Six weeks ago, Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield voiced opposition to a proposal to convert downtown’s historic Flatiron Building into a boutique hotel and described the structure as the “soul of our city.” But at Council’s June 25 meeting, she flipped her position, joining Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Council member Vijay Kapoor to complete a majority vote that allowed the rezoning of the building for hotel use.
“Upon reflection, the soul of our city is not embodied in a building, even one as special as the Flatiron,” Mayfield read from a prepared statement. “Instead, it is in the beautiful, messy, complex mix of our highly engaged people and businesses who disagree and fight but who also come together and work hard on a daily basis to make our city a better place. That is the soul of this city.”
Mayfield said that developer Philip Woollcott’s revised plan, which reduces the proposed number of hotel rooms from 80 to 71 and preserves the second floor of the building for office space, addressed concerns she had raised regarding small business displacement and parking issues. However, the project as approved will still uproot many of the Flatiron’s 70 small-business tenants. A staff report issued before the meeting also did not note any changes in the project’s plan to handle parking off-site through a valet service.
Council members Brian Haynes and Keith Young, who sided against the project along with Sheneika Smith, sought to delay the vote, citing both procedural inaccuracies and incomplete information. Haynes claimed that because the developer’s attorney, Wyatt Stevens, had pulled the proposal before a formal vote at Council’s May 14 meeting, the project was required to go back through the city’s entire application process, including committee reviews.
That argument was rejected by the city’s planning director, Todd Okolichany. Despite using the word “withdraw,” Okolichany said, Stevens had actually intended to “continue” the hearing so his team could revise the plan, a move that does not require additional analysis from the city’s boards and commissions.
Young cited an article from the Citizen Times — released one day before the hearing — that mentioned a 1985 Council vote awarding $800,000 in bond money to Midtown Development Association, the company that owns most of the Flatiron, for renovations. He made a motion to continue the rezoning vote to Council’s next meeting so members could gather more information about this revelation, but the motion failed 4-3 along the same voting lines as the project’s eventual approval.
Several community members also spoke out against the project during public comment, citing concerns about the impact of growth and tourism on the overall character of the city. Those opposed included downtown performer Abby Roach, better known as Abby the Spoon Lady, who said unmanaged development was driving her from the city.
“There are certain things in Asheville that kind of remind us where we are. We have bicycle taverns and big purple buses, but the thing that makes Asheville Asheville is the people that live here: our artists, our musicians,” Roach said. “The more and more Asheville grows, the more and more we’re losing them. … People are moving away, including myself. This will be my last summer here.”