Russell Thomas, the current owner of downtown Asheville’s historic Flatiron Building, says he doesn’t want to see his beloved but aging structure become “the old girl on the block.” But paying for the extensive work needed to restore the building, as he and his partners explained at a Nov. 1 meeting attended by roughly 60 people in the Pack Memorial Library auditorium, requires the old girl to learn some new tricks. In place of its current small business and retail tenants, the Flatiron would play host to overnight guests as an 80-room hotel.
With City Council recently rejecting plans for a new seven-story hotel on Biltmore Avenue and Council member Brian Haynes declaring a moratorium on his own vote for more lodging, Thomas acknowledged that Asheville has become challenging for hotel projects. While hotels often get a “bad rub,” he said, “I just want you to know that we are a unique environment.”
As explained by Charleston, S.C.-based developer Philip Woollcott, he and Thomas have decided that hotel use is the only business model able to generate the income to support big changes such as adding an emergency elevator, updating internal systems and outfitting the building with sprinklers. “To renovate the building to its original glories and give it the sustainability to maintain its iconic downtown historic nature, we’ve got a conditional zoning use that we’re going to pursue,” Woollcott said.
Many of those attending the meeting, however, argued that preserving the building in this way would do irreparable harm to Asheville’s functioning as a city. One speaker identifying herself as a condo owner at nearby 21 Battery Park pointed to local businesses currently renting space in the Flatiron, such as World Coffee, that provide everyday goods and services to downtown residents.
“I’ve never heard anyone say that a livable neighborhood is a neighborhood with a few homes and all of the rest hotels,” she said. “To put 80 local businesses out on the street so that we can have more tourists, I think, is a misuse of our neighborhood.”
Musician Abby Roach, better known as Abby the Spoon Lady, worried that the hotel conversion would create problems for the performance space next to the building. The area near the Flatiron sculpture, she said, is one of only two downtown spaces able to hold a large crowd without violating city ordinances on sidewalk blockage; additional hotel traffic would make the spot “impossible” to busk at.
In response to these concerns, Woollcott said that current Flatiron tenants would be provided a relocation assistance letter with contact information for local commercial real estate brokers. He added that residents could interact regularly with the building by patronizing its planned ground-floor restaurant, basement “speakeasy” or rooftop patio bar.
“What we’re proposing is [the building] would be activated. It would be enjoyed by the public,” Woollcott said. “Not just tourists. It would be the locals.”
Chris Day, a civil engineer with Civil Design Concepts who is working on the project, noted that the plan still faces review by the city’s Technical Review Committee, Historic Resources Commission, Downtown Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council. That final vote, he suggested, would likely take place in January of next year, with construction to follow in late spring or early summer.
When Xpress asked Day after the meeting about his outlook for the project given Council’s recent statements, which call into question officials’ appetite for approving new hotel projects — especially downtown — he said he recognized that hotels “are a big conversation” in Asheville. “We try to educate clients as to the climate and encourage them to have conversations with Council members ahead of time,” he said.
Responding to the same question, Woollcott said the present circumstances have in no way altered his approach to the Flatiron. “We believe in this project because it’s the preservation of a longtime downtown Asheville landmark,” he said. “Yes, we realize there are headwinds out there, but we’re confident that this project’s preservation is going to carry us through.”