Business

Asheville Construction Soars during COVID

Haywood Street improvements include new sidewalk, repaved roads, tree grates, and benches.

Asheville – Jade Dundas, director of capital projects for the City of Asheville, said this had been a good year for construction. Unimpeded by budgetary constraints, the city was able to take advantage of an absence of “normal challenges,” thanks to COVID. Dundas said that, due to the economic slowdown, he had a mandate to keep contractors busy. Unfortunately, construction dollars weren’t stretching as far as they used to.

Projects completed included the repaving and sidewalk replacement with streetscaping on Haywood Street. Facilitated by an absence of traffic in the heart of downtown, resurfacing was paid with general obligation bonds as well as Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD) funds. The latter revenue stream was established via a 2011 agreement in which the MSD consented to make an annual contribution to the city to support the resurfacing of roads torn up by sewer line repairs or upgrades. The road repairs, in turn, were to be completed by the city’s in-house paving crews. The total contribution from MSD for FY20 was $400,114. 

Another project completed was the remodeling of the transit station downtown. The initiative was approved with a price tag of $1.08 million, which included $214,000 from the Federal Transportation Administration. Improvements included the renovation and refurbishing of the office and waiting area, and the installation of new, digital signage and photovoltaics. Also, the city repaired and re-installed the Grove Vision Marker, the public art piece that looks like a blue-lit building in a box. Its refurbishment also included a conversion to solar-powered lighting.

Another area ripe for construction was the River Arts District (RAD), a project that, with city funds and grants from the Tourism Development Authority and the federal government, has been in the works for years. The city not only realigned a road, it nearly completed 2.2 miles of greenway. Nearby, the city also improved Elsie’s Bridge for a greenway connector. The deserted bridge, in between Ralph and Depot streets, was structurally sound and only needed cosmetic uplifts and improvements for safety and ADA accessibility.

Also not far away, work progressed on the Shiloh Recreation Center. Formerly a run-down park, the city replaced the ballfield’s dugouts, bleachers, backstop, press box, and lighting poles. The cracked courts were repaved in blue, and a play area was added for younger children. While describing the improvements here, Dundas said the city can hardly finish projects before people start using them. 

In the north part of town, the city completed the Charlotte Street road diet, which consisted largely of restriping the four-lane to make it a three-lane with bike lanes. While the project definitely contributes to past and present city councils’ objectives to invest in infrastructure that discourages automobile use, it was argued in the planning stages that it would also improve north-south carbon-fueled traffic flow without impacting other north-south corridors.

The city was also able to extend the Reed Creek Greenway, which will eventually connect UNC Asheville to the RAD. The city had intended only to add two city blocks to the length to run the greenway under the Chestnut Street overpass, but a neighbor made another block possible. 

More back-to-basics, the city repaired Old Toll Road. During a storm in April 2019, ephemeral streams eroded the road’s undergirding and, in one place, carried half the road down the slope. The road, of course, was closed as the city constructed reinforced undergirding with a terraced slope and laid new paving. This project was addressed with available emergency funding; while resurfacing of roads, installation of traffic calming, and construction of bus shelters continued according to the city’s capital improvement schedule.

Also importantly, the North Fork Dam underwent upgrades to accommodate heavy rainfall, since its limited capacity resulted in immense property damage downstream in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004. Seismic stabilization was also integrated into the architecture, Dundas said, recalling feeling the 5.1 magnitude earthquake in his living room last August. He shared a photograph with a person to give an idea of the immensity of the new concrete structure and said about as much concrete was also poured underground. Additionally, a temporary water regulation system had to be installed during construction. The project cost $38.5 million and was funded through water system revenues. 

Among other improvements was the construction of highly-in-demand bathroom facilities at Richmond Hill, which required substantial extension of water and power lines; the building of a new culvert in Kenilworth to protect underground utilities; and roof replacement for the facility on Shelburne Road used as an office for multiple city departments. When Gwen Wisler asked if the city was on-track for spending all its bond revenues, Dundas replied it was, even though completion had been complicated by the state’s, funding “stall.”

In Other Matters

In the meeting’s next presentation, Water Resources Director David Melton reviewed the dates of grace periods for water bill payments extended by both the state and local governments. The state’s suspension of consequences for nonpayment ended last July, but the city will continue to protect about 4,400 account holders who cannot pay through February 18.

City Manager Debra Campbell said conversations are underway to identify options to make the city whole for revenue not collected while being humanitarian toward persons suffering through no fault of their own. She explained it was in the interest of taxpayers as well as those benefitting from city services for the city to collect the debt and not, as some on the council wanted to, “extend extensions.”