By Leslee Kulba- Asheville City Council approved plans for a seven-story, 103-room Marriott Extended Stay Hotel on the vacant, concrete lot across from the old Matthews Ford dealership on Biltmore Avenue.
The project of local hoteliers Pratik Bhatka and Monark Patel had been withdrawn from consideration at an October council meeting. Denial was imminent and would have prevented the project from returning for approval for an entire year.
Some speaking during public comment held council members’ feet to the fire, quoting promises they had made to oppose new hotel construction while running for office. Mayor Esther Manheimer explained council had already made strides in that arena by requiring all hotel proposals to come before them for approval.
The only other thing council could do was impose a moratorium, but she said those don’t last long anyway.
Manheimer said requiring hoteliers to come before council forced them to put “a lot more skin in the game.” Council calls the practice the McKibbon Standard, after its first cooperative hotelier. For example, Patel was offering, in exchange for permission to build his hotel, a gift of $500,000 to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, $125,000 for a playground on housing authority property, a fully-equipped bus shelter with free maps and transit passes for guests and employees, and job training for people in public housing.
Neighbors opposing the project criticized the practice of extorting bribes, even if it was for council’s special projects instead of their own pockets. They and others did not like how the project would disrupt the fiber of their community and obstruct their views of Mt. Pisgah. Patel was described by supporters as an exemplary “corporate citizen,” always giving more than expected when presented with a need; while detractors, impressed, pointed out good citizenship was not a legitimate criterion for evaluating a conditional zoning.
Manheimer said another mitigating factor for the hotel was a change in Tourism Development Authority policy. She said Patel’s proposal had precipitated conversations about tax equity. The TDA collects room taxes to attract more tourists, who use public infrastructure and services without paying a dime. The TDA has since acted on the mayor’s complaint and committed to engaging a consultant to develop a multi-year capital improvement plan to be funded by hotel tax revenues.
Councilor Sheneika Smith, herself a victim of urban renewal, was incensed. “I’m hearing a lot of conversation about protecting downtown and protecting the communities around it, but I wonder, where was the rally cry when the community behind this facility was all black-family owners? Nobody stood up. Nobody was there to protect and preserve the historic richness of this community.
But now that a hotel is coming forth, then you hear everyone speaking again and speaking for the preservation of something that they call rich…. Where was the community benefit agreement when people were being pushed out? How about their protection to have such scenic views of Mt. Pisgah? Those considerations and those comforts were not even considered in the vocabulary or heart of Asheville…. I remember the many families who would love to still be there now, and love to have this type of protection.”
Councilor Brian Haynes would have preferred to see the hotelier build affordable housing. “When I met with you, I mentioned the fact that I did not want to see a hotel there, and why don’t you consider affordable housing; and your reply to me was not that we look into affordable housing or affordable housing would not work there, it was that, ‘I know hotels. I don’t know affordable housing.”
When Patel said it was impossible to build affordable housing on one acre downtown, Haynes asked, “This is based on what? Is this based on research that you’ve done?” Patel attempted to give an economics-in-one-minute lesson, trying to explain how several inexpensive units were needed to get the same revenue as a few expensive ones; to construct enough units, he would have to build several stories, which requires concrete, which is more expensive than wood; stick-built apartments right behind the site are renting for $1,600 a month; and it would take $25,000-$35,000 a space to build a parking garage and that alone would kill an affordable housing project.
Haynes next asked how many employees were paid at least $15/hour. Patel balked, but that was because housekeepers are paid per room, not per hour. He estimated 75% would, working 30 hours per week. They could also earn bonuses.
In the end, Haynes, Councilor Keith Young, and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler voted against the hotel. Wisler was opposed on the basis of proliferation. She said there were 181 hotel rooms within one mile of the proposed site and 1,430 rooms within two miles. Council also agreed to give Patel five years, instead of the normal three, to get a building permit.