Civic

Council’s Staff Weak on Ideas for Managing Future Hotels

Via Unsplash

Asheville – Before their last regular meeting, members of Asheville City Council convened via Zoom into a work session to hear staff’s plans for dealing with hotel proliferation, the reason for which the moratorium was first instituted and then extended. City planner Todd Okolichany reiterated state law prohibits municipalities from banning the use; instead, it permits them to manage their impacts. The statement, of course, conjured images of managing hotels to the point it was no longer profitable to build or operate them, and members of the council were indicating that was what they wanted.

Okolichany, however, said the Urban Land Institute (ULI), with whom the city contracted for the hotel study, concluded first that, “hotel development impacts are narrow and manageable.” Furthermore, hotels were being used as a “proxy,” or, as Okolichany said, a “punching bag,” for hot-button topics like affordable housing and inadequate infrastructure. Then, pointing the finger back at the city, the ULI faulted the city for a lack of transparency, clarity, and predictability in its design review process for hotels.

One thing the staff was proposing was limiting the places where hotels could be built. A hotel overlay zoning would restrict their construction to less than 10% of the city’s land, and even less given considerations like topography and parcel size. Places they would be allowed were selected because they already had hotels or were places tourists frequented anyway. They were located along highways and avoided residential and historical areas as well as view shed corridors. Areas included the central business district, the River Arts District, South Tunnel Road, and Brevard Road by the Asheville Outlets.

Hotels could be built elsewhere, but they would have to go through a conditional zoning approval process, which means they could not be spot-zoned. Mayor Esther Manheimer did not like this, because, she said, members of the public would view council’s approval of conditional zonings as de facto hotel approvals; in other words, an end round run for breaking campaign promises. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler concurred, saying members of council would want to know details. While they might be able to control the number of rooms, other conditions council might want to impose that were not pertinent to land use might not stand up to a legal challenge.

Different council members asked for more detail about Haywood Road, the Asheville Mall, and historical redlining districts. Councilor Brian Haynes, who was elected to stop hotel proliferation, however, remarked, “I find all this very discouraging.” He did not believe this exercise was, “doing the peoples’ work.” While other members of council had been straining at gnats, he said there was enough room in the overlay districts to support 15 hotels being built a year.

Something the council liked about ULI’s suggestions was using hotels to extract public benefits, a process termed “extortion” in other circles. Okolichany presented a proposed table that would use certain criteria to define the number of points a proposed hotel would need to qualify for staff approval without a public hearing before the council. These included hotelier-funded LEED or Green Globe certification, contributions to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund ranging from $500/room to $2,000/room, construction of affordable housing, and living wages and/or transit passes for hotel employees. Restructuring to become a B-corp or co-op would also be rewarded.

New councilor Antanette Mosley was disappointed the provision of affordable housing wasn’t weighted to favor deeper levels of housing subsidy. An executive with Mountain Housing Opportunities, she remarked, “The way we do affordable housing is not equitable.” Asked to explain, she said the city does not do enough work with women and minority contractors who hire women and minorities. She further suggested adding to Okolichany’s table a reparations fund for hotelier contributions.

Wisler said the per-room extraction values, “look low to me.” But, again, Haynes rejected the plan, wanting a substantive redo, since the goal was to prevent hotel construction. He asked how many times hoteliers’ attorneys had stood before council saying their plans did not meet all objectives but were “pretty good.” He said plans needed to be “fabulous” and “great” with “vast improvements.” He then read prepared remarks.

When Councilor Julie Mayfield asked if the city couldn’t mandate, instead of incentivizing, some of the criteria, Manheimer, a property rights attorney, cut her short saying, “I think you guys are trying to give the city attorney a heart attack.” She said, “people hate to hear it, but we’re already starting to push the envelope in terms of what can be done legally.” Though appreciative of the “robust conversation,” she noted it was almost time for council’s regular meeting, and it was agreed the work session would be continued to a later date.

Okolichany wrapped up with examples of how real-world plans would have fared under the proposed rules. The Hotel Arras would have been allowed because it provided street trees, public art, $250,000 for affordable housing, a bus shelter, transit passes, and more. The Residence Inn on Biltmore Avenue also would have been allowed because it provided transit passes, $500,000 for affordable housing, and playground equipment for Lee Walker Heights.

After that, Mayfield said staff was not on the same page as the council. The general consensus was the bar was not yet high enough. Haynes and Manheimer had both suggested the public benefits criteria consisted largely of things developers would do anyway. So, Mayfield asked what the fallback position would be should staff be unable to return with something council could adopt. The answer, obviously, was that the hotel moratorium would lift, and hotel approvals would continue as before.