A developer who planned to remake Asheville’s historic Flatiron Building into a boutique hotel pulled his proposal following a lengthy public hearing during Asheville City Council’s meeting on Tuesday.
“This building is not only almost physically, but spiritually and emotionally for many people, myself included, the spiritual center of our city. It is, I think, the soul of our city,” said Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, considered by close observers of City Council to be the swing vote on the issue.
“It just cannot be that the only way for property owners and developers in downtown Asheville to make money is to built hotels or convert buildings to hotels,” Mayfield said. “If that is the only way for property owners to make money in asheville, we are sunk. It cannot be.
Mayfield joined fellow City Council members Brian Haynes, Keith Young and Sheneika Smith in explaining their opposition to the plans following a public comment period that saw a majority of speakers also declaring their resistance to the hotel proposal. There are seven City Council members, so it requires four votes to pass an action.
With that clear indication of the outcome, Wyatt Stevens, the attorney representing developer Phillip Woollcott and Flatiron Building owner Russell Thomas, stood to say he was withdrawing the proposal from consideration. Asheville City Council did not vote on the matter.
“At least tonight, we do not need a vote,” Stevens said. “Thank you.”
Tuesday night’s highly anticipated vote and discussion arrived as city officials continue to wrestle with how to handle a wave of hotel construction that started about four years ago and led City Council in 2017 to change it rules so that it would have final say over each and every hotel submission. That move hasn’t deterred hotel plans, and City Council has only voted down one other hotel plan since then. Nearly 2,000 new hotel rooms have opened in Buncombe County since 2015, and another 400 to 500 rooms are expected to open up later this year as hotels under construction are completed.
Stevens and Thomas argued before City Council that their solution to preserve the decaying, nearly century old, triangular-shaped building was to turn it into a boutique hotel. The Flatiron’s historic use as an office building for small businesses and entrepreneurs paying affordable rents was no longer sustainable. The building, which had been up for sale for $16 million, needs at least $10 million in major renovations, including a new elevator and building-wide sprinkler system.
“You have to make the numbers work,” Stevens said. “This project isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close.”
Mayfield’s comments came after more than two hours of public comment, with speakers often framing the debate as one of whether City Council would choose to stand by local residents or the stream of tourists that keep visiting.
“Who is asheville for? Tourists, developers and hoteliers or the people who live here, work here, play here,” said resident Nina Tovish, who said Asheville was on the verge of becoming “Disney World, Appalachian edition, with local residents as cast members.”
Musician Andrew Fletcher offered City Council a simple litmus test for a hotel proposal: “If project will directly displace locals and displace them for tourists, the answer should be a simple no.”
Other speakers framed the Flatiron question as one pitting working class residents against well-heeled developers. Developers are getting rich on the backs of the working class in Asheville, said business owner Sarah Benoit, adding that “we are literally outnumbered by tourists.
“A lot of locals feel disheartened” by having their concerns consistently ignored about issues such as the city’s inconsistent bus service and unaffordable housing, Benoit said.
Ben Williamson, speaking on behalf of the WNC Green Party and the Asheville Democratic Socialists of America, said the organizations opposed gentrification. “We prioritize people over profit.”
Several people spoke in favor of the Flatiron hotel proposal. Michael Faulkner, who said he had been a tenant in the Flatiron for nearly 30 years, said Thomas was a dutiful building owner who worked hard to keep the building open.
“I plead that you tonight say yes for this powerful growth for downtown and for Asheville,” he said.
Ken Jackson, a real estate developer and builder, rose to say that his grandfather was the developer and builder of the Flatiron Building. Developers build cities and “profit” is not a dirty word, Jackson said. Woollcott, the developer on the Flatiron, “is trying to do something for the city of Asheville. This is the highest and best use for the building,” he said.
Councilman Vijay Kapoor said he planned to vote in favor of the project.
“I simply can’t see how math work to keep this an office building with low rents,” Kapoor said. “I
don’t want to see this building limp along. I want to see it restored to it’s original grandeur.”
Kapoor also noted the negative tone of much of the Flatiron debate, much of it by way of comments on social media platforms or emails City Council had received. Many of those comments were “deliberate attempt to vilify people in tourist industry,” Kapoor said, and many of those people happen to be of South Asian descent.
“Dehumanizing people to score political points needs to stop now,” Kapoor said.
Mayor Esther Manheimer, in offering a few final thoughts as discussion closed, didn’t make it clear whether she planned to vote for or against the Flatiron hotel proposal. But her voice cracked with emotion when she said that “there were all these people who did take a chance on Asheville a long time ago and bought buildings, and it doesn’t seem super fair to people who made those early investments to not let them make the most of it, to thank them for doing that,” she said.
“I do in my mind think about the people who did that, and I’m sure it feels like it seems like a bit of slap in the face,” Manheimer said, appearing on the verge of tears.
But City Council and residents had spoken, Manheimer said. She added that Debra Campbell, the city’s manager, will at some point begin working on a way for City Council to approach hotel proposals in a more comprehensive way
The options for this building appear to be: office space; residential (apartments/condos); hotel. What other options do the naysayers propose? Would current or future tenants be willing to pay rates that would allow the owners to do necessary upgrades?
None of the concerns of those opposing the hotel are illegitimate. Many locals are indeed losing in many ways. But without upgrades of $10 the Flatiron building doesn’t really stand a chance of surviving. Are there currently any proposals for how to pay for this building?
One of the points I made in my public comment was that we won’t get to know what the “Plan B” for the building is until their “Plan A” of maximum profit with a hotel is shot down.