Asheville City Council

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.

It’s in God’s hands now: Friends and foes of The Ellington are sworn in before giving testimony before City Council, which later approved the new high-rise in a 6-1 vote. Photo By Jonathan Welch

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.

Public divided

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.

Pretty. Tall. This computerized photograhic rendering shows how The Ellington will look on the Asheville skyline. (Hint: It’s the tallest one.)

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

Urban renewal records get $10,000 reprieve

by Brian Postelle

Reed Fornoff first dug into the old boxes back in January, after they’d been transferred from the basement of the former Altamont Hotel (in the Eagle/Market Street area) to Asheville’s Office of Economic Development. At the time, the UNCA junior was doing an internship at Mountain Housing Opportunities that focused on historic neighborhoods in Asheville’s River District. “I didn’t really have a good idea of what I was looking for,” he says.

Here and gone: Photos in city records show homes that were razed in the name of urban renewal.

The photos and records he found detail two major projects taken on by the city between the 1960s and 1980 that used federal dollars and eminent domain to buy, condemn and demolish buildings in predominantly African-American sections of the city—all in the name of urban renewal.

“But I don’t think it was a success,” says Fornoff, noting that those areas are still struggling economically today, and many families were displaced.

Recognizing the value of the archive, Fornoff and Mountain Housing Opportunities appealed to the Special Collections Department at UNCA’s D. Hiden Ramsey Library to take on the massive task of preserving and sorting through the maps, letters, photos and documents.

“It sort of startled us,” says librarian Helen Wykle about the material that would eventually fill 117 boxes. “This is the largest collection we have taken in—ever.” But its weight for posterity, she says, matches its mass.

“The importance for us is that the collection is a strong research tool for a number of disciplines,” says Wykle. Those urban-renewal projects, she notes, often justified themselves by citing goals—such as boosting travel and tourism—similar to the ones Asheville uses in setting its priorities today. But Wykle shares Fornoff’s opinion of the end results. “My question is: What did this do but upset the lives of a lot of people?” she wonders.

It’s taken all summer just to get the collected papers safely transferred to new, acid-free boxes, and digesting the material will require countless further hours. The sheer volume, says Wykle, precludes scanning every page to create digital files, but the goal is to compile a catalog so that interested people—such as family members of those displaced by the projects—can easily look up the records they want.

On Oct. 16, City Council voted 6-1 (with Mumpower opposed) to spend $10,000 to process and preserve the documents, which were approaching eligibility for destruction. (By law, public records must be kept for a certain amount of time, after which they can be destroyed.)

Meanwhile, the collection has already attracted some community attention. In June, a display of selected photos and letters at the former Glen Rock Hotel on Depot Street in the River District provided a historical portal into that area’s past.

“When you are doing development in an area, you want to honor any legacy that is there,” explains Cindy Weeks of MHO, which has long had its eye on the neighborhood as a good place for affordable-housing projects. “That history became really important to us.” The nonprofit is currently spearheading a large mixed-use development on Depot Street to provide affordable housing.

The archive, she says, provides a context to work within when redeveloping the area. “Our idea,” says Weeks, “is to welcome people back.”

 

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.

Other business

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.

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