone got by. Also, he notes that people tend to drive slowly through this part of downtown already, so these are not high-speed thoroughfares.
Personally, I’ve been here long enough to witness the anger and rows that surface whenever these bike plans emerge. They are big changes, and let’s face it: We’re a heavily car-dependent society.
With more and more people moving here, and more hotels and apartments coming, we need to look at better, safer ways of accommodating all modes of transportation. You can’t expect to see more cyclists around town the way a lot of our roads are designed, because they’re just not safe.
So yes, I’m coming around to these plans, and we need to make our city comfortable for pedestrians, walkers, and people riding those crazy one-wheel things. It’s a brave new world out there.
But make everybody feel like they’re part of the process — genuinely.
In this case, I applaud the city for taking a step back and reaching out to business owners again. It’s a smart move, and I hope they listen to what they have to say.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org