AshevilleBusinessNewsOpinion

Fighting Hotels as Poor People Die

Asheville City Council

By Leslee Kulba- The last meeting of Asheville City Council began with a last-minute addition to the consent agenda. The consent agenda allows council to vote on a block of items that would be adopted unanimously, like appropriating small sums for change orders, and accepting dedications.

The Flatiron was built in 1926 and has since been designated a historic landmark.

The item added to the consent agenda Tuesday was a resolution appealing to Governor Roy Cooper to veto House Bill 370, which would require local law enforcement agents to cooperate with ICE.

While there are strong humanitarian reasons to support the resolution, and it would receive zero opposing votes from the seven Democrats on council – the matter is seriously controversial. By springing the item on the agenda, the other side, regardless of how ignorant or malignant, had no chance to be heard.

Two people supporting the issue, one wearing a button reading “Stop HB370,” however, had enough notice to show up and be heard. At least Councilor Brian Haynes had the courtesy to read into the minutes the resolution so the public could, albeit after-the-fact, know what council was approving.

The next item of business was a city manager’s report on year-over-year gun violence. No statistics were provided for overall violent crimes, leaving the public to wonder if the problem was more a matter of increasing anger mismanagement or a shortage of blunt objects. Before turning the time over to Deputy Chief Jim Baumstark, City Manager Debra Campbell noted in her hometown of Charlotte, 56 homicides, by any means, had been committed in the first half of the year, compared to 58 in all of 2018.

Baumstark said, for the first half of the year, incidents of violent gun crime had increased from 72 to 82; with robberies involving a gun increasing from 23 to 29 and aggravated assaults involving a gun up from 44 to 51. Year-to-date, the Asheville Police Department had responded to 360 “gun calls,” recorded as “gunshot wound,” “gun discharge,” or “person with a gun.”

The top ten areas and number of gun calls year-to-date were: Pisgah View (39), Deaverview (29), Hillcrest (17), Shiloh (15), Livingston (11), Tunnel Road by the mall (10), Burton Street (7), Deaverview Road and Pisgah View Road (6), North Lexington Avenue (6), and Klondyke (6). Councilor Sheneika Smith wanted to clarify that the data represented the residences of the people calling the police and not the perpetrators, many of whom come from out of town to commit crime.

In May, there was a spike in violent gun crimes, precipitating the creation of a special task force. What else could leaders do, besides offer the proverbial furled brow, speak sentences overloaded with the word “community,” and call upon citizens to “engage” and report suspicious activity. Councilor Keith Young asked Baumstark to prepare a list of the ace, race, gender, and place of residence of persons charged with crime so he could, “better get a hold of what’s going on.” Councilor Vijay Kapoor thanked the city manager, as this was the first time in his 1.5 years on council that a presentation had been made before that body on crime data. He sympathized with parents who could not let their children go out at night for fear of their lives.

A Weightier Matter –
Following a brief discussion of violent crime, council addressed the topic that most in the chambers had come to vanquish, the topic making headlines and the true Enemy of the People: a hotel. At council’s May 14 meeting, plans were presented to convert the Flatiron Building downtown into a boutique hotel.

The Flatiron was built in 1926 and has since been designated a historic landmark. The current owner, Russell Thomas, had had the building on the market for a long time before receiving an offer from investor Philip Woollcott and his team.

The development team self-described as totally local, and they said continuing to rent the building as office space was a losing prospect; especially, if the new landlord wanted to continue offering Thomas’ deep discounts. Importantly, the Flatiron needed $10.5 million in upgrades that would be added to any sale price.

The repairs and refurbishments list included new elevators, because the existing ones are so old replacement parts must be custom-made. The electrical system was original, having been installed in the 1920s; and the HVAC system needed work. The $10.5 million total included the cost of installing a sprinkler system, which opponents charged would not be required by code if the building was not going to be converted to a hotel. To this, the developers’ attorney, Wyatt Stevens, said sprinklering was deemed important to preserve lives as well as the historic structure.

When Stevens saw he did not have the support of a majority on council the first time around, he withdrew the petition, and Councilor Julie Mayfield to recommend Stevens reach out to parties opposing the project to reach a compromise. While citizens in the chambers opposing the project thought she was talking about them, Mayfield and Stevens understood the opposition to mean financial institutions, real estate developers, and persons knowledgeable about historic renovation. Stevens asked these adepts if they could see a way to fund some of the community proposals or knew of a philanthropist or angel investor that might help with the upgrades needed to protect and preserve the building, but no one did.

In the interim, the developers prepared a compromise plan, electing to retain one floor for office space, cut number of hotel rooms from 80 to 71, and tweak parking provisions. And members of council found more reasons to deny the proposal. First, Haynes sought to make an issue over the distinction between the words “withdraw” and “continue.” Staff did not believe this was a problem.

Second, a local reporter had exposed one of the investors for the project as a convicted felon. To that, Stevens said the accused was never involved in management, had served his time and returned to civilian life, had agreed to drop out of the project if approved, and did not constitute a statutory criterion for denying a conditional zoning.

Lastly, another news outlet had discovered that the city had paid $800,000 in bond revenues in 1985 for improvements to Wall Street that may or may not have been available to address Flatiron upgrades. At the last meeting, owner Russell Thomas was described as always running up and down the stairs to fix things. This was framed in the discourse as “deferred maintenance,” and Young criticized it as irresponsible ownership.

Staff replied that they had searched the records inasmuch as possible, the bond revenues had been awarded to the party that owned the building before Thomas, and no deed restrictions mentioned the bond money. Young wanted to continue the public hearing until he could “get answers,” and Stevens slow-walked him through staff’s findings and their legal irrelevance to the matter at-hand.

During public comment, many criticized capitalism and the greed of the developers. Some thought the city should convert the property into affordable housing. This was after the developers had argued there was no way to make the needed repairs and continue renting higher-rent office space. People did not believe the developers when they said a hotel was their only option for profitability, and the mention of profit made not only the developers but members of council villains.

Others suggested using Tourism Development Authority funds, tax credits, or some other solution that they believed involved no money. Two more argued that, while land use regulations are an oft-cited cause of gentrification, hotels were driving the cost of living out of the reach of buskers and people sleeping on the sidewalks and in alcoves.

A recurring complaint was hotel proliferation. Rather than letting the market determine carrying capacities, they wanted government to choose a number defining hotel saturation. Jonathan Wainscott said hotel proliferation was “a symptom of an overheated tourism economy.” He said Explore Asheville’s budget was almost as large as Choose Chicago’s.

Government was working at cross-purposes, taxing and spending to recruit tourists, and now trying to figure out how to use grants, subsidies, tax credits, or other taxpayer redistributions to prevent the creation of another hotel. Wainscott acknowledged Asheville’s room tax could only be created or destroyed by the state legislature, but added negotiations would be addled until council improved its relationship with Raleigh.

Dan March, one of few advocates, said Thomas had provided the city a business incubator, supporting entrepreneurs for over 30 years. He was like a Mountain BizWorks operating without government subsidy. It was wrong to demand the goodwill he freely offered be made his chain for life.

Following public comment, Kapoor said the developers had invited council to probe their proposal for months, and he had visited with them several times. He said he wouldn’t support an effort to postpone the hearing because any lack of due diligence at this point was the fault of members of council. Both Kapoor and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler had reviewed financials and concluded the building could not viably continue as office space. Wisler added if council were to prevent addressing maintenance needs, the historic gem might have to be torn down. “We are where we are,” she said.

Councilor Julie Mayfield was the swing vote. She said she supported the project because the developer had made a fair effort to mitigate her concerns. While she would have preferred not to approve the creation of another hotel, she agreed there was “no clear path to a different use.” Furthermore, it would not be fair to “keep moving the goal posts.” The hotel was approved with support from Mayor Esther Manheimer, Wisler, Kapoor, and Mayfield.

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