Category: Government

Time to remove the Robert E. Lee Monument from Pack Square

Constructed in 1926, the Robert E. Lee monument in downtown Asheville commemorates an individual who stood and fought on behalf of racism, white supremacy, and intolerance. He is also arguably responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any individual in our history, given that hundreds of thousands died when he continued to fight long after he knew the war was lost.

Installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the antiquated monument is emblematic of the extreme bigotry represented by the Confederacy. This bigotry didn’t end after the Civil War, and our nation has been permanently scarred by racial lynchings, which were common during the period in which this monument was constructed, and systemic racism, which is still prevalent to this day.

Another monument honoring Confederate soldiers next to the Buncombe County Courthouse should also be removed. Perhaps it could be re-installed in Riverside Cemetery where many of those fallen are buried. A memorial to ancestors in a cemetery is appropriate. A monument to those fought against our nation in a public plaza is not.

We must recognize that the values of the Confederacy are not our own and that we should not permit the commemoration of an individual who stood for such values. It is morally reprehensible to celebrate individuals who stood for slavery. Nearly a century after the monument’s construction, it is long past time that we follow in the footsteps of cities such as New Orleans, who have removed and relocated their monuments of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Asheville must utilize public spaces to reflect the air of the future: equality, inclusiveness, coexistence.

A similar argument can be made regarding the Vance Monument. It is my view that the Vance monument should be disassembled or repurposed, and certainly re-dedicated. I’ve heard suggestions for renaming the obelisk as a Peace or Unity monument, and of course many have advocated complete demolition.

 

My position on short term rentals (AirBnB, etc.)

I support Short Term Rental of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

Asheville mural project, farmers
A mural on Chicken Alley depicts Asheville hospitality

(And here are my comments on WLOS TV-13)

Short Term Rentals (STRs) have been much in the news in the past couple of years because internet advertising systems have made it possible for more would-be hosts to reach more potential tenants than ever before. It isn’t a new idea. When I traveled in the British Isles in 1981 I bought a newsprint booklet that listed Bed and Breakfasts (BnBs) in every town. Some were rooms and some were stand-alone apartments. And of course larger BnBs have been familiar here in Asheville since a decade or two before Thomas Wolfe’s mother launched her boarding house.

For whatever reason when the current version of Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) was fashioned in the late 1990s it included a strict prohibition against renting any housing unit in residential areas for less than 30 days. A housing unit was deemed to be a place where someone might live full time. As a practical matter it was deemed to be rooms including a stove. It also provided for  legal HomeStay rental, which meant rental of a room or two within a private home for less than 30 days, without a separate stove. Oddly enough it also required the host to serve breakfast to guests. For other meals it was necessary to share the kitchen.

Who Knew? And When?

As near as I can determine, most people didn’t know about the 30 day limit, and those who did didn’t much care. Numerous hosts I have spoken with insist that when they went into the business in recent years they contacted Asheville City Staff representatives and asked if it was okay. Many were evidently told the same thing (though no one on Staff today is willing to admit it): “As long as there are no complaints.” As a practical matter, whether Staff said those words or not, that was the basis for enforcement. No problems? No problem. For the most part it seems that loud parties were the principal trigger for complaints, though sometimes parking issues or other infringements on neighbors were an issue.

As internet advertising caught on the number of people participating as hosts grew. AirBnB is the best known, but Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), FlipKey, CouchSurfer, and others including Craig’s List began to feature listings. The systems with the best feedback became the most reliable for both hosts and visitors which may be why AirBnB has been such a success around the world. Hosts rate guests and guests rate hosts. In order to be permitted to make reservations a guest had to have a clean record—make trouble for one host and no one else wanted your business. Hosts had a big incentive to provide the best facilities in their area or price range. Hosts often invested substantial money in their rental units. (I know one couple who put something like $60,000 into a honeymoon suite: hot tub, kitchen with latest appliances, spiffed up furniture and decor.) These hosts made their financial plans based on what they believed was a de facto legal business, whether or not they knew it was illegal de jure.

Many people operated their STRs for years without neighbors even noticing (in my case a house across the street was doing this for three years and I only learned about it when the STR issue blew up in 2015.) On the other hand, some neighbors were very aware and angry that their neighborhoods were “being turned into hotels.” During that same time period housing prices in Asheville and around the country were rocketing. (This was largely the result of a house building dip during the Great Recession, with the added stress locally of Asheville being the most popular city in the country on numerous best-of lists.) Affordable housing advocates began to blame STRs for the shortage of affordable apartments and homes.

As an upshot of the upset, Asheville City Council voted in the fall of 2015 to begin strict enforcement of the UDO rule against rentals less than 30 days, and to raise the fine for violation from $100 per day (after a Notice of Violation was issued and if the host did not desist) to $500 per day. In the November 2015 City election the chief advocate of the high fine and strict enforcement was voted out of office, with his stance on STRs one of two principal reasons for his defeat. (The other was his support of sale of the Haywood Street property to a hotelier.) However four members of the new Council continued to support the enforcement effort and hundreds of hosts were issued NOVs and forced out of business (or forced to remove stoves in order to get HomeStay permits.) (How many of those stoves remain removed is anybody’s guess.) The City is spending something upward of $250,000 on enforcement efforts (depending on how one calculates the cost. New staff and new internet search services have been contracted, but its hard to figure how much pre-existing staff and so forth are enlisted in enforcement.)

So we continue to have a black market in STRs. Many are still operating using all sorts of strategies. Some only advertise to previous guests (return business is a mainstay for many hosts.) Some post at night or on weekends when City enforcement staffers are off duty. Some pose as HomeStays. But the bottom line is we have no idea how many are operating and where they are operating.

I believe we should permit people to use what is often their most valuable asset to benefit from the burgeoning tourist economy here. Millions of dollars of property tax money go into the infrastructure and public safety demands of tourism, and millions of room tax dollars (from hotels and AirBnBs) advertise this city around the globe. I see no reason why the benefit of the tourist economy should all run to non-local hotel chains which pay meager wages when local residents are prohibited from offering rentals. The need for affordable housing is not limited to the minimum wage workers in the hospitality business, it includes hard pressed couples and single parents unable to make ends meet with Recession depressed wages. Furthermore, STR hosts often employ local housekeepers who are paid much better than hotel maids, and service workers who keep their properties in tip-top shape.

As an interesting sidebar I met two strong opponents of STRs at a coffee shop in mid-March, 2017. While they both oppose “turning neighborhoods into hotels,” their reasons were diametrically opposed. One feared that STRs would diminish the value of his home when he eventually sells and moves to a simpler (retirement) dwelling. The other feared that STRs would drive up property values and make housing less affordable. I suppose each hopes that the other one is right.

I believe we need to accept the new economy, sometimes called the sharing economy, and see the the entire community is better off for it. As I wrote this, AirBnB reported that their participants took in $13 million in 2016. That’s money that stays in the local economy.

12 Years and Counting … St. Lawrence Green

Basilica of St. Lawrence, Friends of St. Lawrence Green
Thousands of yard signs appeared throughout Asheville in the summer of 2015

A majority of Ashevillians want a public park opposite the Civic Center 

For more than a decade thousands of people in Asheville have expressed a desire to preserve the property opposite the Civic Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence as a public park. Petitions have circulated, demonstrations have been held, and letters have been written to newspapers and elected officials. Two opinion polls* have indicated overwhelming support for a park. Still those who want commercial development persist.

As we prepare to start holding events in the space that was covered with gravel for several years, the City conducted an online poll in May 2017, to name the performance space. Nearly half of respondents chose St. Lawrence Green or Park, with a majority for Green. It’s hard to imagine that the name will not finally stick.

Two City Council elections have been substantially decided over this issue. In 2005 when a proposed parking deck on the site became a hot issue, three opponents of the deck were elected and the project died. In 2015 when creation of a park became an explicit issue, park proponents finished 1,2 and 4, and the 3rd place finisher had shifted position from mild opposition to qualified support. The vice mayor who had been a vocal proponent of selling the property to a hotelier was voted out of office.

Meanwhile, in a “saved by the bell” moment, sale to the hotelier was scotched by a lawsuit filed by other hotel owners who challenged the legality of the sales agreement.

My view is that the first thing we need to do when Council finally agrees to take action is to enlist a traffic designer to propose the best solutions for traffic at the intersection of Haywood St., Flint St. and Page Ave. Nothing else should be decided before the traffic flow decision is made because it dictates the rest.

In the meantime we should do what we should have done a few years ago—start using the space for public events. In modern design terms these are referred to as “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” uses, a way for people to figure out what they like or don’t like in a public space. A festival? A concert? A farmer’s/tailgate market? Busking? Some benches? Permits for food trucks? Perhaps once the hotel construction on Page is complete, close that street to automobiles on Sundays and create a pop-up pedestrian mall?

The Project for Public Spaces, which made a presentation at the outset of the current task force effort, has helped facilitate this sort of effort around the world. Their advice? Start small with “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” experiments before any decision is made about the ultimate shape of a public park.

* One poll conducted online by the Asheville Citizen-Times was “self-selecting” and therefore somewhat unreliable. However about 75 percent of respondents wanted a park.
The poll I conducted was an automated poll (respondents touched 1 or 2 or 3 to indicate answers). Such polls are way cheaper than “scientific” polls where a company dials a few hundred “representative” people and talks to them. Automated polls cannot dial cell phones, which arguably shifts the sample to older people more likely to have land lines. But mine dialed over 5,000 Asheville voters who had voted in the previous two City elections, which is a large and arguably random sample. The results were 86 percent in favor of a park. On the same poll, conducted several weeks before the 2015 election, I asked about retention of the City water system which was being snatched away by the General Assembly, and which was a referendum question on the November ballot. My results lined up within a couple of points with the election day outcome. That gives me fairly high confidence in the accuracy of my poll.

The End of the Automobile World as we Know it

driverless bus in Asheville
An example of a driverless bus that would work in Asheville.

Rethinking Parking and Traffic

Autonomous vehicles are going to change our world.

There’s a big change coming and local governments need to be prepared.

Serious analysts are saying that private automobiles are on the way out. One industry-study group believes the total number of cars in the world will fall by 90 percent over the next few decades.

This is really good news, but it is hugely disruptive news as well. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is urgent if we are to address the existential threat of climate change. Eliminating the cost of owning a huge chunk of machinery that sits idle 95 percent of the time will be of enormous economic importance to individuals. Democratizing transit will have enormous effects as well.

Here’s a link to my 2014 TEDx talk about driverless autos.

In the year and a half since I delivered that talk I’ve thought about and learned more about the subject. It appears that the first vehicles to see wide use will be commercial.

Trucks

Driverless interstate truck traffic is likely to arrive soonest of all because highway driving is the easiest for computers to handle. We might see caravans of trucks with a human driver in the lead and a string of autonomous trucks following. When the fleet arrives at a destination city, local drivers could take the loads to different specific destinations.

Buses

Buses will be next – again because following a regular route is simpler than navigating all over the map—and these driverless buses will offer the most noticeable shift for those of us not in the trucking business. A particular benefit will be the ability to run smaller buses on more frequent schedules. Today’s transit equation is greatly influenced by the cost of drivers and the need to spread that cost among as many patrons as possible.

My Pecha Kucha 20×20 Talk is here.

Both of these changes will be hugely disruptive to employment. Driving is the single biggest employment for men in the United States, and these new vehicles will un-employ more people than any other facet of automation.

Meanwhile, some experts predict that autonomous, on-demand cars will actually be more affordable than any sort of public transit. That is a little further out, but its a possibility that ought to be considered as well by future-thinking local governments.Will we need parking decks when cars drop us off and keep on rolling? And will that happen in ten years? The President of the Southeast Traffic Engineers professional organization told their annual convention in 2013 that cities may well ban human drivers by 2027.

As I asked in my TEDx and Pecha Kucha talks, what if the horse really does know the way?

Sausage Making ain’t Easy Folks

Great ideas move slowly in government. And that’s a good thing. Bad ideas sometimes move fast, twitching in the political winds. Here in NC we can see the damage done by an ideologue GOP in a few short years since they grabbed the majority in the General Assembly in 2010. Defunding education, cutting Medicaid, cutting environmental protection, making voter registration more difficult … lots of bad ideas in a big hurry. Of course that doesn’t come close to the instant havoc created by our current president. Madness multiplied.

I promised to address racial profiling and the denial of civil liberties to people based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identification, religion, political views and so on when I ran for City Council in 2009. Over the ensuing years I met with an interdenominational council, Occupy activists, Latino community groups, the Asheville Police Department management, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, and concerned citizens.  In fall of 2013 the Asheville City Council passed my resolution unanimously.

It was watered down from the original as happens to most legislation. But it clearly instructed Asheville City employees that the rules for the City were: no discrimination.

In some ways the experience was depressing. In essence, it took me 4 years to get Council to endorse the Bill of Rights. But in other ways it was encouraging. We made a clear statement in favor of fairness under the law.

My point here is this: small changes take years. Big changes take longer. Who you vote for in local elections matters immensely, and they need to be willing to press the big issues for years. I have fought against entrenched interests from the get-go and I haven’t stopped. My overarching goals are to represent my constituents as consistently and fairly as I can manage, and to use whatever City resources are available to address the fundamental reality of climate change. I am solidly in favor of a truly sustainable future.

Showing up Matters

I have always been an activist

Eagle Scout, Boy Scouts of America
The beginning of my environmental ethic

I’ve been willing to show up, to speak out, to press for change. Between the big marches and protests I have written and spoken out against environmental despoliation, injustice and senseless war. I have addressed students, church groups and conventions on matters of governance, environment and ethics in Newark; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; Denver; Columbia, S. Car.; Lakeland, Fla.; Knoxville; Greensboro; Cambridge, Mass.; Charleston; Washington, DC; Des Moines; Boone; Charlotte; Raleigh; Hickory; Spartanburg; Franklin; Black Mountain; Burnsville; Hendersonville and, of course, right here in Asheville. AltogetherI have delivered talks in 25 cities in a dozen states since 2010.

Beginning in 2004 and continuing through todayI have fought commercial development of the city-owned property opposite the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the Asheville Civic Center and pressed for creation of a public park. The fight goes on.

In August 2015, I was one of 12,000 attendees of a Bernie Sanders for President rally in Phoenix, and among nearly 3,000 in Greenville, S.C.

In May, 2014, I was a speaker at the Asheville Rally Against Monsanto/GMOs.

In Sept. 2013, after four years of meetings and dialogue with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, George Friday of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, an interdenominational group of religious leaders, representatives of the Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, leaders from the local immigrant community, members of Occupy Asheville and city council members from cities around the country, the Civil Liberties Resolution I crafted was approved by unanimous vote of the Asheville City Council. It reminds all City employees, and all of our citizens, that discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political actions or beliefs is wrong and won’t be tolerated in our City.

HKonJ, moral monday
With the Rev. William Barber at Mountain Moral Monday

In the summer of 2013, I used campaign funds from my City Council reelection campaign to rent buses for Asheville citizens to attend Moral Monday events in Raleigh.

On Aug. 5, 2013, I opened the Mountain Moral Monday event in Asheville, leading the estimated 10,000 person crowd in Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land.”

In 2012 I attended the Restore the American Dream conference in Washington DC, working with others to advocate a change in our national priorities – toward people and away from corporate welfare.

 

Washington DC, working for the people
At Van Jones’ Restore the American Dream Conference

In 2012 I challenged incumbent Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler in North Carolina’s 11th Congregssional District primary. Shuler had consistently voted with Republicans in Congress and I believed someone had to challenge his voting record. In mid-campaign the General Assembly redistricted Asheville out of the 11th District, Shuler dropped out of the race, and his chief of staff Hayden Rogers jumped in. I came in second in the three-way race, but won handily in the portion of Buncombe County which remained in the district. I addressed urgent issues facing the country in a series of YouTube videos.

In 2011 and again in 2015, I attended the annual Netroots Nation conferences (in Providence and Phoenix, respectively) – learning and planning with other internet activists on methods and strategies to advance progressive political positions.

In Nov. 2011, I was one among thousands protesting the Keystone XL pipeline plan in Wa speechashington DC.

In 2008, I was an outspoken advocate for the N.C. Racial Justice Act which passed in 2009 and permitted NC death row inmates to challenge their sentences if they could prove racial bias in their trials. (The death sentence would be commuted to life without parole. When the GOP took control of the General Assembly in 2010 they overturned the law.)

In Sept., 2005, I was one among 150,000 people protesting the Iraq war in Washington DC.

In 2003, I creaparcprotest copyted a petition drive to stop the City Council sale of a chunk of City/County Plaza (now Pack Square Park) to the Sammons Corp. for construction of a high rise development. The petition triggered a city-wide protest that resulted in Sammons’ abandonment of the plan.

 

In 2003, I instigated the Asheville iteration of the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, working with Jim Hightower and representatives of about 50 WNC non-profit groups. I rented the Asheville Civic Center, and paid out of pocket for expenses that far exceeded donations at the gate. (Asheville’s Rolling Thunder group held subsequent events over a couple of years to repay me.)

Rolling Thunder Asheville 2003
Grinning with Barbara McCampbell and Jim Hightower

In 2003, I was a co-director of WNC Meetups for Howard Dean, and helped found the Progressive Project which later moved its operations to Boston (under the direction of Jasmine Beach-Ferrara) and was active nationwide in addressing gay-rights issues. Since then Jasmine returned to Asheville, founded the Campaign for Southern Equality, and was elected to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in 2016.

In 2003, I was co-emcee, and co-organizer of the two largest pre-Iraq war protests in Asheville.

Looking further back, in the mid-1970s I was active with the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire, lobbying and marching against construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station.

In Nov. 1969 I marched against the Vietnam War in Washington DC, after participating in Moratorium teach-in activities on my college campus.

I show up.

Cecil’s Council Record

best of photo copy Seven years in a row #1 pol. Four of seven #1 hero. Three of seven #3 villain. (This ad was from 2015.)

Seven years of work on the Asheville City Council involve a lot of issues and a dizzying number of votes. Most issues are simple and often get unanimous support.  Other issues stand out because they were contentious, or required a lot of discussion and lobbying. Some are tough calls, and they involve numerous losses and wins. Here’s a sampling.

LED Street Lighting. Cecil was the first advocate on Council for retrofitting our street lights with LED fixtures – a change estimated to save upward of $300,000 per year in electric bills for the City, while reducing carbon emissions from the power plant.

Single Stream Recycling. Cecil was the first and primary advocate on Council for the Big Blue project which has increased our recycling rate by more than 50 percent, and substantially reduced landfill trash. He has continued to advocate for municipal curbside composting, though the methodology will be complicated. He urged approval of the City’s partnership with Danny’s Dumpsters which takes our brush and leaf collection material and combines it with restaurant food waste in a commercial composting operation.

Stream Buffers. Cecil supported a proposal to widen stream buffers on all flowing water in the City to 50 feet on each bank. (That is, to restrict impervious building surfaces near streams.) This would have greatly improved storm water absorption, would have provided more wildlife habitat, etc. Development interests weighed in and the buffers were cut to 25 feet.

Biltmore Apartments. An out-of-state developer sought Urban Place zoning for a project on Fairview Rd. Cecil voted “no” and Council approved the rezoning. Granting Urban Place designation allowed for higher density – that is, more units and more profit – than the previous zoning would accord. Why the “no” vote?

Urban Place designation is supposed to encourage creation of mixed use development that looks like North Lexington Ave. or Haywood Rd. in West Asheville, with commercial use at street level and residences above. It is supposed to apply to walkable neighborhoods, with easy access to multimodal transportation. This project fails and fails again. There’s no sidewalk to anywhere, so the two token retail spaces will only be accessible via automobile. The two retail spaces and 377 apartments are jammed up against a single-lane side street and residentially zoned neighbors.

The 51 Biltmore/Aloft parking deck. Cecil cast one of two votes against the deck for three core reasons.

1) For the same $15 million we could have established a shuttle or trolley connecting the ample parking at the margins of the City to downtown. (The Downtown Master Plan identified an excess of parking at the margins.)

2) A parking deck draws traffic. Modern urban planners say parking should be away from bustling shopping districts, forcing pedestrian interaction.

3) The City paid at least $2 million too much for the land, while John Mckibbon told us in open Council session that he would not build his hotel unless we built the deck. So taxpayers subsidized the Aloft.

Fraga Hotel adjacent to Grove Arcade. Cecil repeatedly challenged the “open space” justification for the project. Our downtown development rules call for a certain amount of open space around a building of this scale. The project on the ground does not meet those specs, so City Staff decided the roof of the Grove Arcade constitutes the necessary open space. Council approved the project. One of the first steps in the ongoing construction was to cut down a bunch of lovely mature trees on the site. In the final vote, Cecil assented on legal grounds. The vote was on whether or not the project was compliant with the UDO, and testimony had revealed that the UDO is so unclear on the “open space” question that one can read into it whatever one chooses. Being a quasi-judicial hearing, a Council member actually opens himself to a lawsuit if he /she casts a vote based on opinion rather than “the facts” presented in the hearing. Casting a single oppositional vote in that circumstance seemed pointless, and state law prohibits abstention.

Downtown Master Plan. The plan was approved several years ago. Cecil voted no. His primary objection was to the increase in size ceiling of Level 2 developments to 175,000 square feet. Level 2 projects do not need Council approval. By raising the size limit on Level 2 Council made it extremely unlikely that any developer would propose a Level 3 project. So Council washed its hands of making decisions on big projects. Council often gets blamed for “all the big new hotels” but the problem isn’t case-by-case decisions it is the way Council changed the Level 2 rules. Those hotel plans never came before Council. After six years of advocacy, Council finally reduced the ceiling for Level 2 to 100,000 s.f. and placed all hotel projects under Council review in February, . 2017.

Kenilworth Apartment Project. Cecil was an outspoken critic of the plan to build a large scale apartment building on a steep slope with a very narrow residential street as the only access. He joined a majority in voting against the project twice, which gave neighbors time to organize and file a legal challenge, which resulted in withdrawal of the plan. (Interestingly, along the same road, on the same slope, a catastrophic landslide occurred recently. The road is being repaired at great expense, and it demonstrates the instability of the terrain that would have been further impacted by the proposed apartment project.)

Civil Liberties Resolution is discussed here.

 

 

Time to remove the Robert E. Lee Monument from Pack Square

Constructed in 1926, the Robert E. Lee monument in downtown Asheville commemorates an individual who stood and fought on behalf of racism, white supremacy, and intolerance. He is also arguably responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any individual in our history, given that hundreds of thousands died when he continued to fight long after he knew the war was lost.

Installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the antiquated monument is emblematic of the extreme bigotry represented by the Confederacy. This bigotry didn’t end after the Civil War, and our nation has been permanently scarred by racial lynchings, which were common during the period in which this monument was constructed, and systemic racism, which is still prevalent to this day.

We must recognize that the values of the Confederacy are not our own and that we should not permit the commemoration of an individual who stood for such values. It is morally reprehensible to celebrate individuals who stood for bigotry. Nearly a century after the monument’s construction, it is long past time that we follow in the footsteps of cities such as New Orleans, who have removed and relocated their monuments of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Asheville must utilize public spaces to reflect the air of the future: equality, inclusiveness, coexistence.

A similar argument might be made regarding the Vance Monument. However it principally honors the first governor from WNC. Perhaps removal of the written reference to his support of the Confederacy would make that principal recognition the only historical link to that edifice.