By Leslee Kulba- Asheville City Council unanimously rejected a proposal for a new hotel downtown. Had the project been approved, it would have been the twelfth new hotel downtown. Many candidates for city council had run on a platform of ending hotel proliferation downtown. Councilman Brian Haynes was one of those candidates, and the public hearing had been rescheduled because he was unable to attend council’s previous meeting.
Proposed was an eight-story, 185-room Embassy Suites hotel and a 200-space parking garage. The hotel would go up on Haywood Street, within walking distance of the Civic Center and local restaurants, on the lot where the former sheriff’s offices remain vacant. It would sport a handsome, modern look, with a highly-angular, articulated façade of multiple textures with ample glazing, and rooftops designed for visual interest. Public amenities included the replacement of deteriorating retaining walls, repaving of the adjacent church’s parking lot thus mitigating stormwater issues, and the opening of sidewalks now obstructed by telephone poles into a public plaza with street furniture.
But the city’s design codes posed challenges. The lot is triangular with a substantial slope. So, after removing space to accommodate required sidewalks, setbacks, and tree buffers, only a small triangle was left. Since parking garages are typically rectangular, and the developers wanted adequate parking for guests and employees without building so high as to be non-conforming with existing building elevations; the developers asked permission to encroach somewhat into the setbacks.
The boards reviewing the project prior to its review by council generally liked the project, and the developers changed the design to meet the requirements of those who did not. For example, they changed the traffic pattern to accommodate a single curb cut on Haywood Street. To comply with an ordinance that forbids walls longer than 145 feet at heights above 75 feet; the developers suggested removing a room on the upper floor and replacing it with a glazed open space that would create an illusion of two towers when viewed from the ground. Then, the developers decided to avoid the trigger by digging deeper and lowering the entire building. The designers had also strayed from some stipulations of the UDO to avoid turning the streets into “canyons,” and reviewing boards agreed the proposed variances would look better.
Tuesday’s public hearing was tedious. City Attorney Robin Currin, unlike her predecessor Bob Oast, who happened to be arguing the case for the hotel, ran a tight ship. Currin explained in no uncertain terms that council was to judge the merits of the project wholly and exclusively by the seven statutory standards, though the standards are rather subjective. Currin then nipped in the bud any hopes of playing public hearing drinking games, saying, “A big part of a quasi-judicial decision is that all of the findings and the decisions made by the council have got to be supported by substantial, material, and competent evidence.” Lay witnesses were not to share impressions; they could only offer “unique and actual knowledge.” She said expert witnesses would speak about real-estate values and traffic impacts. “That’s something lay witness cannot testify about.” A court recorder captured the proceedings verbatim.
Members of council tended to disagree with the expert witnesses. The traffic study had estimated the hotel would increase traffic in the area 3-5 percent. Council challenged the findings, saying traffic had been measured on an exceptionally low-volume day, to which traffic engineer Kevin Dean responded higher volumes would only make the percent of impact smaller. Members of council were also concerned the hotel would not offer sufficient parking. Oast had come prepared with a drafted proposal for expanding the deck if the city would agree to pay $17,000 per space plus development review costs. The offer was rejected.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler challenged appraiser Tommy Crozier’s assertion that the hotel would have no adverse effect on other hotels downtown. The Tourism Development Authority had argued the opposite to justify needing more advertising dollars. Crozier clarified models predicted the hotel would draw guests who would otherwise book rooms out of town when attending downtown functions. Hotelier Trevor Walden added the hotel’s event space would bring more visitors needing room-nights to the city. Former city councilman Jan Davis contributed the city had lost a sports conference due to inadequate meeting space.
Crozier said the hotel should improve surrounding property values, which Councilman Gordon Smith established were only pecuniary. Davis said he welcomed the “opportunity to clean up a bad area” in terms of crime and deteriorating infrastructure. The pertinent staff report had noted vacant buildings like the former sheriff’s office were crime magnets. On the flip-side, during the design review process, Major Mark Sutterlee of the Salvation Army had expressed fears that making the area too upscale could generate demand to oust the missions serving the homeless in that neighborhood.