CIBO newsletter twists my position … sigh

This week’s edition of the Council of Independent Business Owners newsletter directly misreports my position on the future of automobiles and transit. This is a particular disappointment because CIBO’s newsletter is usually pretty even-handed, and so readers might assume its accuracy in this case.

The writer states: “Councilman Bothwell has been very vocal on this issue both at this hearing and through the local media. He advocates against cars and wants a trolley system. He has said on several occasions that cars use gas that is too expensive and people will not drive. Unfortunately, Mr. Bothwell sees life from both a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” approach and also, at the same time, advocates for the City to look at expensive “pie in the sky” items. Bothwell’s reality just doesn’t match up to true world experiences. Just a few pointers for Mr. Bothwell…
– Americans love cars…we like to hear them..we like to smell them..we like fast ones..we like pretty ones.
– Americans park cars..on the parking parking garages..and everywhere else.
– Americans will buy more cars – gas cars – diesel cars – electric cars – hydrogen cars – 4 wheel cars – 3 wheel cars – probably not 2 wheel cars. We’ll buy motorcycles for that – even great big motorcycles.
– No matter how you want to change Americans and the people who drive cars – we ain’t changing.)

Just a few pointers for the CIBO editorialist:

• I don’t advocate against cars. I point out that global oil supplies have plateaued and prices are rising with demand. Experts are telling us to be prepared for $5 gas by 2012. When gas hit $4 in 2008, Asheville transit ridership went up by 25 percent in weeks. Whether CIBO’s writer believes it or not, Americans change very rapidly in response to new information.

• One person’s “pie in the sky” is another person’s rational approach to change. Many Americans love cars, but many Americans eschew auto ownership. Most cities of any size use park-and-ride to limit the need for downtown parking. Buncombe County has two new park-and-ride lots north and south. This isn’t some kind of new idea I cooked up, it’s happening.

• I have not actually advocated building a trolley or downtown circulating shuttle (though they are almost certainly a good idea) – I have advocated STUDYING the use of a circulating shuttle, before we sink $14.1 million into an overpriced parking project. When I make personal business decisions, I weigh all of the options (of which I am aware) before investing. I would suppose that most CIBO members do the same, but I could be wrong.

• I have pointed out studies from other cities that show that trolleys are affordable for cities our size and do more for local economies than parking decks. Again, looking at options that might benefit our city.

Some people prefer to make up their minds first and then twist events to fit their own version of reality. Maybe that makes them feel “independent?”


Just out from City Manager’s office

51 Biltmore Cash Flow_1-14-11

If you look at page one of the pdf, it shows the total projected cash flow for the parking deck. The upper section is income. The next section is outgo. The next section is the total available to pay the debt (income minus expenses) and the amount to be paid each year.  The totals at the bottom represent the net year-by-year, and the final figure in the lower right is the projected total for 25 years.

The (parentheses) are the bookkeeping equivalent of a negative sign.

The proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck will lose $10,122,083 over the first 25 years of operation according to this City estimate.

Why a trolley does more for business than a parking deck

New Report Examines How Smart Growth Can Enhance Prosperity

A new report by the Center for Clean Air Policy finds that smart growth practices can enhance community prosperity and generate economic benefits for local businesses, households, and governments. The study, Growing Wealthier: Smart Growth, Climate Change and Prosperity, shows how reduced driving and efficient land use planning are strongly interconnected with economic growth and better quality of life.

Growing Wealthier reports that cities investing in public transportation and downtown development are experiencing cost savings, growing tax revenues, increased property values and higher retail sales. For example, downtown retail sales in Dallas, Texas, grew by 33 percent annually after the city’s light rail system began operation. In Portland, Oregon, a $100 million investment in streetcars helped attract $3.5 billion in private investments. And in Denver, Colorado, home values within a half-mile of stations on a light rail line rose by 18 percent from 2006-2008, while home values in the rest of the city declined by 8 percent during the same period.

The report also documents how efficient land use planning can improve household resilience to rising oil prices by enhancing travel choices. Allowing more people to live closer to job centers can boost employment rates and income levels for low-wage workers while reducing exposure to congestion for all. Smart growth policies are also shown to cut government infrastructure costs, enhance public health, and conserve natural resources.

The executive summary and full report are available here,   and here.

The price is wrong

I’m all too aware that I’ve been pretty intensely focused on the proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck. I can’t help but see it as the single worst project to cross my desk in 13 months on City Council, and consequently have been working overtime to understand every aspect of the proposal and alert citizens to what appears to be a preventable calamity.

Financial madness

Staff has provided Council with data about two 2010 property transaction “comps” in the downtown area which indicate that comparable property sold for $40 and $66 per square foot, respectively.

The proposed purchase of 51 Biltmore involves approximately 31,620 square feet.

31,620 x $40 = $1,264,800   and  31,620 x $66 = $2,086,920

But our contract with the development company, Public Interest Projects, stipulates a price of $3.11 million, or more than $98 per square foot.

In addition, both of those comparable sales included the air rights to the properties. PIP is selling the air rights to 51 Biltmore separately, for another $1.78 million.

The City has also agreed to purchase the Hot Dog King property and give the frontage on both Biltmore and Lexington Avenues, together with all of the air rights, to PIP. The HDK property is approximately 11,310 square feet, and the City has contracted to pay $1.45 million, or $128 per square foot. But, in reality, we’re only keeping 9,520 square feet (after subtracting the two frontage parcels), so we’re paying over $152 per square foot. That’s 2-1/2 to 3 times the price paid for property in Asheville in the past year.

Altogether we are considering payment of $4.56 million for property with a current market value of $1.7 to $2.7 millionand we don’t even get the air rights.

(Doing my own “comp,” I note that the Asheville Hardware building, in excellent condition and with 14 dedicated parking slots, one block or so south of 51 Biltmore, is being offered for sale for $120 per square foot. A functional commercial structure, not a vacant lot.)


Cost per parking place

Another comparison to be made is the total construction cost per parking space. The most recently completed parking facility in Asheville was built by Buncombe County and completed a little over a year ago. The construction cost was reported to be $17,000 per parking space.

The proposed Biltmore deck is projected to cost $14.8 million in total and will include 412 parking spaces. That comes to almost $36,000 per slot (if one includes the property purchase), or almost $25,000 per slot if one only considers construction. (As a point of comparison, I believe the County already owned its parcel.)

But, the McKibbon Hotel to be constructed atop the deck will be accorded 50-100 spaces (they will use fewer during the day and more at night. I note that in that section of town, the biggest demand seems to occur during Orange Peel and Pack Place events, at night – so hotel and event parkers will compete for space.) In addition, the project is being built on the site of 120 existing parking places (100 at 51 Biltmore and 20 at the Hot Dog King). So the net gain in parking places is actually more like 192, making the cost per additional public space more than $77,000 (or more than $53,000 after subtracting the property cost.)

It appears that the County got a much better bargain on parking.


What about the Downtown Master Plan?

This project should be evaluated with guidance from the Downtown Master Plan, which very specifically recommends use of a circulating shuttle and notes that we have plenty of parking in the Downtown area which is currently under-utilized.

Strategy 2 of the DTMP is to:

Manage access, mobility, circulation, and parking as one interconnected system, coordinated through a collaborative partnership of the City, the County, and private investments.

The plan makes repeated reference to a circulating shuttle system and to the idea that such a system should be a short term goal for the city. One of the biggest problems with the proposed 51 Biltmore deck is that it will suck all the funding out of a potential shuttle system for at least ten years. By dedicating all of our parking/transit money to this overpriced boondoggle, we preclude a solution that can help businesses, workers, shoppers and tourists throughout the city.

Furthermore, rather than increasing the number of parking decks, the DTMP suggests that a long-term goal should be to:

Consider possible redevelopment of public parking structures—particularly the Rankin Street and Wall Street structures—for higher-value uses. Displaced parking could be accommodated through new below-grade parking, shared parking with the new uses, satellite parking, and/or enhanced transit services that reduce parking demand.

So rather than build more decks, the long-debated and carefully considered DTMP actually envisions replacing existing decks with “higher-value” projects.

While the parking study referenced in the DTMP does suggest that parking is tight on weekend nights along the Biltmore Ave. corridor, this proposed deck does far less to address that shortfall than a shuttle system which could deliver patrons of Pack Place and the Orange Peel to the many available parking lots located a few blocks from the city center. If the study is correct in suggesting that there is a demand for 600 or more parking places in that area, then adding a net 192 spaces doesn’t solve the problem, whereas a circulating shuttle would not only address the very local shortfall, but deliver employees, shoppers and tourists to locations and parking throughout the downtown area.

Another letter per downtown parking

In today’s Asheville Citizen-Times:

Asheville  already has plenty of parking garage spaces

Gail Jolley, Asheville, Jan. 15, 2011

I agree with Cecil Bothwell’s commentary (AC-T, Jan. 7) about the parking deck proposal at 51 Biltmore. It’s astounding to think that at this difficult economic time, the city would consider throwing away this quantity of money for a project of such little benefit. Surely there are more useful projects with wider impact that need funding.
Regarding the parking decks we already have, I often use the parking deck behind the library, and every time I have been there (except for special events) there have been plenty of empty spaces. The problem is that a lot of people don’t want to use parking decks.

For some reason they prefer to find street parking. Even the parking deck behind Pack Place often has empty spaces except under unusual circumstances when there are two or three events going on at the same time. So why do we need another city parking deck? Let the people who own the proposed hotel build and pay for their own parking deck. They’re the main ones who will use it.

Expert opinion on Asheville’s parking

This from today’s Asheville Citizen-Times:
Disappointed planners only think about more parking
David A. Johnson, Asheville • January 14, 2011

Cecil Bothwell has it exactly right regarding taxpayer subsidization of parking downtown (“City is parking our future with Biltmore 51 deal,” AC-T, Jan. 7).
Smart cities are looking at ways to improve transit. Parking is not a serious problem in Asheville’s downtown. Transit mobility and access definitely are problems.
As a professional planner now living in Asheville, I have been disappointed in the unimaginative plans and proposals that seem to come out of the established transportation planning entities in this growing urban center. Why the timidity?

Other cities, even nearby Charlotte, are showing the way. Asheville should be a leader, not a laggard in transportation planning. Parking never pays for itself, and in the end too much parking kills downtowns.
Johnson is professor emeritus of planning at the University of Tennessee.

Parking we can’t afford

My commentary on the proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Friday, Jan. 7.

Asheville is poised to stumble into a colossal financial blunder.

The proposed $14.8 million, 51 Biltmore parking deck is an ill-considered idea whose time has passed. The plan is based on a parking study which failed to consider alternatives (shuttles or a trolley) and took no note of rising fuel costs (with gas prices headed for $3.75 soon and $5 in the not-distant future.) When gas hit $4 two years ago, we saw a 25 percent increase in transit ridership. What kind of “parking study” ignores such facts?

To make matters worse, the 220-space net gain at 51 Biltmore amounts to more than $65,000 each. The new Buncombe County deck ran $17,000 apiece — the difference is boggling.

During the recession the cities where property values most collapsed are automobile-dependent Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit, while the U.S. city where property values rose the most is Portland, Oregon, widely known for its trolley, light rail, bike routes and other amenities that permit people to access downtown without cars.

We have been lucky to get some sidewalk help from the state this year. But the state is facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall that will continue into the future. We’ve been lucky to have some federal funding for buses. But there is no guarantee that more federal largesse is forthcoming in the ongoing financial crisis.

Our fiscal planning should assume that we are on our own to an extent we haven’t seen for decades, at least. Putting all of our transit eggs in one basket is completely irresponsible. And despite my requests starting a year ago for a study that considered alternatives, no meaningful consideration of shuttles or trolleys has been forthcoming from city staff or our paid consultants.

Finally, we have committed as a council and as a community to attempt sweeping cuts in carbon emissions. When we borrow $15 million to accommodate automobiles, we are choosing the unsustainable over the sustainable. We are making it harder to access downtown without a car, instead of making it easier for tourists, shoppers and workers to frequent our city. We are increasing the effects of climate change — a change already upon us. Warm air holds more moisture, so we have longer droughts, more intense rain events and flooding, and heavier dumps of snow. Floods and blizzards are not aberrational, they are the new normal. (Maybe some of that transit money should be held back to hire workers with snow shovels?)

We need to be honest with the people of this city. This deal means dedicating all of our transit money for the next 10 years and a significant portion for 25 — money that could be used in much better ways. By committing to this project, Asheville will say “no” to any meaningful increase in sidewalk construction, we will say “no” to a downtown trolley or electric shuttle system that could be powered with local energy, we will say “no” to maintaining flexibility in our transit planning.