Councilman Gordon Smith and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler voted against the proposal, while Mayor Esther Manheimer and Council members Brian Haynes, Cecil Bothwell, Julie Mayfield and Keith Young voted for it.
The 70-room hotel, to be located inside a giant of an historic building at 95 Roberts St., is a first for the area, which is known as home to dozens of working artists. Charlotte-based White Point Partners is the lead developer on the project, which received unanimous approval from the Asheville Planning & Zoning Commission.
Plans for the project call for a 60-seat restaurant and 4,608 feet of retail space inside the massive structure known as the Kent Building. The original structure was built in 1923. A fire caused significant damage to it two years later, but it was rebuilt and served as home to a grocery distributor.
Asheville remains in the midst of a hotel-building boom, and some commenters on the project noted Tuesday night that public sentiment has been running against hoteliers. (Indeed, City Council approved new rules not long ago aimed at stiffening the review process for new hotel projects.)
Artist Anna Toth said she was “concerned about the inevitability of development in the River Arts District” and how that would diminish the availability of affordable studio space. Fellow artist Brandon Skupski said that, while it may be beneficial to have more tourists in the RAD, “there are other ways” to draw them.
A handful of other commenters expressed support for the one-of-a-kind project.
Pattiy Torno, owner of CURVE Studios and an artist in the River Arts District since 1984, called the proposal a welcome addition to the area. “It’s important for Asheville’s long-term health that we have alternatives to downtown in terms of offering different experiences” for tourists, she said, noting that the addition of new downtown hotels may be hurting visitation to the arts district.
A hotel in the River Arts District will draw customers, Torno added. It might also help keep crime at bay by adding “eyes on the district,” she said.
Manley Nelson, speaking in favor of the project, told City Council that “although sentiment is anti-hotel in general, when you can do something beautiful and historic, you have to consider it.”
City Council members took up the issue, with Councilman Brian Haynes asking the developer for a stated commitment to including local small businesses in the project. Haynes also pressed for a pledge that the new hotel pay its workers a living wage. “Everything else about this, I like,” he said.
Jay Levell, a spokesman for White Point Partners, said he could not make a commitment on either front. Council members asked city attorney Robin Currin if they could make Haynes’ demands a condition of their approval. Currin said both parties must agree to the conditions, otherwise they were generally out of the realm of an approval.
In expressing his support, Councilman Keith Young said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the project. Injecting economic development in the district, while also supporting working artists, will continue to be a “sophisticated balancing act” for City Council, he said.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell said he was impressed with the level of historic preservation that will go into the project and promptly moved for approval. Young seconded.
But Councilman Gordon Smith made his displeasure with the project clear. In backing up Haynes’ request for pledges on a living wage and the inclusion of small businesses in the retail portion of the project, he asked: “What happens if this becomes another minimum wage, Anthropologie-laden stain?”
There are no reassurances, Smith said, also pointing out that the 75 spaces marked for parking at the back of the building will requires cars to make the dusty drive down Payne’s Way, which also provides access to the popular Wedge Brewing Co.’s craft beer hangout. “That’s troubling to me.”
Smith said he appreciated what other council members saw in the re-use of the old structure. But the formula for Asheville’s success has been to build a city that’s great for local residents first, and residents second. Asheville is a town of 90,000 people that’s seeing 11 million people a year visit, Smith said. That’s untenable, especially when there’s no cooperative effort between city officials and tourism officials to study how to grow tourism responsibly.
“We don’t have a strategy,” Smith said. “I won’t be supporting this.”
Before the comments, planner Jessica Bernstein described other aspects of the plan:
-developers will replace the Roberts Streets sidewalk, but not all of it will be built to a 10-foot width, as required under city rules, because of the way the building is situated
-there will be pull-off for arriving and departing hotel guests (similar to Hotel Indigo’s design on Haywood Street) along Roberts Street with the main hotel lobby on Roberts Street
-20 spaces of on-street, metered parking will be created across the street from the building
-there will be about 75 parking spaces on the west-facing side of the building accessed along the dirt-and-gravel Payne’s Way, on railroad right-of-way that will be leased from Norfolk Southern