Local Opinion

The Debate on Downtown Hotels Continues

By Leslee Kulba

America’s founders had a great idea: He who pays for and maintains real estate controls it. It’s called property rights. Progressives have another idea:

“The community” controls everything. That way, control freaks masquerading as the voice of the voiceless get to order the universe, and those who are paying and maintaining get to double-down to satisfy “the community’s sense of place.” The bickering that results also serves to run board debates on such issues into the wee hours, when those who are paying and maintaining have to be in bed so they can be mentally fit for another long day work.

Asheville’s old BBT building soon-to-be the city’s newest hotel in the center of downtown.

Tuesday, representatives of an investment group came before Asheville City Council to request permission to build a hotel. Like many before them, these developers wanted to build a hotel because they yield better returns than residential construction. And, unlike the voices for the voiceless, developers want money so they can pay more taxes and give more generously to nonprofits.

City leadership, however, has made it clear they do not like hotels, and even more than that, they do not like Airbnbs. As the majority on city council only want tourists to come here, drink their beer, and get out; hotel proliferation is deemed a greater threat to the health, welfare, and safety of Ashevillians than gun violence, the latter being only something those lawyered-up pin on the weak to get them behind bars. Members of city council, therefore, decided any new hotel proposal should come before their board for approval.

Even before that, the city began pushing the McKibbon standard. It was named for a developer/philanthropist whose generosity – gallery space for local artists, living wages, infrastructure projects, contributions to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund – exceeded bounds. Encouraged, council next wanted to convert his love offerings to mandatory minimum costs of doing business with them. And even after all that, developers still find it more profitable to invest in hotels downtown than affordable housing projects.

Developers Birju Patel, Chris Day, and Peter Alberice now proposed for Broadway and Market Street 138 hotel rooms plus 37 residential units, nine of which would be rent-controlled; commercial space; sidewalks; a transit shelter; bus passes; commissions for local artists; living wages; a green roof; and more. Neighbors described the project as attractive and beneficial in many ways; but this time, the cause célèbre was going to be the farmers’ market.

The market meets Saturday mornings, and it was feared hotel traffic would disrupt it. The developers said they would prohibit tenants and clientele from driving through the market Saturday mornings, and let them use the alley for ingress and egress only in case of emergency. Marketgoers, however, deemed this the beginning of the end, as enforcement seemed preposterous. Regular Kim Roney explained, with applause, “I buy eggs and groceries without plastic direct from farmers and baked goods from the people because I can take the bus there…. If we can’t protect the space for sure, then we have to say no until we can.”

Stan Greenberg, who co-owns the property with Bob Deutsch, said they had finally found a development team willing to incorporate council’s strategic priorities into the project. Over the last 18 months, they had “spent a ton of money on lawyers, engineers, and architects, revising plans over and over in an attempt to cooperate with the commissions.” Greenberg said the proposed project would replace “old, tired buildings” and displace filthy activities, after which business owners must now clean up every morning.
Deutsch concurred. The developers were not, “paving paradise to put up a parking lot.” He said the neighborhood had had “issues” for a long time; in fact, “the other day,” a street fight sent a guy through Deutsch’s plate glass window, into his office. “We’re property owners, and we’re entitled to develop our property. We’re entitled to sell it.… We’re entitled to have a nice development,” he said, adding the farmers’ market, which he likes and patronizes, is an amenity that could coexist symbiotically with the proposal.
Shannon Van Etten said the project met all requirements and would be an improvement valued by neighbors, among whom were vendors at the farmers’ market who would gain customers. Van Etten said every night, for fear of their safety, he walks clients of his investment firm to their cars, past panhandlers and across beer cans, bottles, drug paraphernalia, underwear, and unmentionables in the alley.

Larry Holt explained cities, more than suburbs, are systems of moving parts, where people compromise and make accommodations for each other. When opportunities to share spaces presented themselves, he repeated, “We work it out.”

Counting enough votes to kill the project, the developers requested a continuance. That means they won’t have vested rights to pursue the project under the hotel moratorium council is expected to enact September 24.

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