Red-lining in the River Arts District?

Redeveloped storefronts and studios along Depot Street in the heart of the River Arts District. Photo: Urban News

The City of Asheville has been developing its River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP) for several years.

When complete, the project will entirely transform the roadway between Hill St. and Amboy Rd., with traffic round-abouts at the five-points intersection of Clingman Ave. Ext., Roberts St., Depot St. and Lyman St., and at the intersection of Lyman and Riverside Dr.

Anyone who has traveled through the district in recent months has seen extensive rerouting of Duke Energy power lines, demolition of buildings, and removal of diseased and damaged trees along with invasive plant species. A boat ramp and parking lot have been completed near the Craven St. bridge, and restoration of the brick building at 14 Riverside Dr. as a community center is now complete.

Property acquisition along the road right-of-way is nearly complete, though there are some ongoing negotiations with landowners unhappy with forced sale. Prices were determined by a Federally mandated outside appraiser, but some owners have been demanding much higher prices for their acreage.

Then the RADTIP hit an unexpected snag when final bids came in this spring. The price tag had jumped by $26 million since the latest professional estimate last December and the project suddenly had to be trimmed to fit the city’s budget, an approximate 50% increase.

City staffers raced to find ways to cut the overall plan in ways that would advance the overall goals and remain within the Federal guidelines. If cuts to the project failed to address Federal Highway Administration requirements almost $15 million in U.S. government funding would be lost. After years of planning it struck some as strange that time was suddenly of the essence, but the last-minute rush was the result of strict federal rules and a looming deadline.

RADTIP had been awarded $14.6 million in Federal highway dollars under a program known as TIGER VI. That program is geared toward upgrading transportation corridors that improve economic possibilities for underserved or economically depressed communities.

Upscale renovations and new construction mark the southern end of the River Arts District. Photo: Urban News

Anyone familiar with the neighborhoods around the River Arts District can quickly construct a mental map of economic disparity. Depot St., Clingman Ave., and Roberts St. comprise the core of the RAD renaissance in recent years. Property values have climbed, studios and new businesses have prospered, and tourist traffic has ratcheted upward. A few studios on Lyman St. and Riverside Dr. are part of that club.

Yet the RAD is bounded on the north by the Asheville Housing Authority project at Hillcrest, and to the south by the Livingston and Erskine-Walton Street apartments. The overall RADTIP plan includes pedestrian safety improvements at both ends of the district.

In the process of trimming the first phase of the project to fit within the available budget, changes and delays were implemented in both sections. To some this appeared to be a case of low-income and mostly non-white residents once more getting the short end of the stick. Like the Asheville Urban Renewal projects of the 1960s and ’70s, the impact of being left out is all too familiar.

The time crunch

The city issued a call for bids months ago with plenty of time to spare, but only two contractors submitted proposals. Perhaps because of the current national building boom, some qualified businesses are too busy to take on more work.

Federal rules require recipients of grant money to obtain a minimum of three bids, but if that fails, a project can be rebid and awarded with fewer respondents. In the second round the same two contractors submitted proposals, which arrived in May. Due to increases in material costs, labor costs, and perhaps the ability of companies to “make hay while the sun shines,” the price tag had jumped by about 50%.

The city faced a deadline. In order to qualify for the $14.6 million, work had to begin by Aug. 1. But if the project was trimmed it had to be re-approved by the Federal Highway Administration, and bureaucracies move slowly. So the staff rushed to reconfigure the plans which obtained the necessary approval in time for City Council to approve the slimmed down plan in July. Construction started on time.

At the north end a sidewalk proposed for the east side of Riverside Dr., at the base of the steep slope below Hillcrest, would require a $2 million retaining wall. That was eliminated and the sidewalk moved to the west side of the road. Instead of a stairway on the slope, a sidewalk was added from the entrance to Hillcrest on Hill St. down to a crosswalk on Riverside. Because the Hill Street sidewalk will likely be demolished if the I-26 connector project moves forward, it will be paved with asphalt instead of concrete, to save money now on what will probably be short-term infrastructure.

Then the Bacoate Branch (formerly Clingman Forest) Greenway and Town Branch Greenway projects were pulled from the current project, saving additional millions. The first will eventually connect the RAD to downtown, and the latter will connect the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center to McDowell St. on the city’s south slope. The French Broad River Greenway which will connect from the New Belgium Brewery to the dog park, French Broad River Park and Carrier Park has also been shelved for the present.

No bids on Livingston St. project

The RADTIP plan includes substantial investment on Livingston St. including a major stormwater project, sidewalks and landscaping. Pedestrian access from Depot St. to Mission Hospital will be greatly enhanced when it is complete. However the city has received no bids on that part of the project, which is estimated to cost somewhere in the range of $7 million.

City Councilman Cecil Bothwell told Urban News, “Staff suggested that it was possible no contractor wanted to commit to a price on a project that wasn’t scheduled to start for more than two years, given the sharp increase in costs that has occurred in recent months.” Bothwell indicated that the city is already exploring other sources of funding for the Livingston improvements.

Another element of the plan at least temporarily on the chopping block are proposed bike lanes divided from vehicle traffic on Lyman St. between the former 12 Bones restaurant location and Amboy Rd. Less expensive alternatives being considered include widening the planned multi-use greenway path between the road and the river to permit bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

Meanwhile, the city’s Transportation Department will be installing a mid-block pedestrian crosswalk along Depot Street adjacent to Green’s Grocery. The project includes a 6-foot-wide, high-visibility (piano keys) crosswalk, two 30-inch LED Pedestrian Warning signs (one along each approach), two 30-inch advance Pedestrian Warning signs (one along each approach), and the appropriate curb cuts. The pedestrian crosswalk will be installed at a specific location to provide a direct connection to existing stairs that provide access into the residential community on the west side of Depot Street. The city expects that the work will be completed by the end of September.

Bothwell said he wanted to reassure residents that all of the plans are still in place and will be completed as funding is found. “The three greenways are part of our Greenway Master Plan, and the Livingston St. improvements will move forward. I’m only half-joking when I tell people that what we need is a good recession to pull construction prices back down.”

See Asheville Receives Grant for East of Riverway Multimodal Project for details about the grant awarded to the City of Asheville in September 2014.

 

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