But Tuesday, Mayor Esther Manheimer was about ten minutes late to the meeting. Upon arrival, she explained why she had been detained. “Council, I have been made aware that there is a challenge to my ability to vote on the River Arts District form-based code overlay, and it requires me to consult with the bar, but the question came up too late. I actually just received it.”
Manheimer asked for a motion to continue that public hearing and an appurtenant one that, in response to requests from business owners, would have relaxed parking rules somewhat for the RAD. Council unanimously agreed to postpone both hearings, the first of which would have had a significant bearing on the hot-button Airbnb issue – until after the upcoming election. Early voting is underway, and through November 7, citizens will not only be selecting a mayor and three members of council, they will be weighing in on whether they want future councilors to be elected by district. Manheimer and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler are up for re-election.
Council did at least discuss the latest statistics on short-term rental interdiction. Councilor Gordon Smith, saying he could speak freely because he isn’t seeking re-election, summarized the conflict: In light of the scarcity of housing in the city, council doesn’t want potential housing to be converted to lodging. Citizens are already complaining that government caters more to tourists than residents. On the flip-side, being able to rent out space short-term provides people with extra income to help them with their mortgages. The city struck a compromise by allowing homeowners to rent out rooms, but not fully-equipped units short-term.
The ban is at cross-purposes to other council objectives. Homestays transfer tourist dollars directly to locals; draw business away from chain hotels; and are part of the sharing/gig economy to which enterprising millennials are gravitating. But neighborhood organizations have argued Airbnbs disrupt the fiber of neighborhoods, adding noise, strangers, and traffic. In the absence of government intervention, they fear developers would convert entire blocks into short-term rental strips. Investors are already gearing up to offer banks of Airbnbs in commercial and multifamily buildings. To date, only 548 of an estimated 900-1000 homestays in the city are properly permitted.
One public hearing council was able to hold gave the go-ahead to a new hotel for the RAD. The Kent Building at 95 Roberts Street is now almost a century old, and the developers said it would be hard to construct anything that sturdy anymore. They proposed converting it to a boutique hotel featuring perforated metal accents, a green wall, and a penthouse with glass rooftop railings. It would have 70 guestrooms, 4,608 square feet of retail space, and a 60-seat restaurant.
The hotel wasn’t going to obstruct any viewsheds because the building was already there, and it was going to fit in with the neighborhood because the developers were seeking historic tax credits for an adaptive reuse. One obstacle the developers had to overcome was the political expediency of defending hotel non-proliferation. Smith said last year the city, with a population of 90,000, attracted 11 million visitors. He claimed people were attracted to Asheville because citizens had made it a city they want to live in, not because they had designed it to attract tourists. Another obstacle was no room for on-site parking.
During public comment, Pattiy Torno, owner of Curve Studios, said the hotel would bring tourist dollars within walking distance of supporting local artists. Brandon Skupski, speaking against proliferation, said trolleys and transit could bring tourists to the area as well. Chris Fusting supported the hotel, but said it would be nice if the developers could promise commercial space would only be rented to local businesses and employees would be paid a living wage.
Councilor Brian Haynes and Smith spoke against what Smith termed another “minimum-wage, Anthropologie-laden stain;” but Attorney Robin Currin cautioned council could set itself up for another legal challenge if it did not limit its constraints to land use, zoning, and comprehensive plan compliance. Councilor Keith Young assured Smith there would be opportunities for the city to address affordable housing, but this was not one of them. Council approved the measure 5-2, Wisler and Smith opposed.