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Efforts afoot to open up more of Asheville's riverfront

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3/26/2012 - Efforts afoot to open up more of Asheville's riverfront
by Mark Barrett - Asheville Citizen Times

 ASHEVILLE -- A key section of riverfront land should be open to the public by the end of the year, a city staffer says, and could eventually hold a River Arts District visitors center.

 The property is located west of Riverside Drive, immediately north of 12 Bones Smokehouse and the Riverside Drive/Lyman Street intersection in the city's urban riverfront, and contains an older one-story brick building that has been boarded up for some time.

Possible uses include office or retail, a visitors center, a boat and bike rental center, open space or greenway or other commercial uses, according to a public notice from environmental regulators.

No decision has been made on what the best use of the structure would be, said Stephanie Munson, a city staffer who works with the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission.

"We have had tons of people come to us and ask us, 'Can we have that building?' and they have all kinds of great ideas, but not only has the building not been ready yet but it's yet to be determined what would be the biggest benefit to the public," she said.

The building sits on a 0.3-acre tract and is owned by natural gas company PSNC Energy, which plans to donate the property to the city.

That tract and much larger ones to the west and north that border the French Broad River have been fenced off for some time. They were the site of a plant that made natural gas from coal during most of the first half of the 20th century.

Past owner Progress Energy has cleaned up much of the resulting contamination, and now the city is asking that the property be designated a "brownfield."

The designation, which must be approved by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, would limit the city's liability for any lingering contamination on the site.

It would prohibit some uses like a playground or agriculture but allow those not expected to pose any environmental problems.

Fences should come down by the end of the year, Munson said. It is unclear when any formal paths might be built.

Improving access would be a big step, said Pattiy Torno, who owns Curve Studios across the street from the property,

"I would like my customers to be able to walk across the street and see the river," she said, something that can be difficult to do in the area today.

A study later this year of ways to boost arts-driven economic activity in the area may provide answers to the question of what to do with the property, Munson said.

Another study, also to be completed this year, of ways to route the Wilma Dykeman Riverway through the area will have an impact.

The riverway is envisioned as a corridor for vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic through the urban riverfront. Among the challenges planners have been looking at are what to do about the nearly 90-degree turn cars must make in front of 12 Bones and how to get bikers and walkers through the area.

Among the possibilities planners have been looking at is putting a roundabout at the Lyman/Riverside intersection, putting a greenway path along the river just west of 12 Bones or running Riverside Drive and the greenway path through the 12 Bones site.

City government owns a swath of property along the French Broad north to Craven Street, raising the possibility of a fairly lengthy section of greenway path along the river in that area.

Stephanie Pankiewicz, a local planner working on the project, said planners should pick a preferred alternative during the second half of this year.

Actual construction, however, would depend on funding, and that schedule is uncertain.

There are more than 160 art studios and artists in an association for businesses in the district, Torno estimated. But she said increasingly large numbers of visitors drawn by that activity sometimes find it frustrating to navigate the area on foot.

"There's tremendous interest in the neighborhood to not see people pushing a baby carriage" up busy Riverside Drive, she said.

Work aimed at opening up another section of fenced-off property along the French Broad resumed recently, said Kate O'Hara, a Land-of-Sky Regional Council staffer who works on brownfields issues.

Construction workers last week began removing remaining concrete from and grading property on Amboy Road planned to be home to Karen Cragnolin Park, O'Hara said.

Later this spring, grasses and possibly other plants will be planted on the property. They in turn will stimulate growth of bacteria that will naturally break down the petroleum-based contaminants in the soil there, she said.

That part of the job will take one or two growing seasons, O'Hara said. That method is slower than simply removing contaminated soil, but it is also much less expensive, she said.

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