Asheville – Asheville City Council’s agenda listed an update on I-26. At first blush, one’s heart might skip a beat in excited anticipation of an announcement that they may soon be able to travel on this once-and-future expressway with rush hour speeds averaging more than 4mph. As should have been expected, the update was nothing of the sort.
Mayor Esther Manheimer clarified that the items mentioned in the update had nothing to do with the disruptions in South Asheville. Instead, they pertained to disruptions that would happen in the western part of the city center, between the Haywood Road bridge and Hill Street. When asked by the mayor, Transportation Director Ken Putnam estimated construction wouldn’t start until 2026 and would take six to seven years to complete.
The Burton Street Community qualified for an Environmental Justice Population designation for the I-26 Connector Project because of the many assaults it had historically taken as a tromping ground for interstate construction. The federal government defines an Environmental Justice Population as “a neighborhood whose annual median household income is equal to or less than 65% of the statewide median or whose population is made up 25% Minority, Foreign Born, or Lacking English Language Proficiency [capitalizations theirs].”
As reparation, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) consented to work with the neighborhood to develop a mitigation plan, and mission creep ensued. Among other things, the plan calls for more walkable, ADA-compliant streets with better stormwater mitigation, infrastructure that attracts jobs, improved transit service, “promoting great architecture and urban design to enhance placemaking,” and “elevating the arts and cultural sectors to strengthen and preserve heritage and history.”
Now, the Burton Street Community was requesting additional improvements. That was problematic because the neighborhood’s current demographics, which the DOT would use for qualifying any amended plan, no longer meet the criteria for an Environmental Justice Population. Fortunately for those concerned, improvements to the Burton Street Community could be funded with a portion of the $5,899,024 the city committed to aesthetic improvements above and beyond what the NCDOT could justify completing. Burton Street, along with Montford and Hillcrest, were named as beneficiaries of these funds.
Barring further delays, “mitigation strategies” from the Burton Street Neighborhood Plan for which the NCDOT is assuming responsibility largely concern sidewalk construction. Improvements include a new sidewalk to run along Patton Avenue, connectivity to commercial corridors and a future greenway, and ADA features for existing sidewalks. If the NCDOT decides that a sound barrier is in order and a majority of Burton Street residents vote to have that wall constructed, the DOT will cover the costs of painting a mural that celebrates the history of Burton Street. Most of these projects will be contracted out individually in order to level the playing field for smaller, preferably women- and minority-owned businesses.
Folded into the I-26 Connector Project, the city will assume responsibility for other “mitigation strategies.” These include an expansion of programming at the Burton Street Community Center so that instead of just running a community garden, neighbors will be able to learn how to process and preserve produce, run and patronize a produce stand or even a farmers’ market, and learn about nutrition. The city will also pay for new traffic calming measures, including speed humps, on Burton Street and Florida Avenue. Putnam noted the city completed a project to replace the speed humps on those two roads about 18 months ago. Lastly, the city will be financially responsible for a feasibility study for the construction of the Smith Mill Creek Greenway.
Putnam did not get into details about cost-sharing but only mentioned aesthetic features for Hillcrest and Montford that the NCDOT agreed to incorporate in the I-26 Connector Project. In its younger years, when public housing was synonymous with drug and gang violence, Hillcrest received accolades for being constructed as an island. With the French Broad River on the west and interstates practically sealing off the other three sides, escape routes for dealers were minimal. The new plan calls for constructing a street, complete with sidewalks, crosswalks, and signaling, from the entrance of Hillcrest straight to Patton Avenue. Also, a new pedestrian bridge will be completed with “aesthetic treatments and lighting.”
The improvements for Montford all concerned Riverside Cemetery. Plans now call for lowering the highway next to the cemetery so mourners will not have to look at a retaining wall. The fencing will be replaced, and the planting of a vegetative buffer will be considered. Measures will also be taken to respect the dead and mourning during construction.