‘Another f’ing hotel’

by David Forbes May 12, 2015

Locals resent the hotel boom because it represents and furthers the worst aspects of today’s Asheville. What’s behind the anger, and what it means

Above: The BB&T building, future site of an ‘upper-upscale hotel’

First it was “upscale,” then “boutique” and “luxury.” Now we have “upper-upscale.”

That’s what the developers of the Nouveau Tower hotel, planned for the BB&T building, call their vision (150 rooms and 35 condos), because the previous adjectives apparently weren’t quite luxe enough.

Perhaps the next hotel that opens can do one better, and go for “stratospheric” or, if they want to be old-fashioned about it, “gilded.”

There’s not exactly an official Gentrification Resentment Index for this city, but if the Blade had a new subscriber for every time I’ve heard some variety of “another f’ing hotel!” exclaimed in anger and frustration over the past year, we’d be looking to hire a bunch of reporters right now.

By itself, converting the “Big, Boring and Tan” to hotel rooms and condos would mostly result in jokes (the views are great! You don’t have to look at the BB&T building!) and a minor sense of relief at any aesthetic improvements to the old eyesore. But there’s a sharp, frustrated tinge to cracks about the latest hotel, and it’s worth spelling out where that comes from.

The reason the wave of hotels isn’t exactly beloved by Ashevillians is due to the very real impact — and damage, frankly — they cause to the city and its people, and because news of another one comes as part of some pretty nasty recent history.

There was the Windsor, the “boutique” hotel whose 2007-08 renovation resulted in the eviction of its former low-income residents. One, 52-year-old construction worker Chris Allen Sewell, ended up homeless and brutally murdered months after.

Then there was news that Smokey’s, downtown Asheville’s oldest bar and a longtime LGBT hub, was closing down partly due to the impacts of the construction of the neighboring Marriott. Over on Haywood, construction of a Hyatt Place on the old Three Brothers restaurant site has snarled traffic and limited access to the nearby credit union. In case you think that might end sometime soon, the site directly across from it was also purchased by the same hotelier, so this will likely continue for some time.

And of course, there was the attempt by the developers of the Parisian — who touted the Windsor’s renovation as an accomplishment — to kick the Department of Health and Human Services out of downtown. The agencies in the DHHS building serve 100,000 locals and it’s located right near the central bus station, but some of the people involved in the deal wanted it moved elsewhere because they didn’t want “undesirables” getting aid near some of “the most expensive real estate in Western North Carolina.”

If the terrible faux French naming trend continues, the marketing types should perhaps tag the next hotel “the Versailles” or “the Antoinette” if, as usual, the flacks remain oblivious to exactly how narrow an edge they rest on.

For a city in desperate need of housing, especially in its urban core, every hotel that goes up is also a lost opportunity for a place that can increasingly afford very few of those. Almost anything else would be more welcome than another hotel. As the departure of Smokey’s indicates, so far the hotel wave is even playing a part in stripping Asheville of existing amenities for anyone besides tourists and gentry.

On top of all that, Asheville’s hotels pay terribly, well below the $12.50 an hour needed to make ends meet in this city. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, desk clerks here make a median wage of $9.78 an hour, housekeepers $9.30 an hour and baggage porters and bellhops $9.26. The wages for the food service and retail jobs that hotels add with their attendant businesses are also notoriously low. Meanwhile, our county is among the worst in the country to grow up low-income.

If, as in some cities, hotel workers were unionized or if half-way affordable housing were going up at the same pace as new hotels, the ire might disperse a bit. But the city we live in is a very different place. While no one who works for a living or has an ounce of sense finds what’s happening appealing, the city’s political culture doesn’t really seem to know what to do about it. So far, the anger’s mostly simmered and built: no group’s beating the drum for a new hotel ban or picketing the latest construction site. Even the idea of a hotel tax is regarded as a distant goal due to the complicated state politics involved.

Realists might push for a major increase in unions and some serious pressure to get local wages at least up to the state average, so the rest of us derive some benefit from the hotel and tourism boom. But while obviously necessary, even those basic steps are going to be a hell of a fight.

So the fact is, right now every hotel that goes up furthers the worst aspects of today’s Asheville: places we can’t afford built for people who don’t live here offering jobs that pay locals badly to benefit those who, in some cases, openly want us forced out.

It’s a bubble, of course, and a demonstration that despite their supposed savvy, much of the business world has not lost its old habit of enthusiastically jumping off the same cliff.

This has happened before in Asheville, of course. Maybe, if the cycle continues, years after the bubble has burst some of these hotels will again end up as housing.

If any of us will still be here to see it is another question. In the meantime, the anger’s here to stay.

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