Asheville City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday night to approve a new 56-room hotel spread across three historic old homes that will be preserved and one new building, all located on Biltmore Avenue in downtown.
Mayor Esther Manheimer, Councilwoman Julie Mayfield and Councilmen Keith Young and Vijay Kapoor voted in favor of the proposal by developer Al Sneeden, a developer and partner of Preserve Communities Group. All four cited the developer’s work on affordable housing development projects in Asheville.
“What we have here is a sophisticated private developer … who is interested in building affordable housing in our city,” said Mayfield, who made the motion to approve the project, known as the Family Lodge.
“I see that and I want to encourage that continued investment in our community,” she said.
City officials are struggling to cope with a severe lack of affordable housing. They’ve also been working to mitigate the impacts of increased tourism on local infrastructure.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, Councilman Brian Haynes and Councilwoman Sheneika Smith voted against the plans. They cited a general fatigue over an ongoing hotel construction boom that has resulted in the opening of 1,575 new hotel in and around Asheville, with another 500 rooms expected to come open before the end of the year.
“I’m spent with hotels in this area,” Smith said, noting that City Council earlier this month approved a 103-room Residence Inn by Marriott extended-stay hotel on Biltmore Avenue, just south of the location of the Family Lodge.
Sneeden’s team, which included civil engineer Chris Day of Asheville-based Civil Design Concepts, Robin Raines of Asheville’s Rowhouse Architects and Asheville attorney Gene Ellison, detailed the hotel concept. It calls for 36 hotel rooms in a new five-story building to be built between Wild Wing Cafe on Biltmore Avenue and a new seven-story luxury condo building that is under construction and is also a project of Sneeden and his Preserve Communities Group. The rooms will have small kitchens.
The other 20 lodging rooms would be spread across three buildings dating to around the 1890s. The developer agreed to place the buildings under preservation easements and hope to earn tax credits for the historic preservation of the buildings. The preservation easements mean the buildings cannot be torn down, and they protect the buildings’ exterior. But the easements do not prevent interior changes or the use of the buildings, which have either been vacant or used as offices in recent years.
“The houses are going to be restored back to as much historical originality as possible,” Raines said.
Ellison said the project fits the city’s comprehensive plan for the area, was supported by a staff recommendation for approval and had been updated to address concerns articulated by the city’s Asheville Downtown Commission.
“I think this is a great project for the South Slope,” said Ellison, referring to the nickname for the neighborhood, an area that has been red-hot for the development of new restaurants, breweries and residential projects.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, city resident David Nutter spoke favor of the project, while Peter Landis asked if the new hotel’s event lawn would add to noise in the area. Chris Smith, vice president and part owner of the family owned Beverly-Grant Inc. general contractor in Asheville,
That was the extent of public comment. No member of the public rose to speak against the plans.
Councilman Haynes, who has been increasingly vocal about his opposition to new hotel projects, quizzed Sneeden on his involvement in the luxury condo project at 145 Biltmore Ave., which is under construction, as well as the newly opened 45 Asheland Ave. condo project. Haynes said “I would prefer luxury condos to hotels” and wondered if the Family Lodge project was an attempt to circumvent relatively new city rules against the short-term rental of condo units. Sneeden said that it was not.
In explaining his planned no vote, Haynes said that, by approving a new hotel, “all we’re doing is making the cost of living rise.” People are moving out of Asheville on daily basis because the cost of living is too high, he said, “and we don’t seem to be doing much to combat that.”
Councilman Young, explaining his approval, said “I have some issues with some aspects of the project, but I also see a developer working hand-in-hand with the city. That is something I would like to see more of – more developers working with the city on affordable housing.”
As the city moves forward in considering other hotel proposals that are on the way, Young said “the message to everyone is you’ve got to do more. You have to do more, and part of that more is providing affordable housing.”
Mayor Manheimer, who works as an attorney, used her remarks to remind everyone of the legal requirements under the city’s conditional zoning process. By state law, City Council should only be considering whether a project is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, whether it meets city ordinance requirements and whether it addresses an site-specific concerns.
That’s it, Manheimer said. “But we in Asheville have tried to take full advantage” of the process and tried to “broaden the conversation as much as we can with applicants to include a lot of things.”
Each one of the conditional zoning discussions “can get pretty far afield,” Manheimer said as she sought to “center the conversation.”
In explaining her support of the project, Manheimer reiterated what she said earlier in the month when she voted to approve the other nearby hotel on Biltmore Avenue. She remarked then that the city was struggling to deal with the pressures that increased tourism placed on the city, but that she was heartened by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s recent moves to consider changes in the way it allocates some hotel room occupancy tax to mitigate some of those pressures.
“I continue to be encouraged by (the TDA’s) overtures to work with us on a log term plan to better fund the city’s needs for the people who live here as well as the people who visit,” she said.