Council members declare shift in hotel thinking as Biltmore Ave. proposal withdrawn

Proposed Biltmore Avenue hotel
BLUE SKY SCENARIO: An architectural rendering of the proposed seven-story hotel on Biltmore Avenue, which was withdrawn after three Council members voiced opposition. Screen capture from the city of Asheville

Asheville City Council didn’t actually turn down a new seven-story hotel on Biltmore Avenue at its Oct. 23 meeting — because the proposal never made it to a vote. After Mayor Esther Manheimer and Council members Keith Young and Brian Haynes shared their intent to reject the project, attorney Wyatt Stevens pulled the building from consideration on behalf of his clients, local hoteliers Pratik Bhakta and Monark Patel.

Council’s opposition came after a public hearing during which six community members spoke in support of the project, while only one came out against it. City staff, explained urban planner Jessica Bernstein, believed the hotel was an appropriate use for the currently vacant lot, located close to Mission Hospital and within walking distance of downtown Asheville. She said the applicants had conducted three neighborhood meetings and changed their plans to meet the concerns raised, such as removing an entrance driveway on a street frequented by residents.

Gene Bell, CEO of the Asheville Housing Authority, called himself a “big supporter” of the project and cited the “very gracious” promises Bhakta and Patel had made to the community as part of their proposal. These benefits included $125,000 to build a new playground at Lee Walker Heights, $500,000 in donations to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and reduced hotel prices for guests visiting nearby Mission Hospital or Caiyalynn Burrell Child Crisis Center.

But Manheimer, who had floated the idea of a formal hotel moratorium during Council’s Oct. 9 meeting, said she didn’t feel comfortable making decisions on new projects until Asheville had determined how to pay for increased demand on city services caused by tourism. She suggested the applicants return in “a year’s time, or whenever that might be” to seek approval.

“I truly appreciate what these hoteliers today have put together to bring forward to us, and I think that is the right thing to do,” Manheimer said. “But for right now, I think that we’ve got to make sure our house is in order and that we’re balancing the needs of our community against a growing industry.”

Haynes’ remarks took a less apologetic tone. “As far as my vote goes, the moratorium has begun, especially when it comes to hotels in the central business district or near downtown. … Come back to us with other things. Bring housing,” he said. “I want folks to think long and hard before they start investing a lot of money toward the next hotel project.”

Council members Vijay Kapoor and Julie Mayfield, while sharing concerns over hotels in general, spoke favorably of the Biltmore Avenue project as a particular development. Kapoor said it met a specific need for capacity near health care institutions and that the vacant lot was an unlikely spot for affordable housing.

“I think all of us are aware that there is some sense of fatigue as it comes to hotels in the city,” Kapoor remarked. But, he added, “What is being offered here tonight is something that is a clear net positive for the city.”

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, as well as Council member Sheneika Smith, did not speak on the project before it was withdrawn. In response to an Xpress request for her position after the meeting, Wisler said she “was probably going to vote against the conditional zoning request” because she did not believe it was “overwhelmingly consistent with the comprehensive plan and general vision for the area.” Smith did not respond by press time.

During his comments, Young said Council should schedule a work session on managing tourism and growth, also suggested by Manheimer on Oct. 9, so its members could adopt a more consistent approach to the issue. “Is Asheville fickle when it comes to this deal with hotels?” he asked. “I think it’s time that we start to look at these situations again.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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