Following a contentious showdown among Flatiron Building owner Russell Thomas, developer Phillip Woollcott and droves of residents and business owners opposed to the historic building’s conversion from office space into a boutique hotel, the developer’s attorney, Wyatt Stevens, pulled the project from Asheville City Council’s agenda after a majority of Council members voiced their lack of support during a May 14 meeting.
“Madame Mayor, I can do the math, so we will withdraw the application at this time,” Stevens said. “I hope that in the interim something doesn’t happen; I hope that [the building] continues to serve well, as it has. I know that Russell will do his part to make sure that happens. But at least for tonight, we do not need a vote.”
Around 100 people attended the nearly five-hour meeting, during which 27 speakers declared both resistance and support for the project during public comment. Many opponents of the proposal expressed frustration over what they described as unbridled hotel growth and development, especially in the city’s downtown corridor.
“When will it stop? When downtown is one giant hotel?” asked downtown business owner Elizabeth Schell. “Another hotel is just not needed in this location and would in fact be a detriment. Not only will the small businesses and practitioners in the building be displaced, but it also means that locals have yet another reason not to come downtown. And that neither helps our local community nor our local economy.”
Nearly every speaker, regardless of position, argued for the preservation of the historic building. Several echoed the developers, who have claimed that hotel conversion is the only way to pay for much needed repairs and updates that would maintain the building’s integrity.
“There have been leaks in the building for at least a decade that haven’t been addressed. The Flatiron isn’t sprinklered. The existing elevators are not ADA-compliant. This is an eight-story building, and there are no areas of rescue assistance for people with mobility issues in case of fire,” said Karen Ramshaw, vice president of Public Interest Projects. “Unless there is also a massive fundraising effort to repair and rehab the building, all you’re doing is kicking the can down the road.”
Other speakers, including Downtown Commission member Andrew Fletcher, suggested that approving the conversion — and its subsequent displacement of roughly 70 current tenants — would show that Council valued tourists over residents.
“If you don’t value the existing uses of a building, you’re not valuing the existing users. And that’s us, people like me, people who live here and vote here,” Fletcher said. “Your vote tonight is going to show your values, what things you choose to prioritize and who you find to be expendable.”
Despite the prospect of having to relocate, some longtime Flatiron tenants showed their support for the project. Michael Faulkner, a social work therapist whose business has occupied the building for 30 years, said that he backs Thomas’ decision to change the building to the most profitable use.
“Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. This Flatiron building will stay; it will survive. Look at Charleston, look at Savannah, look at New Orleans. Those are historic communities, historic downtowns, and they thrive,” Faulkner said. “Nobody wants to leave, but we honor Russell, we honor downtown, and we honor the right to make money and to move on.”
After the public comment portion of the hearing, Council member Vijay Kapoor read a statement in support of the project, which he characterized as consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
“As Council members, we need to make a lot of tough choices, and the Flatiron Building decision is certainly one of them,” Kapoor said. “We can’t just reject projects because we don’t like them; that would be arbitrary and capricious. We need to have legitimate and legal reasons for doing so.”
Addressing community concerns that the project would aggravate an already difficult downtown parking situation, Kapoor pointed to a traffic engineer’s assessment that showed the change of use would likely decrease congestion. Despite the density of hotels in the area, Kapoor also noted that Woollcott’s plan to update the building’s aging elevators, install a sprinkler system and add a historic preservation easement distinguished the project from other hotel bids.
Following Kapoor’s remarks, Council member Julie Mayfield said she supported the developer’s emphasis on building an Asheville-based team, adaptive reuse of the building and historical preservation. However, she disagreed with the displacement of local businesses and found the proposed loading zone and off-site parking problematic.
Ultimately, Mayfield declared her opposition to the project, aligning with community members who had expressed concern over the impact of growth and change on the overall character of the city.
“This building is not only almost physically, but spiritually and emotionally for people — and myself included — the spiritual center of our city. It is, I think, the soul of our city,” Mayfield said. “I would want the developer to look at other options. I have suggested that they do that sort of what I call the ‘Asheville way,’ which is pulling together people who don’t agree with you and trying to find a path forward.”
Council members Sheneika Smith, Brian Haynes and Keith Young also voiced their opposition to the proposal, citing the abundance of downtown hotels, gentrification, loss of parking and displacement of current tenants. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler did not comment on the project during the meeting and did not respond to Xpress requests for her reactions by press time.
While Mayor Esther Manheimer did not specify her position, she said that some residents who passionately support preserving the building today might not have invested in the building just decades earlier, before Asheville became a tourism hub.
“I feel like there are all of these people who did take a chance on Asheville a really long time ago, when to buy a building like the Flatiron Building seemed crazy. It doesn’t seem superfair to the people who made those early investments not to let them make the most of it,” Manheimer said.
“I do think about the people that did that, and I’m sure to them it feels like a bit of a slap in the face,” the mayor continued. “But I’m hearing you all. I think where we’re at in Asheville is ready to have a very serious conversation about our future and trying to make the right decisions for our community.”