The Asheville Downtown Commission rejected a downtown hotel design last week, with one member calling the design “cheesy” and another expressing reservations about the intentions of developers.
On a 5-4 vote, the city advisory board dismissed plans for The Parisian hotel proposed by MRK Property Development and presented to the commission by Asheville architect Peter Alberice.
The vote may not significantly alter development plans, though. The Downtown Commission operates under a “mandatory review, voluntary compliance” mandate, meaning that it reviews development projects, but there’s no requirement for developers to follow its recommendations.
The project comes to the fore as city residents continue to debate the impact of tourism, and a current hotel building boom, on the community. City Council has been discussing regulations that would require any new hotel plans citywide to come to council for review. The size of The Parisian means that it would not go before City Council for final approval, as the rules stand now.
Plans for The Parisian
According to the plans, MRK would remake the former Bank of America building at 68 Patton Ave. into a luxury boutique hotel, including a restaurant, pool and the addition of three floors to the top of the building. The 74,000-square-foot hotel would have 61 rooms.
MRK bought the 41,000-square-foot building for $3.2 million three years ago. At one point, the developer dropped plans to develop the hotel, Alberice noted, and hired local Realtor Byron Greiner, who sits on the commission, to try and sell the location as a condo building. Those efforts didn’t bear fruit and last September, the developers revisited the hotel project, Alberice said.
The location presented challenges, according to Alberice. An engineering study showed that adding three levels to the structure could be accomplished by reinforcing the interior. A taller building, though, meant that the structure had to meet rules about casting shadows on its neighbors, including Pritchard Park right across the street. Developers met those rules by stepping back the structure as it gets taller.
Another significant issue is that the 1973 structure encroaches on adjacent land, an issue noted by city planner Sasha Vrtunksi, who offered brief background about the structure, and by Alberice. The developer will have to go to Asheville City Council to secure air rights for upper floors, an issue out of the purview of the Downtown Commission.
Other challenges include the fact that there’s no design element to allow vehicles to pull off either Patton Avenue at the front of the building, or Commerce Street at its rear, to allow visitors to unload bags; no on-site parking; and no outside space for Dumpsters.
Commission members weigh in
After a series of routine questions, commission members dug in.
Downtown business owner and commission member Franzi Charen said she was “struggling a little bit with the hostility that seems to come from these developers.” She was referencing comments made by Greiner to Asheville City Council in 2015. Greiner, who was working for MRK at the time, said he was speaking as a private citizen when he commented on plans to expand Buncombe County’s Health and Human Services building. As reported by The Asheville Blade, Greiner said of his client at the time that, “Their feeling is that if this building is built at this location it will increase the population of some undesirables we deal with every day in terms of the homeless and panhandling,” Greiner said.
Alberice said he was aware of the past comments, as well as issues surrounding homeless people gathering in Pritchard Park. He also noted that the proposed development would be better than the “nuisance” of a weed-infested lot fronted with chain-link fence. He asked Charen, “Is this a design review issue you have?”
Commission member Ruth Summers, executive director of the Grove Arcade, took up the issue of the project’s traffic impact and suggested that developers create an entrance for valet parking on Commerce Street rather than Patton Avenue. She said she worried that surface parking spaces would be lost on Patton Avenue. “When you lose surface parking it’s really detrimental to the small business owner,” she said.
Commission vice chairman and Asheville architect Michael McDonough said he was struggling with the overall design of the project. “It’s trying to look like something in Monaco or Paris” or something found at Epcot, he said, adding that “it seems kind of cheesy to call a hotel The Parisian.”
Alberice defended the design, saying that “we’re trying to take some of classical architecture that’s in downtown and draw from there.” The Parisian proposal sits adjacent to one of Asheville’s Art Deco gems in the former S&W Building.
After a few more questions, commission Chairman Adrian Vassallo opened the floor to public comment. Jason Moshier of Tessier Associates at the Capital Center building a couple of doors down from proposed Parisian, expressed concerns about traffic and parking. He endorsed the idea of taking the hotel’s valet parking service off of Patton Avenue and moving it to Commerce Street.
Local business owner Rich Lee also spoke, again referencing the comment about “undesirables.” The comments were “not in the spirit of Asheville, and a company seeking to take advantage of our robust tourist economy, some would say built on the backs of the struggling working people who live here, should take that into consideration,” he said.
“In my opinion the developers need to make some extra effort to support downtown residents and services,” Lee said. “I’d say this is going to leave a sour taste in my mouth otherwise.”
The vote and the aftermath
It was finally time to vote, and commission member Dane Barrager motioned for approval, but added conditions, including moving the valet parking off of Patton Avenue. Summers second the motion.
But when the final vote was tallied, five members were against: McDonough, Vassallo, Greiner, Charen and Pamela Winkler. The yes votes were Barrager, Summers, Jimi Rentz and Brent Campbell. (Commission member and Asheville City Councilman Bryan Haynes wasn’t present and member Jackson Bebber resigned at a previous meeting.)
After the vote, a clearly frustrated Alberice said, “Can I ask why? What do you want us to do?”
McDonough said he was conflicted, but had articulated his reasons. “Had you come with a slightly different looking project,” the outcome may have been different, he said.
Vassallo said he thought there were too many questions about the project.
“From my perspective, it is not a completely done application,” Vassallo said. “To me, it is procedural, no comment to you as a professional, Peter.”
Barrager noted the voluntary compliance aspect of the commission’s vote. “You can just proceed, or we could have you come back” for another review, he said.
Alberice said time is of the essence, noting that developers hope to get approvals from the city’s Technical Review Committee and Planning & Zoning Commission by Feb. 15.
“We would like to go forward with good will and have nice project when it’s finished and be positive about it,” Alberice told the commission at the end of their discussion.