Proposed changes to the rules governing downtown development, and specifically hotels, would unduly politicize the process of development in the city, members of the Asheville Downtown Commission said last week in expressing their opposition.
“I just think there’s nothing we’re putting forth that really makes it clear for developers what they should do” to have their projects meet city approval, Chairman Adrian Vassallo said. (The commission’s meeting on Friday was Vassallo’s last as its chairman.)
“It’s not fair to the developer to go to Council” without a clear idea of what council wants, Vassallo said. “We have great opportunities to grow and grow in the right way, but make it clear.”
Commission members were discussing new regulations that would reduce the size of buildings that get reviewed and approved by City Council, and require any hotel of 20 to 25 rooms or bigger to go before City Council for approval. The proposed changes would also remove the quasi-judicial hearing that City Council and developers go through, theoretically opening up lines of communication that are closed under the current rules.
Asheville City Council is scheduled to consider the rules changes at its meeting Tuesday. Council members asked city staff to develop the changes after a growing chorus of community residents have called for a slowdown in development, and specifically a slowdown in the construction of new hotels.
Vassallo went on to reference the way another big hotel project met with approval in January 2016. The project was The Arras, a McKibbon Hospitality project led by John McKibbon. In that meeting, in which City Council voted 5-2 to approve the remaking of the former BB&T building into one home to a boutique hotel, condos and restaurant and retail space, a new standard to hotel approval appeared to emerge after McKibbon told council he would offer living-wage jobs for full-time workers in his hotel, give $250,000 to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, and spend $750,000 for sidewalks and public space in the area along with a revamped skyscraper. He also said that local artists and restaurateurs would get preference in his project. And in a move announced later, McKibbon gave the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities an interest-free $1 million loan to help spur the development of affordable housing in the city.
“If the McKibbon standard is the standard, put it in writing,” Vassallo said. “If we’re politicizing the process, make it fair” by letting everyone know what the exact standards are, he added.
City planner Alan Glines said that not everything in the McKibbon standard could be codified, noting that development regulations should be “tied to the use itself.” McKibbon’s loan to Mountain Housing Opportunities was a separate, voluntary agreement made outside the approval process of his development project.
Commission member Dane Barrager said the proposed changes are “totally contrary” to the city’s development process as spelled out its master planning documents. “It’s making the whole process political.”
Barrager said the new regulations, if adopted, would increase sprawl by forcing developers to build outside city limits. He added that he was worried about other, unintended, consequences. “This is not a good plan.”
Commission Member Michael McDonough agreed, adding, “I’m curious how more council review results in better place-making and better design.” He also wondered aloud how having politicians review projects helps the city arrive at better design.
McDonough also wondered if yet another hotel project could be reconsidered if the rules changes are adopted. City Council recently voted unanimously to deny the development of the Embassy Suites hotel on Haywood Street, saying the project did not meet a majority of required standards. Todd Okolichany said there’s uncertainty there because the developer said he would appeal that decision by filing a lawsuit, which is his recourse, but that typically a project would have to either wait one year for a re-submittal or substantially change their development plans to be heard again.
Commission member Brent Campbell broke with his colleagues and expressed a different opinion. “It’s easy to say you’re politicizing process. But it is a democratic process. I don’t see it as political. It’s democratic.”
Commission members decided not to take a vote on the issue, but reached an informal consensus: one or two commission members would attend Asheville City Council’s meeting Tuesday and rise to express their opinions.
The Downtown Commission is the latest city advisory group to state its objection to the proposed development changes. The Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission voted down the rules changes at its recent meeting, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce also has publicly expressed its opposition to the proposed changes.