The Asheville City Council’s Oct. 16 meeting had all the elements of high drama—a controversial issue, an upcoming election, an overflow crowd, even a woman standing outside City Hall passing out placards decrying The Ellington. But in a scant 90 minutes, after hearing arguments for and against the planned downtown high-rise, Council members voted 6-1 in favor of the neo-deco structure that will become the city’s tallest building. The lone dissenter, Council member Bryan Freeborn, cited concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety.
Earlier the same day, the Buncombe County commissioners also got into the act, unanimously approving a resolution dedicating an estimated $455,000 in annual property-tax revenues from the $80 million Ellington project to a fund to promote the development of work-force housing. The Ellington will feature 125 hotel rooms and 52 luxury condos.
Meanwhile, the building’s developers—the Grove Park Inn, the Asheville-based McManus Development of N.C., E2M of Dallas and The Beck Group of Dallas and Atlanta—have agreed to contribute 1.25 percent of initial sales revenues to a fund for affordable housing. In 2010 (when the building is slated to open), the developers say they will contribute an estimated $850,000 to $1 million to The Ellington Community Housing Fund, which has been established with the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. In addition, 0.5 percent of all subsequent resales (including resales of the hotel) will be contributed to the fund until June 1, 2080.
The city’s Technical Review Committee has already approved the project, but it will still need to sign off on the building and site design. Nonetheless, Council’s approval was the last major hurdle faced by developers of the property at 35 Biltmore Ave.
Twelve city residents rose to speak during the public hearing on a conditional-use permit for the site, and sentiment was split straight down the middle. Those in favor of the building emphasized the projected economic benefits—more business for local merchants, new jobs and enhanced city and county tax revenues.
Opponents focused mainly on the project’s size, which they feel is out of scale with the mostly two-story buildings nearby. A few also raised concerns about traffic congestion and safety during the building’s construction. Some argued that it made no sense to approve such a large structure before the city adopts a downtown master plan, now in the works. They also cited fears that approving The Ellington would only encourage more high-rise development downtown. The city is in the early stages of finding a consultant to help develop a master plan, said acting Planning Director Shannon Tuch, but there’s no telling how long it may be before a final plan is adopted.
Bob Malkin, representing the opposition group Asheville Citizen Voices, said: “To do [The Ellington] before the master plan is cart before the horse. … It’s hodgepodge planning. … We’re plopping in an oversized building that’s equivalent to two vertical Wal-Marts.”
City resident Jesse Junior agreed, saying, “If Council listens to the people of Asheville, this project would be put on hold. … What’s the hurry? … I don’t envy Council having to make this kind of decision, but if there’s going to be a master plan, we have to wait for that master plan.”
Lori Ritter, who called her residence at 52 Biltmore her “dream house,” said The Ellington promises to make it a nightmare due to the loss of sunlight and view.
“My building is going to be dwarfed. Frankly, I’m dismayed,” she said. “It’s not only devastating on a personal and spiritual level but also devastating to my property.”
But Jim Kamman, who owns Kamm’s Frozen Custard in the Grove Arcade, said The Ellington “is going to be good for this city. … We need to be perceived in this town as friendly to business, and I just hope that we do not send the wrong signal. Business is not bad.” Other local business owners echoed those sentiments.
Besides the added traffic for local merchants, the project is expected to create 100 permanent jobs and generate more than $2.5 million in property, sales and room taxes annually.
Big and bigger
Size has been the No. 1 concern about The Ellington. On Sept. 11, City Council tabled consideration of The Ellington to give the developers time to devise an alternate design (see “Council Holds Off on Ellington Vote,” Sept. 19 Xpress). The developers came back with a compromise that would have eliminated two floors from the 23-story building, lowering the height by 31 feet. That would have brought The Ellington more in line with the 18-story BB&T Building, currently the city’s tallest structure. But in the end, Council members—particularly Carl Mumpower, Robin Cape, and Brownie Newman—agreed that the original taller, narrower design was better.
Café on the Square owner Tracy Adler said The Ellington would add another “cool factor” to downtown while giving local merchants and their employees a year-round boost. “It’s going to give downtown Asheville what it needs—12 months of the year,” she said.
One man who spoke against the building mentioned the late Julian Price, who was instrumental in promoting downtown revitalization. “This is not ‘smart growth,’” said Bill Wescott. “I knew Julian Price; I worked with Julian Price. Julian is spinning in his grave.” Ironically, Price’s development company, Public Interest Projects, sold the land for The Ellington to the developers after Price’s death and worked with them on making it a model for future downtown development (see “Grow Up or Grow Out,” Oct. 10 Xpress).
Cape, however, maintained that despite the concerns, The Ellington would be a model of sustainability and commercial “green building.”
“I have listened to both sides,” she said, noting that the historic and now-beloved 15-story Jackson Building was loathed by many city residents when it became the city’s tallest building—and Western North Carolina’s first “skyscraper”—upon completion in 1925. “But this is not a one-sided issue,” said Cape. “People are either passionately for it or passionately against it. … It’s dramatic. … But sustainability is my guiding principle, and this building fits that model.”
Cape also lauded the developers for committing to incorporating energy-conserving features in the project, such as a laundry system that should save 1.5 million gallons of water monthly and a shuttle system for employees to reduce car trips. The developers have also pledged to use recycled materials during construction and acquire Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, an internationally recognized standard for environmental sustainability. It would be the first hotel in the state—and the first building in the city—to gain LEED certification, according to Ellington attorney Lou Bissette. (Although a handful of buildings in the city are LEED-eligible, none has actually received the certification to date, according to Matt Siegel of the WNC Green Building Council.)
“We believe Asheville deserves the smartest building our architects can design,” said Bissette, who served as the city’s mayor from 1985-89.
City Council unanimously approved conditional rezoning for a planned 41-unit, multifamily project at 100 Park Ave. The approval changes the zoning from RM-8 to RM-16 for the 3.25 acre site between Clingman Avenue and Riverside Drive, the former home of the Pioneer Welding Co. The units will be housed in seven buildings and will feature four three-bedroom units, 27 two-bedroom units and 10 one-bedroom units. The developers, Athens-Asheville Partners LLC, told Council members that besides providing pedestrian access through the site, they also plan to set aside a number of the units for affordable housing and will seek N.C. HealthyBuilt Homes certification (which is similar to LEED certification) for the condos.
On a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, City Council approved a short list of developers selected to submit proposals for projects on a handful of city-owned parcels the city wants to develop for a range of possible uses, including affordable and work-force housing, parking garages and mixed-use development. Council members hope to have development plans approved and under way by November of next year. The parcels in question are adjacent to City Hall, the Public Works Building, Eagle/Market streets and the Civic Center.