It was probably a long shot. After four months of controversy, it may have been too much to expect the Asheville City Council to approve The Ellington in one fell swoop. Despite several hours of presentations, public comment and deliberation at Council’s Sept. 11 meeting, the developers of the 300-foot-tall boutique hotel proposed for Biltmore Avenue came away empty-handed, at least for now. Council members’ concern about the building’s size—and the architect’s reluctance to chop 36 feet off the design in midmeeting—prompted City Council to delay a vote on the project until mid-October.
Although this was The Ellington’s first official appearance before City Council, the 23-story building has been making waves since the plans were unveiled back in May. The upscale hotel/condo high-rise would become the tallest structure in downtown Asheville, topping the BB&T Building by 80 feet. (Because The Ellington would sit on lower ground, however, the two buildings would appear to be about the same height.)
Several representatives of the development group encouraged Council to sign off on the building that night, emphasizing its unique design and potential economic impact on downtown. “We don’t often get a chance to do a project like this,” noted Beck Group representative Mike Webster.
And Tom Abbott, chief financial officer for the Grove Park Inn (a partner in the development group), said the new hotel is expected to create 80 to 100 permanent jobs and generate millions in revenues for downtown businesses each year.
But the stark contrast between the high-rise and the much smaller surrounding structures, and the site’s proximity to a busy downtown intersection, have raised concerns about The Ellington’s impact on the area. Supporters of the project say it belongs downtown, where increased density can head off more sprawl development in the surrounding mountains.
Most of the roughly 25 people who spoke during the public hearing were downtown-business owners, and they had mixed reactions to The Ellington.
Asheville Downtown Association President Dwight Butner, who owns Vincenzo’s restaurant, urged Council to approve the project. The Grove Park Inn, he noted, has an interest in maintaining a vital downtown, adding, “If this was some other group who has no connection to downtown Asheville, I would be concerned.”
Café on the Square owner Tracy Adler said her Pack Square restaurant sometimes suffers a slump during slow months in the tourist trade. “The Ellington is going to help bring people downtown 12 months out of the year,” she predicted.
Other downtown-business owners expressed support while airing concerns about the impact of construction on their businesses.
Mast General Store vice president and co-owner Fred Martin said he “strongly supports” the project. But since his Asheville branch sits less than 100 feet from the site, he wants to make sure the front entrance on Biltmore and rear loading area on Lexington would not be impaired. Martin also noted that he would lose 25 employee parking spaces to The Ellington.
The Junior League’s Next-To-New Shop shares a wall with the vacant building that would be torn down to make way for the hotel, noted Tracy Gualano. Her group, she said, is “neither for nor against The Ellington.” But if the League’s adjacent property were damaged, it could cut off an important funding source for the nonprofit. “If this revenue is compromised,” Gualano warned, “our ability to conduct our mission to the community will be as well.” The site in question is immediately behind and beside Doc Chey’s restaurant.
Downtown-business owners were not the only ones concerned about the project’s impacts, however. Grove Park neighborhood residents also worried about increased traffic, since guests at The Ellington would be entitled to use the Grove Park Inn’s amenities. The plan calls for shuttles to run between the two hotels 16 hours a day.
Others were concerned about the broader implications of The Ellington’s upscale character. “What are we doing to downtown?” wondered activist and City Council candidate Elaine Lite. “It is already a playground for the rich.”
In response, the developers highlighted an affordable-housing fund they’ve established through the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Plans call for contributing 1.25 percent of the condos’ selling price to help provide “work-force” housing downtown. The developers also pointed to a list of green features and construction techniques planned for the building.
Although most Council members had at least some kind words for the project, the discussion circled back to the size of The Ellington and whether it would be a good fit with downtown Asheville.
“Cites grow; cemeteries decay. I want us to grow,” proclaimed Council member Carl Mumpower. “But what I run into is the scale.”
Council member Robin Cape agreed, saying, “I am concerned we are turning our back and asking the community to fit in with the project rather than the project fit in with the community.” Cape also said she wasn’t convinced the project wouldn’t snarl traffic on Biltmore. “I’m sorry—I don’t believe the traffic analysis,” she said flatly.
Council member Brownie Newman voiced similar concerns. “I do feel it is out of scale and the character” of downtown, he said, adding, “It is not an easy decision to make, because there is a lot to like about it.”
But it was Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s request that the developers reduce the building’s height by 36 feet that left them flummoxed.
“I would ask you not to deal with the height in this way,” said GPI President and CEO Craig Madison, noting that the group had already spent $1.5 million on the design. “I understand your ability to place conditions, but we followed the rules.”
Despite his earlier comment, Mumpower defended downtown high-rises, observing, “It is better to grow tall than to grow fat.”
And Council member Jan Davis wondered why the BB&T Building should be considered the benchmark for building height. “The reality of holding up the BB&T as the pinnacle of our skyline is misplaced,” he said.
Meanwhile, the developers—unable to make a change of that magnitude on such short notice—began to back away from pushing for a Council vote that night.
“We really don’t know where to go with this,” said development representative Lou Bissette. “I think if this thing gets voted down tonight, it’s over with.”
Eventually the developers asked for more time to reconsider the design, and Council members voted unanimously to table the discussion until their Oct. 16 meeting.
City Council also voted to send the Planning and Zoning Commission a list of suggestions by city staff for amending the sign ordinance’s treatment of the American flag.
In July, the owners of a tent temporarily set up in the Riverbend Wal-Mart parking lot to sell fireworks refused to remove flags from the top of the tent. According to the sign ordinance, flags “may not be used in conjunction with a commercial promotion or as an advertising device.” Since then, city staff has been looking at ways to distinguish between patriotic and promotional display of the flag. (See sidebar, “Handle With Care.”)
The staff report lists three possible approaches to updating the sign ordinance, while recommending that the city require flags displayed patriotically to be flown in accordance with federal standards laid out in the U.S. Flag Code. That option, noted acting Planning & Development Director Shannon Tuch, also has the unanimous support of the Mayor’s Committee for Veteran Affairs.
Council voted 5-0 to send the recommendations to the Planning and Zoning Commission for review. Mumpower left before the flag discussion, and Council member Bryan Freeborn, who had participated in the meeting via a conference call, was no longer available.