Coxe Avenue between Banks and Buxton Avenues is now a 200-foot-long mural
that Asheville on Bikes says will increase safety and improve traffic flow.
Coxe Avenue street mural highlights cyclists’ growing clout.
Over a single weekend (November 2 – 4) a nondescript block of a quiet commercial street was transformed into … um … something else.
A crew of volunteers, under the aegis of Asheville on Bikes, turned the pavement of Coxe Avenue between Banks and Buxton Avenues into a 6,000-square-foot mural flanked by offset spaces that the organization insists are “multipurpose zones” and not bike lanes.
On-high drone photos of the mural reveal it to be a parade of stylized butterflies. From street level, however, the artwork — which bestrides and partly obscures the yellow double traffic line — appears as a pattern of large, multicolored teardrops on a background of royal blue. At first glance it is difficult to differentiate newly painted parking spaces from the overall design.
The white “multipurpose zones,” between the blue area and the sidewalk, are offset by rows of plastic dividers called “armadillos” for their shape and size.
From a drone, or maybe the top of the Public Service Building,the street mural reveals itself to be a parade of butterflies. White side areas are “multipurpose zones.” (Photo by Justin Mitchell)
Say hello to “Tactical Urbanism.” Again.
The Coxe Avenue project was organized and implemented by Street Tweaks, a subset of Asheville on Bikes, which says this was Street Tweaks’ first venture into the realm of tactical urbanism.
But Asheville on Bikes first introduced tactical urbanism to Asheville back in April, when AoB persuaded city council to install bike lanes along a stretch of Charlotte Street, over vehement objections that the resulting sacrifice of an auto traffic lane would create havoc along an already congested traffic artery. (See https://enquiringminds.media/the-great-charlotte-street-traffic-diet-of-2018/ )
The City of Asheville blog says, “ ‘Tactical urbanism’ is a term used to describe a collection of low-cost, temporary changes to streets and sometimes neighborhoods, intended to test what might work best when considering permanent enhancements.” Somebody, in other words, hatches an idea relating to urban livability and persuades local government to endorse it on a small scale. Then everybody sits back and monitors what happens next; if the experiment is deemed to produce positive results, the changes can be made permanent and even expanded. In this way, proponents claim, municipalities can experiment without committing much, if any, money; and if the project turns into an epic fail the consequences are few and minor.
AoB is quick to point out that the Coxe Avenue mural installation did not cost the city a dime; it was done with donated time and equipment, and AoB itself picked up the tab for all expenses. Observers say that raises an interesting point.
$162,000 will buy a lot of paint.
The total cost involved in creating the mural was $162,000, which, AoB founder and executive director Mike Sule told Enquiring Minds, was raised through contributions to AoB and its partners in the venture, including the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and AARP. “Of course, each organization has its own donors and funding streams,” Sule said.
On the Facebook page Asheville Politics, city Multimodal Transportation Commission Chairman Rich Lee said, ” … this experiment cost a few hundred [dollars].” And in October, as plans for the mural were going forward, city Assistant Transportation Director Jessica Morriss said the project consisted of “mostly paint.” With all the principals stressing the volunteer labor and minimal out-of-pocket costs involved in the project, observers wondered, “What did the rest of that $162K go for?”
Sule did not address that point, but a partial answer might be “consultants.” In June, when the Coxe Avenue plan was in its infancy, AoB retained Street Plans Collaborative, of New York and Miami, to help formulate it. Street Plans co-principal Tony Garcia, who heads the Miami office, came to Asheville in person to conduct workshops and help frame the project.
Street Plans calls itself “the stewards of the international Tactical Urbanism movement.” Indeed, Garcia’s partner, Mike Lydon, is credited by Wikipedia as having coined the phrase “tactical urbanism.” It stands to reason then, observers say, that Street Plans’ services don’t come cheap; the ability to finance that level of expert involvement points to AoB’s growing clout, and that raises some city hall-watchers’ eyebrows.
The mural from street level, showing the white multipurpose lane, offset by black-and-white plastic “armadillos.” Some drivers have already complained that the paint job obscures the center line and makes it difficult to locate crosswalks and parking spaces. (Photo by Roger McCredie)
The Tail that Wags the Dog
Once a nondescript commercial stretch populated by offices and passive small businesses, Coxe Avenue now finds itself a main thoroughfare of Asheville’s newly-trendy “South Slope” neighborhood. The block between Banks and Buxton comprises the new home of ZaPow! art gallery/brew pub/coffee shop and Tasty Beverage, a variety beer retailer.
That’s no coincidence, say some who have been following the coming of tactical urbanism. Over the past decade they have watched the Asheville brand morph from scenery-and-serenity to bikes-and-beer … with AoB, once a loosely knit group of cycling enthusiasts, becoming a thriving and influential nonprofit and a tactical urbanism handmaiden.
To these critics, AoB’s alignment with multimodal transportation is window dressing. Stripped of their virtue signalling about helping non-drivers and making Asheville green, they say, the various cycling organizations are elite social and recreational clubs with an underlying progressive political agenda. They have friends — and members — in high places and if they decide they want to carve up the Charlotte Street traffic pattern or paint butterflies on a block of Coxe Avenue, they will probably be able to make it happen. It’s another case, they say, of special interest groups steering the city into policies that will eventually find their way into taxpayers’ pockets.
The city has pledged to provide “typical street maintenance,” “before and after traffic counts,” and “general assistance, including staff time” for the mural area, which means that although the project has not yet cost the city anything, it will. AoB is responsible for “supplementary maintenance and monitoring.” The mural is to remain “until it is time to reconstruct the street, unless both parties agree that it needs to be removed.”
A retired city administrator said, ” Maybe the City can raise $162,000 (gofundme?) to lay down some asphalt on a few city streets.”
Meanwhile, cyclists and tactical urbanism proponents are celebrating the mural’s/multipurpose lanes’ installation and pointing to a future in which Asheville completely embraces the “bike culture.” And the AoB website exhorts its readers, “This is our loving ask: give us your money so we can put it to work changing Asheville forever. Your financial support is vital and our tactical urbanism projects are big ticket items for our non-profit. Giving to Asheville on Bikes is something you should do if you like causing change … “
Sound Mind, the creative services firm that actually designed the mural, said it “[has] been in love with Asheville On Bikes for years and always respected the wonderful [work] they do for urban bike safety and education as well as just making commuting by bike look and feel so sexy. Not to mention the nitty-gritty-get-up-in-the-city’s-business-and-make-it-happen hard work they do.” ♣