Asheville City Council

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.

High times?: A developer’s rendition of the proposed Ellington high-rise. Council postponed a vote on the proposal until its Oct. 16 meeting.

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.

Mixed reactions

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.

Size matters

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.”

Handle with care

by Hal L. Millard

The U.S flag has had a tough go of it lately around town. Earlier this summer, West Asheville residents Mark and Deborah Kuhn were arrested by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office for displaying an upside-down flag on their porch as a protest, though the charges were later dropped (see “Flagged Down,” July 26 Xpress).

Flag flap: City Council’s flag discussion stems from TNT Fireworks’ temporary display of U.S. flags at two locations in town around July 4th. These photos, from a city staff report, show flags in the rain (top photo) and one that had fallen over (bottom).

Earlier that same month, a fireworks vendor was cited by the city for displaying American flags that officials said constituted a commercial exploitation of Old Glory—in violation of the sign ordinance. The vendor, TNT Fireworks, argued that the flags were merely a sign of patriotism.

The Kuhns’ action was protected under the First Amendment. But in the wake of the fireworks incident, the city is reviewing its sign ordinance as it pertains to commercial displays of the flag.

In both cases, however, the display of the flag was in direct violation of the U.S. Flag Code. Created by representatives of the Army, Navy and other groups in 1923 to standardize treatment of the flag, it became federal law in 1942, during World War II.

But though the code spells out rules for the care and display of the American flag, there’s no penalty for failing to comply, and the rules are not widely enforced—in part because, as in the Kuhns’ case, they conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a couple of occasions.

Nonetheless, the code is long on detail (to read the whole thing, visit usflag.org/uscode36.html). To illustrate this point, acting Planning & Development Director Shannon Tuch cited numerous examples in an Aug. 30 memorandum to City Council. (For example, the flag should never be used to cover a ceiling; and if you want to put one on your car, it had better be attached to a staff, which in turn must either be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender. So if you’ve got a magnetic flag stuck on your SUV, you’re breaking the law.)

Most people of a certain age probably remember at least the basic tenets of flag etiquette from grade school. But there are also rules for displaying a flag over a street, against a wall, draped over a casket, and so on ad nauseam. An upside-down flag like the one the Kuhns displayed? That’s supposed to be done only as a sign of distress or in cases of extreme danger to life or property (which is precisely the point their political protest was trying to make). As for advertising, the code is adamant: “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes whatsoever.”

And what about burning the flag, which many see as the ultimate act of desecration? The code doesn’t address that specifically. But when the Stars and Stripes has seen better days, burning the flag is specifically mentioned as the “dignified” method of disposal.

 

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.

Flag-waiving

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.

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12 thoughts on “Asheville City Council

  1. lokel

    The flag code also states that no entity besides the Federal Government may enact laws with regard to Flag enforcement.

    In other words Asheville has no right or legal recourse to make rules regarding the display of the US Flag.

  2. ashvegas

    could someone please explain to me why Bellamy wanted 36 feet lopped off? why 36 feet? what is magic about 36 feet?

  3. Rob Close

    good question. maybe that would make a critical aesthetic difference in our skyline.

    i think it’s too big, but not WAY too big. so taking a few stories off might be a balanced solution.

  4. 36 feet is about 3 stories…so the magic number probably came from the number of stories being lopped off, hence 36 feet. It’ll probably come closer to 40 feet when all is said and done. I think if you have support of downtown businesses like the ones mentioned, it is going to be hard not to pass it. But I agree, there’s gotta be a meet in the middle.

  5. The Wine Mule

    Elaine Lite’s comment strikes me as hilarious. I wish she’s show me where on Lexington Avenue the “playground for the rich” is located. I’d like to check it out!

  6. lokel

    Apparently there are some who believe that the BB&T;should remain as the tallest building in town.

    I do not know why, but that seems to be the argument!

  7. The BB&T;(or as most of us natives remember it) the Northwestern Bank building was NEVER meant to be the tallest in town; it was just one of several we thought would be coming. But, then, Asheville fell on hard times.

    We have a lot of catching up to do… so, forget the 36′, in the next few decades I predict any number of taller buildings.

    Let’s keep Asheville growing up … NOT out.

  8. S.

    I am troubled by the Grove boasting that this project will create 80-100 jobs. Has anyone looked at the average hourly wage of a Grove employee lately? It is appalling that 2 of the largest employers in Asheville (the Grove and Biltmore Estate) pay their employees $8 or $9 an hour. They are setting a precedent of paying wages that put their full time employees at poverty level, unable to buy homes,… We must provide affordable housing and livable wages to our residents before pandering to tourists.

  9. lokel

    The jobs at GPI and BILTMORE and probably almost all other “service industry” jobs in town pay these wages, and some even less.

    Troubled by this… what about a living wage referendum for the County!

    Wal-mart, Target, etc. do not pay their folks anymore than that either, and if you have worked there for awhile and get a few raises, they will then “let you go” so they don’t have to continue to pay the increased wage.

    I am sure the new Health Adventure, that claims to bring 300 jobs to the area is also in this class as well.

  10. puttyfoot

    i say, fudge it. lets be honest and admit that asheville must grow both UP and OUT, we cant help that people want to flock to our wonderful mountains and take advantage of our relatively low cost of living. what, limit people’s freedom’s to owning second and third homes?!? in town and out of town?!?
    thats unamerican and smacks of socialism. i hope asheville is transformed in the next 5 years from a small mountain town to a bustling metropolis, full of all the signs of maturity, like crime, unemployment, traffic jams and homogeneity.
    in the words of our fearless leader; Bring It On!

  11. hauntedheadnc

    “i hope asheville is transformed in the next 5 years from a small mountain town to a bustling metropolis, full of all the signs of maturity, like crime, unemployment, traffic jams and homogeneity.
    in the words of our fearless leader; Bring It On!”

    You know, the NIMBY’s and BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) of Asheville wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if the lot of you weren’t so bloody oblivious. Asheville is not a small mountain town, and has not been such in a long time. The only way you would fail to see that is if someone keeps you tied up in a basement most of the time.

    Crime — do the names “Pisgah View,” or “Hillcrest” mean anything to you? Unemployment — Do you know of a single person who can support themselves in Asheville by working only one job? I personally don’t. Traffic jams — Let me introduce you to a little place called the Smoky Park Bridge about five or six in the evening most days. Homogeneity — Let me introduce you to several little places, namely West Patton Avenue, Hendersonville Road, Tunnel Road, and South Tunnel Road, among others.

    Open your eyes. This is a city, not a little town. It’s the primary city for an urban region of more than 300,000 people. No, you can’t stop people from moving here no matter how much you or I would like to. Therefore, we all need to pull our heads out of our asses and come up with a way for the city to grow without wiping out everything that people love about the place. Urban growth is the way to do that. Once we acknowledge that and get this city moving in the right direction, we can move on to the matters of lowering crime, improving the flow of all forms of traffic, getting some jobs in here that will actually pay worth a damn, and ensuring that we grow without losing our flavor.

  12. well and vigorously put, HauntedHeadNC … I agree.

    from the early 1900s on, Asheville was ALWAYS intended to grow into a mountain city NOT a mountain village.

    no amount of progressives (and where is the ‘progress’ in progressives?) can stop this natural progression (and there IS ‘progress’ in progression).

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