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.)

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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.

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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.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A year on Council

This week marks one-year since I took office on Asheville’s City Council, and it has proved to be educational, surprising, torturous and fun—not necessarily in that order. As a citizen and then a candidate for office, there were and are issues that matter deeply to me, that comprise the reasons I chose to seek the job. A year later, some have been addressed, some are pending and some new ones have popped up on my expanding horizon.

Perhaps the hardest lesson has been the discovery that when push comes to shove, and a vote must be cast up or down, two strongly held beliefs can be in direct conflict. (Thanks to Councilman Gordon Smith for compiling the voting stats listed below.)

The Ugly (The two hardest votes I’ve cast this year concerned development and annexation.)

• Sustainability Bonus: We approved a plan to permit builders up to a doubling of zoning density in areas within 1/8 mile of designated transit corridors, if they met certain green building and/or affordable housing guidelines. To make this a “use by right” we had to eliminate public hearings on such projects. This pitted my overall green agenda against my insistence on transparency and accountability in government. In the end, I voted “yes,” increasing density along transit routes and incentivizing green projects won out over the public input argument. (5-2, Bellamy and Davis against)

• Annexation: NC law and specific restrictions on Asheville (alone among cities in the state) make voluntary annexation almost non-existent here—unless a development project wants to sell liquor, or unless the developer receives significant near-term tax incentives. (We are forced to provide water outside city limits at the same rate as inside, so why would anyone want to pay city taxes if they could choose not to?)

Asheville is consequently the slowest growing city in the state, and has the largest day/night population change in the state due to commuting. We 80,000 city dwellers provide infrastructure and services to 40,000 non-taxpayers every day (not including tourists). So involuntary annexation of residential areas that meet certain density levels is allowed by state law, and is the only way to achieve tax equity. But one big annexation proposed this year, Royal Pines, includes a large proportion of working-class/affordable homes and rentals. I was faced with the question of raising costs for people currently in affordable housing at the same time that Council was offering developer incentives to create affordable housing. I ended up voting against the annexation, but am not at all sure I made the right choice. (5-2, Newman and Smith voting yes).

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The Good and the Bad: Easier votes, varied outcomes

Development

• I proposed that Asheville enact an ordinance to require 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. The 2010-2011 Budget  includes full cost for fees and permits, but not for the wider costs imposed on the community as a whole.

• Density along transit routes: As noted above, I’m in favor of this, and the Larchmont project was a case in point. We approved a zoning change for an affordable-housing project. While some nearby residents opposed the change, the building will be smaller and the population density no greater than could have been built under the previous zoning. (7-0 vote)

• Downtown Master Plan —I challenged the original DTMP guidelines that would have put the tallest buildings in the highest parts of town, and the plan we passed did impose nominal limits. We approved new form-based code guidelines (Good, 7-0 vote) and raised thresholds or eliminated rules on height and size (Bad, 6-1 vote). Developers can go up to 195* feet tall or 175,000 s.f. in the downtown business district without Council approval. (Basically a 14-15 story building, or a very large footprint.) In the greater downtown area (Tunnel to Smoky Park Bridge, I-240 to the hospital district) Council relinquished all responsibility, permitting any building whatsoever, up to 315* feet tall, that met approval with Planning & Zoning, only reserving “site plan review”—a meaningless exercise. (I proposed and Councilman Davis seconded an amendment to extend Council oversight to the greater downtown, it failed 5-2).

*I am still trying to make clear sense of the height rules, which are not at all clear. It seems Council can grant variances in both areas, meaning that there are not actual height limits.

• Accountability for development: One urgent improvement proposed by Councilman Smith and which I supported, is that all future P&Z appointees will be interviewed in full Council session, permitting public input and observation of the process. Given Council’s abdication of oversight over most development downtown, the makeup of P&Z (historically dominated by developers) is now critical. (7-0 vote)

• Subsidy for non-green, non-affordable Montford Commons project. I continue to oppose taxpayer subsidy of all projects that do not further clearly stated City goals `(and am leery of most forms of goverment subsidy of development—governments often get burned). A five-year tax rebate for Montford Commons was approved 4-3, myself, Russell and Smith opposed.

Transit and parking

• I remain opposed to public financing of parking decks. In cities where the cost of parking is allowed to rise to meet the market, private companies build decks. When a city subsidizes parking, it drives private companies out of the market and encourages auto traffic, while diminishing demand for transit. There is nothing “green” about such municipal subsidies. I was the lone dissenting vote on continuation of a deal approved by the previous Council, that will put ALL of our parking/transit money, for at least 10 years, into a single parking deck project downtown. (And a diminishing percentage out to 25 years.)

• I have proposed that we use the often-empty McCormick Field parking area when large events downtown create overflow, together with a shuttle to the Civic Center, Orange Peel or downtown. Unfortunately, given Council’s approval of the above, there is no money left for a shuttle.

• I-26: I continue to oppose 8-laning of I-26 and support the broad outlines of the Asheville Design Center proposals. Fortunately, under Gov. Perdue, the state has attempted to depoliticize road construction by ranking highway proposals based on an objective scoring system and I-26 is so far down the list that we may well have 20 years in which to re-evaluate traffic and watch the effect of post-peak oil on transportation. We may well be able to stick with 4 lanes through town.

• Sidewalks: Part of enhancing multi-modal transit is to use all the pedestrian facilities we already have. Together with Asheville PARC, I initiated Z-Link, a volunteer sidewalk recovery effort that has cleared more than 1.5 miles of obstructed pedestrian routes. Council voted to strengthen the existing law concerning property owner maintenance of sidewalks, including fines. (7-0 vote)

• Opening the Hillcrest pedestrian bridge—another piece of existing infrastructure that has been unused for over a decade, we have reopened the bridge and are working on plans for enhancement of the surrounds. (see below concerning a potential Mountain Bike Skills Park.) (6-1, Davis against)

Campaign Finance

• I continue to push for public financing of Council elections. This year we voted to ask the legislature for permission to implement such a plan here (5-2, Russell and Davis opposed) (Chapel Hill was the first NC city to do so in 2009) The legislation passed in the General Assembly and I will advocate adoption of such a plan during 2011.

Citizens

During the campaign I argued against the City and County practice of calling citizens “customers.” Citizens are owners, not customers of government. Thanks perhaps to my insistence, and very much thanks to City Manager Gary Jackson, the pendulum has swung our way. More and more staff documents refer to we, the people, as “citizens.”

I have long made it clear that all of us in the middle and lower classes owe a tremendous debt to the labor movement: minimum wage laws; 40 hour weeks; weekends; unemployment insurance; health coverage (to the extent that it exists); banning child labor; Social Security; Medicare; parental leave and more. Not that any of those things are universal, and surely many are under attack both by ideologues and the recession. But unions raised many people into the middle class. The North Carolina League of Cities (of which Asheville is a member), and the Chamber of Commerce (ditto), are anti-labor. I have and will continue to challenge those bodies on this and other anti-worker positions they routinely embrace.

Pending proposals (either from my campaign or initiated this year)

Minimum housing code—I’ve consulted with experts including reps from Pisgah Legal Services and find that the need to reimpose the minimum code is more urgent than I thought last year. Will press for this again in 2011.

• Three-strikes law—to prevent the City from doing business with any company that has been thrice convicted of fraud, tax evasion, labor or civil rights violations.

• Civil Liberties—I’ve worked all year with lawyers, community groups, the Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council, the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (Washington, DC) and area churches to create a resolution which I’ll introduce early next year.

New Proposals

• I have asked the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to withdraw from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce following the national body’s huge participation in the recent elections. (It spent upward of $100 million, largely supporting Republican candidates.) If the Asheville Chamber does not withdraw, I will attempt to convince Council to withdraw all financial participation with the local Chamber on the grounds that it is diverting taxpayer money to partisan elections. (I would hold this position regardless of which party the national had supported.)

• Tree-topping ordinance—my liaison position with the Tree Commission has convinced me that Asheville must enact a tree-topping ban. Arborists have been outspoken in the need to protect our trees from a practice which deforms and kills shade trees.

• Bike skills park—I’ve been meeting with local cyclists, neighborhood reps and transit experts as well as consulting with White House staffers to create a mountain bike park adjacent to the recently opened Hillcrest pedestrian bridge, and under the Smoky Park Bridge. Seattle has built a wildly popular facility in a similar location.

• Increase availability of ESL classes for adults. Assimilation of immigrants has been a hot-button issue in America since Ben Franklin railed against the threat posed by Germans, yet immigrants have always been an irreplaceable source of labor, innovation and economic growth. Learning the language is the shortest route to inclusion for the benefit of all.

• Raise parking rates—Asheville parking is unreasonably cheap, particularly given the high number of commuters. I’d like to see garage rates doubled, while retaining “first hour free” and then give City residents a steep discount. That way, we’d help offset the tax burden placed on City taxpayers by the ban on differential water rates.

Other Activities

International Code Conference—I was one of Asheville’s delegates to the international building code summit on energy efficiency (held every three years). The international code is the model for state codes. The 2012 rules we adopted will increase building efficiency by 30 percent, generating energy savings for a century (buildings last a long time.) State codes lag behind, but are modeled on the international rules. This was a huge step forward that had been blocked by commercial interests at the 2007 meeting.

• National League of Cities Congress—I was Asheville’s representative at the annual NLC Congress of Cities, a venue for education, seminars and exchange of ideas about best practices. I came home with numerous ideas and solutions that I have already begun to explore. (The English language courses and a path to federal funding for our Mountain Bike Skills Park are just two of many.)

The annexation debate

Reading the Rolling Stone interview with Barack Obama, I was struck by his observation that the only problems that land on his desk are the difficult ones. The easy stuff, he noted, is all solved before it reaches him.

While City Council is a long way from the White House, and while we do routinely address many easy issues (usually in the Consent Agenda), the important decisions we make are the ones that haven’t been resolved by statute or Staff work, and they can be very difficult.

Annexation is one of those tough choices. On the face of it, involuntary annexation seems blatantly unfair—all else being equal, people ought to be able to vote on whether or not their property becomes part of a city. Unfortunately, the question of equal treatment under the law is a tangled web.

•Asheville, unlike other cities in North Carolina, is prohibited from charging more for City water delivered outside City limits. (Other cities charge 1.5 to 2.5 times the city rate to outside customers.) So City residents are forced to subsidize water delivery to outlying areas.
•Asheville, unlike other cities in North Carolina, receives no money from room taxes. All room taxes go to the Tourism Development Authority.
•Asheville receives a far lower portion of sales taxes paid in the City than do all but two other (very small) NC cities.
•Asheville has the largest percentage population influx per day of any city above 50,000 in the state. Hence our emergency services response demand is higher than any other city in the state, per capita.

The only tool offered to Asheville to level the playing field for its current taxpayers is to forcibly annex adjacent communities that meet certain state mandated requirements. People who live near the City often avail themselves of City benefits (water, jobs, shopping, recreation) and require City services (roads, sidewalks, parking, police and fire, etc.), but aren’t part of the tax base. That means City taxpayers are effectively subsidizing their near neighbors.

There are strong arguments against annexation as well. The City is fairly accused of not yet providing full service to areas annexed in the past, and of not offering any meaningful improvements in service to Royal Pines and its surrounds. (A neighborhood south of Asheville that is the immediate target of proposed annexation.) Lower fire insurance rates, putatively better public safety patrols and garbage collection (versus private hauling) are of some benefit, but net costs will go up. That’s a particularly tough issue for those on limited or fixed incomes.

If all of the other elements were fairly apportioned, many people would voluntarily seek annexation (for lower water rates, for example) but that isn’t the way the game is set up in North Carolina. So, I’m nudged toward thoughtful but involuntary annexation to support the rights of my current constituents. It ain’t easy.

Getting around – an autumn update

Serving on Council has proved a little more time intensive than I expected, but it’s been fun, too. In addition to the bi-weekly formal meetings and occasional work sessions, there are committee meetings (Finance, Public Safety), and the handful of boards and commissions to which I’m liaison. (Asheville/Buncombe Community Relations Council, Recreation Board, Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, Tree Commission).

Then too, there are numerous citizens who want to discuss issues, group event invitations, neighborhood associations, and occasional events where I’m asked to officially represent the City.

Thanks to the people who tried to keep me from being inducted into office last December, I’ve also been addressing churches and forums around the region (Black Mountain, Boone, Burnsville, Franklin, Spartanburg, Tryon)  and the country. My opponents propelled me into visibility I never would have garnered otherwise. So I’ve been to Newark, Charlotte, Charleston, and Minneapolis, with future talks slated for Columbia (SC), Denver and Boston.

I also started swimming last May, at the YWCA, three or four mornings each week. So far I’ve clocked something over 125,000 yards (over 70 miles). Whew.