51 Biltmore is a complicated but brilliant solution

Many complaints about the 51 Biltmore project said it was bad for the environment and sidewalks. Some said Pat Whalen and Public Interest Projects, Julian Price’s development firm, were “greedy developers.” As Julian’s widow, I’d like to add Julian’s perspective.

Julian, an avid environmentalist, knew that sprawling development hurts people and the environment. In 1991, he hired Pat Whalen to help start and run PIP to help “build” Asheville out of sprawl through higher-density development.

Julian’s quirky, much-loved CityWatch Magazine championed sidewalks, parking decks, parks and high-density urban living. It told how more efficient growth preserves farmland and wildlife habitat, reduces the need for more rural sewer lines and roads, prevents water pollution and frees up money for sidewalks, parks and other services. Julian knew that high-rise hotels downtown also help make a lively, healthy city work as an antidote to sprawl.

As Julian’s trust in Pat and PIP grew, he handed more and more over to Pat and the PIP staff. Pat had proven his integrity, his passion for people and the environment, his sound business sense and his ability to find creative ways to contribute to Asheville’s robust livability.

At times, Julian let Pat overcome Julian’s objections about some of PIP’s projects and was glad for it. Both The Orange Peel and the Laughing Seed are here because Pat fought for them.

The 51 Biltmore hotel/parking deck project is a complicated but brilliant, sensible solution to several issues. It is the first public/private partnership to be approved in Asheville in at least 20 years — despite the recession, misperceptions of the facts and vociferous public criticism. The project doesn’t solve all of our problems, but Julian would be really proud of the PIP staff and Pat for their tireless effort, and of City Council. Thanks to all who helped!

— Meg MacLeod


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10 thoughts on “51 Biltmore is a complicated but brilliant solution

  1. I respectfully disagree.

    Attending a New Urbanism conference last Wednesday in Charlotte (a seminar on the open source SmartCode that is being developed by planners nationwide) I heard Andres Duany* say that no city with any understanding of urban life would ever build a new parking deck on prime real estate.

    He noted that there is always cheaper land within a five minute walking distance and that the five minute walk was the most important piece of creating a vibrant urban community. During that walk, commuters and shoppers pass by other retail shops and see familiar faces (particularly if the walk is a daily occurrence).

    For a recent study on how European cities are booming by reducing parking, visit:

    *Duany is the much-heralded creator of Seaside, Florida, and other new urbanism projects that create walkable towns where community matters more than automobiles.

  2. Grant Millin

    “Greed is good.” – Gordon Gekko

    That’s nice. Now reflect on what the accurate and valid citizen concerns were about the COA involvement in 51 Biltmore, Meg.

    You wrote this as if there was a right side and a wrong side. That’s what’s typical of most developer PR, Meg.

    Btw, if Starwood Hotels (the parent of Aloft) is ‘greedy’, then that’s one of the greedy partners in the COA finance model.

    The voice and target audience of these pro-PIP letters is a mystery to me. It’s like they are speaking to children with learning disabilities who just fell off the turnip truck. If Meg read MX, she’d know at least 30% of MX readers are degreed. Some of us are also business people. And some of us actually have business or marketing degrees, AND work!

    Some of us are completely savvy to the basic themes behind 51. Telling us it’s simply too complex for average citizens to grasp, but because the former spouse of Price endorses the COA involvement… we just need to accept the brilliance of it all… that defines ludicrous.

    I don’t have a real problem with another downtown hotel/retail project. I don’t know what the occupancy rate of all our hotels are any longer; nor if there are many truly winning small retail business models any longer. But let’s run past all that.

    I just want to see more TBL business models. I want to see our existing stock of office spaces, business parks and warehouses filled, and then we can fret about new constructing when it starts looking like those stocks are nearly gone.

    Finally, I’d like all this new business to provide actual ‘career’ jobs. PIP and COA staff have ‘carreer’ jobs. Most of the 51 employees will not.

    There’s been no environmental impact statement explaining how 51 is a good thing. Indeed, travel (the people moving in and out of the region to stay at 51) is apparently not a good way of cutting GHG.

    What is we were ‘building up’ in East, South, West and North Asheville. We’ve still got plenty of brown fields and blight in the rest of Asheville. Building hotels, condos, golf resorts and tourist traps may not be the only kind of ‘density’ we want to be reviewing.

    To be constructive, I’d like to say that city council is only seven people. There really aren’t that many people working at AdvatageWest, the Chamber and COA Economic Development. Thankfully there are more citizen groups emerging suggesting economic development solutions. Complaining adds little, I actually realize that.

    Keep building great local businesses. Stay involved. Ask probing, thoughtful questions that open up the options for ALL of us, and those coming up behind us.

    It’s worth it to stick with Asheville and keep trying to get it right, Ya’ll.

  3. Jonathon

    A parking lot 5 minutes away from the 51 Biltmore deck means you are not parking downtown, and there are not any shops on the way, mostly business offices.

  4. Jonathon, I don’t see any walk from 5 minutes away that does not take me past shops along the route. Of course, I’ve only lived here for 30 years, so maybe I’m missing something?

  5. ginnyd

    I have tremondous respect for Julian Price’s legacy to downtown Asheville, as well as more recent work by Whalen and PIP. And I have nothing against the city investing in more parking for this sector of downtown.

    But I strongly oppose the city’s involvement in this particular project because I don’t think it benefits the city. It seems way too expensive when compared with the construction costs of other recently built decks in the area. And it doesn’t seem like citizens will gain that many spaces.

    I think building a larger, less expensive parking deck nearby (S. Market & S. Spruce or S. Church & Hilliard perhaps?) would be more cost effective and provide more parking spaces for a growing downtown area.

    This project is too rooted in the past (old agreements, old studies, old views of urban development). We really need a parking project that embraces more forward thinking.

  6. JonathanBarnard

    Because I frequently comment on downtown development issues, I’d like to make clear that I am not “Jonathon”.

    On this particular council vote, I have mixed feelings, and I don’t feel I have a good enough command of its details and nuances to comment further.

  7. Cosmic Ballroom

    I disagree with the 5 min. walk thing. Personally, I will drive around for 5 minutes looking for a parking spot to save a 5 minute walk.

    If we are eating at Doc Chey’s we’ll drive around looking for metered parking within one or two blocks then settle for the existing parking lot where the new garage is to built if we can’t find anything.

    Same for the Wall Street area. We drive around for 5 minutes looking for a space along Battery Park and Grove Arcade area. If there’s nothing we’ll check the Wall street garage then as a last resort we’ll use the Rankin Street Garage and walk from the Library.

    The only issues I have with the proposed parking/retail structure is the front facade has a modern look to it. It would be nicer to have a vintage facade.

  8. sharpleycladd

    I had a great deal of respect for Julian Price, and think he’s done wonderful things for Asheville. I also think the 51 Biltmore project can be termed “nonconforming” with his legacy.

    It’s difficult to square this project with low-cost rentals PIP built for the people who live and work here. These projects effectively increased the earning power of area residents by moderating increases in housing costs, increasing city property tax revenues with minimal public financing of infrastructure improvements, and driving pedestrian traffic and retail activity in the downtown core, with concomitant environmental and revenue benefits for Asheville residents.

    A leg of the stool is missing from 51 Biltmore. The city surrenders roughly half a million dollars a year in income from virtually paid-off assets, income that could be used to finance amenities such as greenways and sidewalks, income that could be used to incubate businesses that pay decent wages and offer real career opportunities. In return, the city gets a bit more in property tax revenue and several dozen low-wage jobs. In terms of economic multipliers – those amazing, knockon economic benefits earlier PIP projects produced – there’s no there there.

    Unless you count the downside. There are multipliers there. If parking revenues don’t meet the pro-formas (and, really, anybody who won’t admit the pro-formas submitted to Council were a tad optimistic is simply not being honest), downside potential mounts pretty handsomely over time. Similarly, if the costs of borrowing by municipalities increase (and, really, anybody who hasn’t been watching testimony in Washington about bankrupt pension funds and escalating costs of city-county debt is simply ignorant), the “one-shot deal” character and nature of this project sink in pretty quickly.

    I could go on, but I’d like to say this: Advocates of this project may believe that this is just another deal, and they may honestly wonder why everybody’s so upset. People who understand this city’s history (58-60 years in technical Chapter 11 Bankruptcy) are certainly glad that the borrowing that put us in the tank back then was for reservoirs that we own, that we all benefit from to this very day, instead of, for example, a gigantic subsidy for a copper-wire telephone switching station gifted to a phone company in exchange for a few sweatshop jobs and property tax receipts.

    Again, I applaud PIP for all it has done for Asheville, and really have no hard feelings over their recent victory. As a taxpayer, I hope I don’t wind up out-of-pocket down the road like I’m sure to over the Grove Arcade, but that’s a pretty building, so okay. PIP’s doing what it does, and that’s just great.

    And I certainly hope that Council feels it used all of its imagination, creativity and courage to create a project that will be an asset to every citizen of Asheville for a long, long time. I just have to say that I have my doubts on that score. I do get to vote, though, so okay.

  9. sharpleycladd

    And I really will shut up, but one more thing. The Grand Bohemian and Indigo hotels were both built before this project. I don’t believe there were any subsidies or considerations from the city. Both projects were on difficult sites, both involved pretty expensive underground parking garages, both projects significantly increased property tax assessments for their parcels and created jobs.

    Didn’t Council just change our city’s out-of-pocket for projects like that from nothing to $14 million?

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