Flatiron hotel plans pit restoration against residents

Russell Thomas and Chris Day
MEN WITH A PLAN: Flatiron Building owner Russell Thomas, left, and Chris Day of Civil Design Concepts present their hotel conversion strategy for the historic structure. Photo by Daniel Walton

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and city government beat reporter for Mountain Xpress. 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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6 thoughts on “Flatiron hotel plans pit restoration against residents

  1. luther blissett

    “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.”

    Oh, a letter? That’s really going to help when there is essentially no vacant office space in Buncombe County suitable for small businesses. If you have $2000+ a month and can fill 2000 square feet, you might find somewhere. If you’re willing to operate out of a 20×20 corner at the back of a working industrial building, maybe.

    This is a really threadbare writeup of the meeting. It doesn’t talk about the tenants inside the building, and the work they do. It doesn’t mention that those tenants and other Battery Park business owners weren’t properly notified. It doesn’t mention that the architect avoided using the word “hotel” and instead kept saying “conditional use”. It doesn’t mention that the architect expects parking after any “restoration” will through the city and county decks.

    If it is genuinely impossible for property owners and developers to make the math work on meeting the massive demand for office space, they should all join together and put a full-page ad in the Citizen-Times telling professionals to leave.

    • Virginia Daffron

      Assuming the potential developer continues to pursue this application, Mountain Xpress will continue to cover the story. Daniel Walton wrote this piece to a specific length to fit the space we have available in our next print edition.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    These are first world problems. Be thankful we have the inner city growth for more office space to be developed! It’s an OPPORTUNITY for some investors, who might risk downtown!

  3. jason

    But what about the buskers? WHO CARES?!?

    This is a great project. The restoration of the Flat Iron Building would be a great addition to downtown. The owners should be able to do whatever they want with their property. MAGA!

    • Paula Shaddix

      You ask who cares about the Buskers? You should!!! It’s performers like Abby and Chris that brings tourist to your area! Look at the number of followers Abby alone has… I would have never dreamed of wanting to go to North Carolina until I saw Abby on you tube playing her spoons and watching her videos of this beautiful place and started following her. Now my dream is to come to Ashville and watch the Buskers, especially Abby and Chris and shop in your stores and see the beautiful sights! So you ask “What about the Buskers?” Who cares… maybe you should!

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