A list of unanswered questions has stalled the Asheville Downtown Commission’s ruling on the Ellington, a proposed 23-story luxury hotel and condominium building planned for 35 Biltmore Ave.
A June 8 meeting was the second visit before the commission for Mike Webster, development manager for the Grove Park Inn-backed project, and was supposed to be the final step before the commission issued its recommendations. But ambiguities in the plans, including a not-yet-complete traffic study and details about the appearance of the ground floor, caused the commission to ask developers to come back again.
“I really don’t think we are at the voting point yet,” declared commission member Julie Brandt after a couple of hours of presentations, deliberation and public comment.
The Ellington proposal, unveiled in May, would be one of Asheville’s few high-rises and would match the BB&T building in height (See “Welcome to the Ellington?” March 30 Xpress.) Webster describes the hotel as “boutique,” with rooms running an average of $300 a night and condos selling for $1.5 million. The building’s size has sparked protests from some who feel it is out of scale with the rest of downtown.
Commission Chair Pat Whalen, who heads Public Interest Projects and owns the property where the Ellington would be built, recused himself from the discussion and vote. The interim chair, Peter Alberice, prefaced the discussion by reminding the roomful of observers that the Downtown Commission has no authority over building height, and that there is no city ordinance that caps how tall a building can be. But that didn’t keep the topic from coming up in comments by both commission members and the public.
“Why is the building so tall?” pushed Brandt.
The Downtown Commission makes recommendations to City Council, but apart from reviewing projects for compliance with the Unified Development Ordinance, has no binding power to require changes to a project. However, the council does put weight on the commission’s recommendations. The commission is currently urging the council to develop a new plan for downtown that would include height specifications, but at least one attendee worried that this building could set an unpleasant precedent.
“What we do now moves us in a certain direction,” said Asheville resident James Shealer. “It’s not a direction I want to go.”
The developers have countered that the size of the building is driven by economics and pointed to concessions they have made to counter negative opinion. Ellington investors plan to donate $1.5 million from condo sales, as well as a percentage of all sales over the next 75 years, to an affordable-housing nonprofit.
But some commission members felt the plan falls short in detailing other provisions announced by the developers, including green-building standards and an outside art component along the street.
The commission voted unanimously to table a vote on the issue until the developers come back with firmer answers. Once the project earns the recommendation, it still has to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council for a conditional-use permit.
The commission did approve a Coxe Avenue condo tower, named the Zona Lofts, that blends work-force-priced living space with higher-end condos and plans green-building features that will cuts energy use by 50 percent.
A discussion of the city of Asheville’s practice of selling airspace for balconies, which had been on the agenda, was postponed due to lengthy discussion of the Ellington.