It’s been seven months since the city of Asheville altered its regulations to give City Council more oversight over large building and hotel projects, a policy shift born out of public outcry over the pace of downtown development.
Since the change was adopted, City Council has considered two projects — both hotels — that qualified for Council review as a result of the policy revision. Both projects were approved. Xpress takes a closer look at these cases to see if the conversations around development have changed and what it looks like when hotels try to pass muster before Council.
Winds of change
Early in February, the Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a proposal to change the city’s ordinances to require Council review of more large-scale projects. It recommended Council deny the change based on concerns that healthy development would be curtailed, as developers would keep projects smaller to avoid hitting the threshold requiring public review. P&Z members also worried that developers would be confused about how to move projects forward, commenting that the proposed rules represented an overreaction to downtown development in general and hotels in particular. Chair Jeremy Goldstein expressed concern that the amendment would politicize the development process.
But City Council unanimously approved the amendment on Feb. 14, changing the development review threshold in the Unified Development Ordinance. Under the new rules, anything over 100,000 square feet or 100 feet tall and lodging with 21 or more guest rooms requires a rezoning and City Council review. Prior to the vote, the Planning and Zoning Commission was responsible for approving most projects up to 175,000 square feet and 145 feet tall.
A staff memo by Assistant Planning Director Alan Glines laid out the city’s reasoning behind changing the development review process, saying it allows greater development flexibility, leverages a higher quality of development and provides for early public input through neighborhood meetings.
The ordinance change was the result of more than a year of review by city staff and public engagement efforts that included a forum, online survey and presentations to community stakeholder groups.
Hotel Krish — 1500 Tunnel Road
The first project to come before City Council under the new guidelines was a five-story, 86-room, 42,200-square-foot hotel at 1500 Tunnel Road in East Asheville. On July 25, Council approved conditional zoning for the plan for Hotel Krish put forth by Commodore Holdings and H.P. Patel in a 6-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler voting against it without comment.
The site of the proposed hotel was once a Days Inn that fell into disrepair and was foreclosed upon by the city, said attorney Lou Bissette, representing the owner. Bissette emphasized that the Patel family is local and that H.P. Patel is seen as a good small-business owner who treats his employees well. “This is not a national hospitality conglomerate. It’s H.P. Patel. He and his family have lived in this area and operated hotels in this area for decades,” he said.
Patel explained that his parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and he grew up helping his dad run a hotel in Clayton, Ga. He said he only owns two hotels, a Days Inn across from the proposed Tunnel Road project and a Best Western down the street. “I live in Asheville, my kids go to school in Asheville. Asheville is my community just like it is yours, and I’m here for the long haul,” he said.
Bissette made it clear that the hotel will not cater to luxury-seeking tourists, saying that it will feature accommodations in the range of $90-$100 a night under the Tru by Hilton brand.
Patel also endeavored to differentiate his project from the types of hotel developments that have drawn criticism elsewhere in the city. “I know there’s a lot of hesitation toward hotels, but this is not your typical downtown or Biltmore Village hotel. I am not a big-time developer like John McKibbon,” he said, referring to the developer of five upscale hotels in Asheville. “But I am rather, a local small-business owner hoping to successfully expand my business.”
Candlewood Suites — 49 Tunnel Road
The second hotel project considered by City Council under the new review process hit upon similar themes: a local owner building a modest hotel.
At its Aug. 22 meeting, City Council approved a five-story, 103-room extended stay hotel at 49 Tunnel Road. The infill project will nestle among Innsbruck Mall, Ingles, McDonald’s and Mikado Japanese Restaurant on land that’s currently a parking lot. The project is required to include 15 percent open space, but after hearing concerns from the Planning and Zoning Commission, the developers increased the amount of plantings and included a small dog park, patio and green roof to bring the total to 19 percent open space.
Marvin Mercer, the civil engineer on the project, said the owners and design team bumped up the greenery ratio specifically to help ensure the project passed City Council under its new review process. “After much discussion and uncertainty about how hotels are going to be viewed coming through the city, we elected to sit back and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to meet all the open space,’” he said.
Petitioner Twinkle Patel of Milestone 1 LLC (who said she is related to H.P. Patel through marriage but is not related to Shaunak Patel, who is mentioned in the sidebar) emphasized how local her family is. She said they have been very involved in the community of Maggie Valley, where her father-in-law operates a motel, and they love Asheville, coming to shop at Trader Joe’s and dine at Papa’s and Beer. “Approval of this project will enable my family to be Ashevilleans like you guys,” she said.
Milestone Hospitality, of which Twinkle Patel is chief financial officer, owns or manages four hotels in Maggie Valley and one in Canton under the Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Best Western and Ramada brands.
In an effort to evade criticisms that have plagued some of the big new projects in town, Twinkle Patel highlighted the project’s difference from hotels elsewhere in Asheville. “This isn’t an upscale hotel like the downtown hotels,” she said, adding that rates will average $81 nightly.
Twinkle Patel also pointed out that the lodging will be extended stay, catering to a clientele who might conceivably feel more connected to Asheville than casual tourists. “Candlewood Suites is mostly for people who come to the area for work and stay long term,” she said.
At the public hearing, several owners of nearby businesses came forward to speak in favor of the project. Victor Foo, owner of Mikado restaurant, said, “Not only will it bring more business to my restaurant, but it will make the area brighter, safer.” Steve Perkins of Telco Community Credit Union across the street said the hotel would bring jobs to the area. Attorney Joe McGuire, who is among the owners who sold the property, spoke highly of the Patel family and their plans for the site. “In terms of the place, this is a parking lot that doesn’t really add much to anything, and I think it’s been that way too long,” he said.
Get with the plan
One element of city planning that helps guide Council’s decisions on hotel development is due for a revamp. The city is in the midst of creating a new Comprehensive Plan, which will present long-range goals and objectives for the next 20 years. Currently, the city is operating under the City Development Plan 2025, which was completed in 2003 and might not fully reflect the challenges and ideals of Asheville today.
Planning staff is currently working with a consultant team to edit the new draft plan, “Living Asheville,” based on public feedback. Staff aims to release the final draft plan in December, followed by Planning and Zoning Commission review and recommendation in early 2018 and City Council review and approval in the first quarter of 2018, according to Planning Director Todd Okolichany.
While Council approved the hotel at 49 Tunnel Road unanimously, Council member Julie Mayfield appeared to have some reservations about whether it really fit with the city’s vision. “I do just want to reiterate the admonition to all of us that once the Comp Plan is adopted that we work quickly to put in place zoning and requirements that are going get us the kind of development that that comp plan says we want,” she said.
City staff currently evaluates projects for their compliance with the existing Comprehensive Plan. For the 1500 Tunnel Road hotel, city planner Sasha Vrtunski stated in her report that the redevelopment aligns with the Comprehensive Plan in that it supports infill development. “However, the proposal does not align with the plan’s strategy for more intense mixed-use development at commercial nodes, as the surrounding area already contains several other hotels at this gateway area into the city,” she noted.
City planner Jessica Bernstein judged the 49 Tunnel Road project similarly, in that it is infill along a commercial corridor with existing infrastructure. She pointed out that the proposal considers multiple methods of transportation access — such as sidewalks, bike paths, vehicular access and location along a transit line — as suggested as desirable under the comp plan. “Also the plan does recognize tourism and the ‘availability of adequate lodging facilities’ as a key strength of the city,” she wrote in her report.
In the case of the Candlewood Suites project, Mayfield said she had no specific qualms about the project itself, but she’s eager to have clearer parameters on development as City Council makes these decisions going forward. “It’s not ideally what you would build in what the Comp Plan says should be built in this area, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “But I hope we get there soon.”