Hotel it on the mountain

  • Filling vacant Council seats
  • Council thanks DOT

A proposed seven-story, 145-room hotel on Biltmore Avenue cleared a key hurdle when the Asheville City Council approved the requested conditional zoning at its Oct. 14 formal session. But determining the extent of the city’s involvement in a partnership with the development group and Public Interest Projects, an Asheville-based private developer, would have to wait for another day.

Pick a winner: Asheville Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who also chairs City Council’s boards and commissions subcommittee, outlines a new system for filling vacant Council seats as Mayor Terry Bellamy looks on. Photo by Jonathan Welch.

The Aloft project, submitted by McKibbon Hotel Management, would sit in the shadow of The Ellington, a hotel-and-condo high-rise that’s already in the works. Planned for the site currently occupied by the Hot Dog King, Aloft would include a restaurant and an underground parking deck. The 433-space deck would be funded by the city to the tune of $16.6 million. Phase two of the project would include an adjacent affordable-housing component to be funded by Public Interest Projects, which specializes in downtown development.

The property is owned by Public Interest Projects, which would sell different portions of it to the developer and the city. The city will purchase the subterranean rights for a parking deck and lease some spaces back to the hotel.

“I would call this a collaboration in the finest sense of the word,” said Wes Townson, vice president of acquisitions for the McKibbon group.

PIP President Pat Whalen also praised the project, which he said would “activate the street front,” add parking and increase the city’s affordable-housing stock.

“It does so many things my company is trying to do,” noted Whalen.

Jesse Plaster, who serves on the city’s Downtown Commission, agreed, saying, “The project in front of you is … hopefully a model for others to follow.”

But Plaster also noted that the commission’s approval had come with a couple of conditions. One was that if phase two had not begun within a year of the hotel’s completion, the city and Public Interest Projects would be responsible for some sort of mitigation—perhaps a façade or some sort of vine—on the large, blank, concrete wall that would be left facing Lexington Avenue. Meanwhile, the dramatic downturn in the global economy, including a stalled credit market, led some on Council to hesitate about committing city resources.

Vice Mayor Jan Davis pointed out that the economic situation is already affecting Asheville. “Were it not, this would be one of the most exciting things to come along in a long time,” he said.

Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, was leery of sticking Asheville with a financial commitment in the current economic environment. “Our concern is getting backed into something that puts the city at risk,” he said.

But City Attorney Bob Oast said that any such agreement would be contingent on the city’s ability to get financing, adding that amending the property’s zoning would not lock the city into any commitment to this particular project. Townson, meanwhile, said his company is factoring in the current economic instability and is confident it can move forward.

“We would like to assure you we are very much committed to this project,” he said. “But we are concerned, certainly.”

Betsy Weiss, who owns American Folk Art and Framing on Biltmore Avenue, had her own concerns, including the fear that the restaurant in question would turn out to be a national chain rather than a locally owned business.

“I don’t want to see corporate America come in and wash out so much of what we’ve worked on,” she declared.

That argument picked up some steam with support from Council member Holly Jones. “We are proud of the independent and entrepreneurial spirit [in Asheville],” she said. “How are you thinking about who those tenants will be?”

Townson, noting that the issue had come up during discussion with the Downtown Commission, said the size of the restaurant would dictate what sort of business could go in there. He added that his company has already been approached by local entrepreneurs. But he stopped short of making any guarantees.

Nonetheless, that turn in the conversation didn’t sit well with Mumpower, who called it “an unfortunate intrusion into property rights.”

In the meantime, said Oast, there will be plenty of opportunity to revisit the economic concerns when the issue of city involvement comes back before Council on Oct. 28. The conditional zoning on the table, he repeated, would not in any way commit the city to participate in the project, and it was approved 6-0. (Council member Robin Cape was absent because a member of her family was in the hospital.)

To fill a seat

Looking ahead, Council members decided to try a new approach to filling vacant seats. Both Jones and Mumpower are running for other offices this fall, meaning Council could find itself one or two members short after Election Day.

The issue has come up before, most recently in 2005, when Terry Bellamy was elected mayor before her City Council term had expired. To complete her term, Council members appointed Bryan Freeborn, who’d drawn the most votes of any unsuccessful Council candidate that year. But they were following established custom rather than a legal requirement, and two Council members (Davis and Mumpower) voted against the move.

Now, however, Council has decided to try a different system that’s more like the process it uses to appoint board and commission members. The resemblance is perhaps not surprising, since the idea was proposed by Davis, who chairs Council’s boards and commissions subcommittee.

“We have to figure out what to do with your seat once you’ve left,” said Davis. “If someone feels there is an easier, better way to get there, it won’t hurt … our feelings.”

The idea of holding a special election wasn’t seriously considered, Davis later told Xpress, because of the associated cost and the time it would take to select someone who’d be serving for only a year (both Jones’ and Mumpower’s terms expire in December 2009).

But with Election Day fast approaching, the process will have to move quickly indeed. Council members had only two days after the meeting to submit preliminary written questions. On Nov. 5—the day any departing Council member would submit a notice of resignation—the city would advertise for applications to fill the vacant seat(s). By Dec. 2, Council members would have determined whom to interview, based on their written answers to the preliminary questions, and applicants would be interviewed Dec. 9. Later that evening, Council would convene in formal session to choose the replacement(s).

No one on Council seemed to have a problem with the new system, though there were some questions about the scheduling, and Davis said that if it worked well this time, Council might want to consider making it a formal rule.

Meanwhile, Oast noted that, although a Council member who might be moving on could submit interview questions, they wouldn’t take part in the actual selection, because the city cannot advertise a vacancy until there actually is one. That could leave City Council short-handed for several weeks, Davis said.

Applicants to fill open seats must be at least 18 years old, Asheville residents and registered to vote.

“Soooo … everybody remember to register to vote,” urged Council member Brownie Newman.

City Council approved the new approach 6-0.

DOT-ing the “ayes”

City Council voted to send a resolution of thanks to the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration for their help in tinkering with a locally produced alternative plan for the long-awaited Interstate 26 connector. The two agencies and a consultant hired by the city and county engaged in extensive back-and-forth to bring alternative 4b in line with state and federal technical standards. The resolution also reiterates Council’s support for 4b, which was developed by the Asheville Design Center. But Newman said he was still unclear as to whether the option had been officially included in the required environmental-impact study, a technicality that has sparked much discussion during meetings with the DOT.

Cathy Ball, director of the city’s Transportation & Engineering Department, said that while the environmental study would still need to be amended to include 4b, there hasn’t yet been any reason to exclude it.

“It is a viable alternative,” she said. “it would be dependent on if, for some unknown reason, it gets dropped out.”

“I realize that the final decision lies with the DOT and not City Council,” said Newman. “But I think it is important for us to continue to be a voice in this process.”

Mumpower disagreed, saying he wouldn’t support the alternative based on its projected cost and the current economic climate. He also said he believes the city’s insistence on having 4b considered has slowed down the selection process—despite assurances from the DOT that this hasn’t been the case. The resolution was approved 5-1.

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