Heightened hopes

With The Ellington’s 23-story profile primed to redefine the Asheville skyline, now comes word that another downtown developer also has his eye on the sky.

The owner of a 2-acre property consisting of the Haywood Park complex and adjacent parcels hopes to redevelop the site and add two 20+ story towers, according to those who’ve seen the initial plans. The strategically placed property—bordered by Battery Park and Page avenues, and Haywood Street—lies near the heart of downtown.

Going up: According to those privy to initial plans, Haywood Park complex owner Tony Fraga envisions two new high-rises for the downtown property.

Developer Antonio O. “Tony” Fraga Sr. has not yet made a formal public announcement or submitted any plans to the city, acting Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch reports. Nor is he talking with the media at this point. Instead, Fraga has been consulting with residents and business owners in and around Haywood Park who might be most affected by the project, showing them conceptual drawings, soliciting their opinions and seeking their approval. As of this writing, Fraga had met with about 150 people either one-on-one or in groups, according to a spokesman. On Jan. 23, upward of 100 people gathered for a presentation in the Haywood Park Hotel’s Starnes Room.

And so far, at least, those privy to Fraga’s initial ideas seem overwhelmingly positive about them, though some have raised concerns about the project’s scale and potential impacts on the area.

“I think it’s a very exciting plan,” says Ruth Summers, executive director of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation. “I think the synergy of having a larger hotel plus a residential complex in close proximity to the Grove Arcade and Battery Hill is going to help all of our merchants. They are also talking about putting in additional retail, which I think will help Asheville.”

“It’s fabulous. … I love it,” exclaims Chris Weihs, who lives in the 21 Battery Park condominiums, next door to the hotel. He and Summers both attended the Jan. 23 meeting. “There might be some height issues, but I think it is exactly what this corner needs downtown. … It [the height] doesn’t bother us, because when you live in a city there’s going to be development coming in, and you can’t help it.” And this particular development, he adds, would be beautiful as well as functional. Weihs, who’s European, says the project reminds him of the lively and functional cities he knew there.

Downtown resident Mary Ann West, who owns the Miles Building, is also enthusiastic about the plan. The historic structure—home to Mountain Xpress, as well as other offices and retail space—sits across the street from the Haywood Park Hotel.

Although West wasn’t able to attend the mass meeting, she got something even better: a private, face-to-face presentation by Fraga, his two architects, and other members of his team. And though she has some concerns about a potential glut of office and commercial space downtown, West says it’s not her place to dictate what others can do with their property. Besides, she maintains, the proposed redevelopment could become a downtown jewel comparable to the neighboring Grove Arcade.

West also applauds Fraga for reaching out to his Haywood Park neighbors. “He’s been absolutely wonderful. Tony Fraga is very popular right now, because people are thrilled that he is including them in his dream. He’s completely open.”

Even some neighbors who haven’t seen the plans seem to be on board. “It’s exciting, what I’ve heard,” said Traci Taylor, who owns Picholine Café and Wine Bar on Haywood Street. “I think it’s wonderful to have that kind of growth on my block. Plus, I like things going in vacant spaces and reusing space.” Taylor also thinks the project would be good for her business and others at the north end of Haywood Street, which she says doesn’t get as much foot traffic as the rest of the block.

Thinking big

Fraga’s company, the Florida-based FIRC Group, bought the property from local businessman Joe Kimmel for $18.5 million last June. The package included the hotel, the adjacent Starnes Building on Haywood, a parking lot on Page Avenue and a small building at 35 Battery Park Ave. that houses Kostas Menswear.

The Cuban-born Fraga, now an Asheville resident, owns and manages several commercial properties in Florida as well as Asheville’s Westgate Shopping Center, which he also plans to redevelop. Till now, however, Fraga’s largest properties have tended more toward run-of-the-mill shopping centers and offices; the Haywood Park redevelopment, he has said, would be his most audacious and ambitious project to date.

Because the plans are still so much in flux, however, Fraga isn’t ready to go public with them yet, spokesperson Dave Tomsky explains. But according to West and others who’ve seen the plans, Fraga envisions a pair of high-rises tucked into the middle of the property—one a sleek, modern condo building near Haywood Street, the other a high-rise hotel off Page Avenue evoking a 1920s-era tower planned by E.W. Grove to top off the Grove Arcade but never built. And the condos, says West, would mesh well with the current makeover of the nearby First Union building, with its neutral color and largely glass facade.

“So when you leave the Grove Arcade on Page, that beautiful entrance, you can walk across the street into another entrance similar to that, and then [the buildings] will be set back from there,” says West. The buildings would be sited so as not to eliminate the views from 21 Battery Park.

“The tower that would be the hotel reminds me of the Jackson Building [on Pack Square]. … It has all the beautiful icing to put on the cake, all the ornamental work that Mr. Grove wanted,” notes West.

And though the high-rises would be the project’s centerpiece, the initial plans also call for creating about 700 public and private underground parking paces, converting much of the current hotel space to office use, and adding retail space along Page Avenue and Haywood Street.

Fraga is also talking green. According to West, he envisions a vegetative roof on a new retail building at the corner of Page and Battery Park—and perhaps even converting Page Avenue into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare with plantings.

Long row to hoe

But it’s premature to take those plans too literally, says Tomsky. “Tony has received a considerable amount of input and feedback from his meetings, and he’ll be incorporating all that [information] in his plans,” says Tomsky. And while the overall response so far has been positive, the concerns that have been raised—such as the project’s scale and commercial viability, and the disruption of daily living and commerce in the area—will be taken into account, he adds.

Fraga, says Tomsky, “hopes to make an informal presentation to the Downtown Commission in March. Until then, he is not ready to release any details of his plans to the public in general or the media.”

But that would be only the beginning of a long road to project approval, Tuch explains. If the Downtown Commission signs off on the plan, it would probably be subject to a Tier III review by the Technical Review Committee for an exhaustive vetting, based on the scale of the project. After passing that hurdle, it would then proceed to the Planning and Zoning Commission, followed by an appearance before City Council for final approval and a conditional-use permit. And even after all of that, the project would still have to go back to the TRC for a final review and any necessary fine-tuning, Tuch reports.

“As soon as there is anything fit for public consumption, I will get it out as early and as widely as possible,” says Tomsky. “Tony believes in that very much. We also know that releasing preliminary ideas doesn’t do anyone any good, because it creates expectations that may not be fulfilled. He’d rather go through this process of formulating a plan and refining it, and listening to and talking to his neighbors and sharing information [first].”

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