A neat little conflict

by David Forbes February 21, 2017

New restrictions on hotels and development in the heart of Asheville mark the quiet end of an era of consensus among city bureaucrats, downtown gentry and elected officials.

Above: City Hall by night, photo by Max Cooper.

While it didn’t exactly rattle the windows or send town criers scurrying into the streets, on Feb. 1 and Feb. 14, two quietly key events in our city’s political life took place.

In the first, the Planning and Zoning Commission — perhaps the most powerful board in town — voted against new rules aimed at giving Asheville City Council more oversight on the hotel industry and downtown development. Specifically, they were adamantly against changes that would grant Council the power to directly review more buildings in the heart of the city and all hotels in the city over 21 rooms. That sort of straight-up disapproval from a major committee isn’t typical, nor was an Asheville City Council historically averse to publicly fighting with its major boards approving the new rules unanimously on Valentine’s anyway.

The divergence is particularly notable because of how the rules came forward: these were changes all the city’s elected officials specifically sought. In response the majority of the planning committee publicly and directly opposed Council’s view.

That things lined up this way at all is unusual, that they did so on downtown zoning rules is important. Zoning laws are the iceberg of city politics: there’s a lot below the surface and they mostly seem cold and dull until you slam into them. Rules written most of a decade ago opened the gates for the hotel boom/infestation and remained the consensus in City Hall until late 2015, even as public dissatisfaction increased.

But elections and public pressure matter. In this case the impact of both manifested in the new, more restrictive approach Council took and backed to a person in the face of opposition from their most powerful committee. In the process, an old consensus finally died, and a powerful faction that’s shaped the center of the city for decades clearly has a shakier political grasp than before.

Behind the zoning maps and layers of jargon, there’s a big fight here over whose city this is and where the power lies.

Point of departure

For about a decade successive Councils have emphasized a close relationship with the city staff — the day-to-day bureaucracy — and the city committees as the way to get policy done. In addition to whatever formal powers they have, the latter often represent what in cityspeak jargon are known as “stakeholders,” the people, groups and factions that local government feels they have to consult about a specific policy before changing it. While the city’s numerous boards have broadly different levels of power, Council overall delegates a lot of the policymaking work to staff and city commissions. This happens to such an extent that some Council members — Julie Mayfield, most recently — have asserted they have a default obligation to follow committee recommendations unless there’s a clear reason not to.

But recent years have seen that cover of comity steadily fray under the increasing pressures of gentrification and a fed-up public in a rapidly changing city. For example: senior staff, who tend to be more conservative than Asheville’s elected officials, have publicly pushed back against Council seeking to expand living wages for city workers. Last year some high-level bureaucrats came under a succession of criticism from locals for everything from bus system woes to cutting down food trees.

City committee members tend to be a good deal wealthier, whiter and more male than the city they supposedly represent. As the debates over the state of the city mounted, the meant the make-up of the boards also come under scrutiny, with Council promising to change course and diversify them.

With that as the background, recent challenges or splits within city committees (like the fight over transit) have generally involved the citizen board members — especially as some of the committees have grown more diverse — criticizing staff and in some cases even invoking the overall wishes of elected officials to do so. But the Planning and Zoning Commission, cut from a bit different political cloth, in this case took a position against Council and provided justifications that — agree with them or no — are far out of step with the broader public.

The fact this fight is happening at all is because of how much Asheville’s political terrain has shifted in a relatively short amount of time.

Back in the mid-2000s, Council meetings were even longer and the wranglings between conservatives and progressives (see this analysis for a bit more about what those terms mean in our city’s politics) for control of Council remained an open question. A lot of these fights — as well as disagreements between progressives over scale and density — played out in battles over development.

While this history may seem like a story of simple spats and little conflicts between government officials, it’s a great deal more given that control over development is actually an area where cities, including Asheville, have a fair amount of power. The degree to which changing rules abetted the hotel explosion would later demonstrate that.

Downtown was one of the main focuses of those repeated fracases. The area’s economic revival had put Asheville on the map nationally (and fueled major increases in city property tax revenue) but the days of a largely abandoned city center remained within memory, as did attempts to demolish the place and put up a mall. Both were hauled out in attempts to stop or move forward a particular development and many in business and development felt the resulting process was too random and unpredictable.

Key to this were a group that we’ll call the downtown gentry, those involved in the city’s core who, overall, have and will profit from its gentrification. Like any faction in local politics, this grouping’s a pretty loose one, with plenty of contradictions and individual exceptions. But for a long time its efforts ran in the same direction.

Overwhelmingly (though not always) white and at least relatively well-off, these were those who had invested in downtown early enough, or had the sheer resources, to profit from its revitalization and the ensuing gentrification. More socially liberal than its CIBO-brand predecessors, as the late ’90s and 2000s wore on this faction organized increasingly organized itself through the Asheville Downtown Association and a greater presence in city boards and local political campaigns. Despite its own internal differences, it tentatively aligned with the city’s progressive faction (albeit mostly being center-right or even right-wing economically) as the years wore on, though the occasional moderate conservative would also ally with it on a given goal. This alliance was always a somewhat fractious one, though, as the downtown gentry were often at loggerheads with the neighborhood advocate (or NIMBY, depending on who you ask) strain of local progressives. Overall, they preferred to work with staff and on commissions to deal with matters with minimal attention from the Council dais.

After the hiring of City Manager Gary Jackson in 2005, senior staff combined with downtown gentry and the more development-friendly progressive Council members to try to approach a new way to the area’s future that would take many zoning battles away from the elected officials entirely.

The efforts ended up centering on the Downtown Master Plan. The plan was a giant shift in the way power over development in Asheville worked, and one that would have major consequences.

Master plans (and Asheville has a lot of them) are touted as a technical way to set priorities and better manage growth. Whether they actually are depends on who you ask. But for the purposes of understanding these events, it’s more important to keep in mind that they represent giant power-sharing deals. These plans give city staff, whatever factions they decide are “stakeholders” and Council a basic idea of where they can agree on where things will go, and can act as a cover for both those political factions working out agreements and staff indicating how far they’ll go in actually carrying them out.

All master plans are not created equal, as can be seen with the relative speed with which some of the downtown plan got done versus some of its peers. By comparison, local activists are still slowly pushing for the realization of many aspects of Asheville’s transit plan and senior staff straight-up ignored many aspects of the Food Action Plan to the point it became a local controversy. What gets done and what gets ignored depends on which factions are the loudest and how much city staff (and Council, to some degree) feel they have to listen to them.

So how did this particular deal shake out?

Staff, the downtown gentry and city commission all gained a lot of power. In return for stricter design standards, the plan marked a reduction in Council’s power over development in the city core. Now, all but the largest developments in downtown would go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for final approval. At the time, this was intended to spare housing and commercial development from major political battles as long as they met the new design rules. That happened to some degree, but there were some other major beneficiaries as well. The hotel industry proved the biggest one.

Council (a majority anyway) was happy to be free of the constant fights over downtown development and felt that the changes were a carefully considered, necessary reform. The plan’s proponents asserted it would mean that needed mixed-use housing and commercial space wasn’t scuttled for arbitrary reasons. This argument increased in volume as economic woes hit hard during 2009 when the plan’s changes wound their way towards becoming law.

City commissions — especially planning and zoning — also gained a lot of power from this, something that was to the liking of its backers within the City Hall bureaucracy and among the downtown gentry as well. As the commissions tended to have no shortage of planners and realtors — generally economically well-off groups heavily involved in downtown — among its membership, its ties to the aforementioned gentry are considerable.

The Downtown Commission, which also reviews every downtown development, is even friendlier terrain, with spots reserved for the Asheville Downtown Association and often populated by their fellow gentry. Meanwhile, staff make up the Technical Review Commission that approves smaller development and assess if the city’s standards are being followed.

It should be noted that the downtown plan wasn’t without controversy at the time, from a lot of different quarters. This included leaders in the African-American community, who complained the plans still excluded their community, neighborhood advocates who believed the changes were undemocratic and Council member Cecil Bothwell, the only one of 2009’s crop of elected officials to oppose the changes when they finalized them in 2010.

When the rules were passed, there weren’t many hotels downtown, nor much of a push to build them. Both downtown’s own history of neglect and the fears of the teeth of the recession meant that the political majority of the day was on the side of encouraging development. But as the doldrums in Asheville proved shorter than many other places, downtown boomed back and one of the major beneficiaries of the new rules wasn’t housing or shops but the hospitality industry. Since the master plan’s rules went into effect, the city signed off on 870 downtown hotel rooms compared to 700 housing units.

The last few years in particular have seen a massive boom in hotel construction, many never going before Council at all thanks to those rule changes. Planning and zoning has generally approved those, including the controversial ones.

The public wasn’t happy about this and, to put it mildly, hotels became really unpopular. The backlash manifested in the 2015 elections, where candidates (with the exception of Mayfield) aligned with the majority of Council lost and those more critical of the pace of development won. By December, it was clear the old consensus was on shaky ground and elected officials new and old felt pressure for a change.

Not so for most of the downtown gentry or the hospitality industry. At a March forum (the sort of event this faction’s typically packed), a majority of the 18 attendees indicated they didn’t want hotel restrictions at all. This was cited by hostile hoteliers in September as evidence Council was on the wrong track.

As the Feb. 1 meeting showed, many of the planning committee members, whose board had wielded broad powers over hotel approval for most of a decade, also didn’t side with the public backlash. Committee member Kristy Carter, a transportation planner, doubted whether the spread of the industry was even a problem at all. Whatever one thinks of that position, it represents an attitude that’s not just a bit different from that of the vast majority of Ashevillians but in another political universe entirely. Such a gap is a recipe for conflict.

However, not all the former pillars of the master plan’s consensus responded with opposition. Staff had not recommended the original hotel rule changes and as recently as last September endorsed sticking with the master plan’s rules. But while their delay in bringing those rules forward had frustrated some on Council, by this month they recommended their approval in a memo for Council, “because of community support to amend the review process and scale of development.”

The downtown commission, with the exception of realtor and hotel backer Byron Greiner, voted to stay neutral.

The slow slide of the downtown gentry

Whether one agrees with them or not, it’s beyond dispute that the positions of this particular faction just simply aren’t that popular, and they’ve become less so as anger over gentrification’s ramped up.

That’s been apparent in a number of political battles over the past four years. Beside for the development rule changes, the Downtown Master Plan called for giving this group even more power in the form of a Business Improvement District that would have levied an extra tax on downtown, then sent that to a board made up largely of property owners with seats allocated by wealth. As originally planned, the board would have chosen its own successors without any input from Council and wielded major, independent political powers. It was a major, perhaps the major, political goal of the downtown gentry, a final divorce of their power from any influence by elected officials.

The BID attracted massive opposition, with an unusual coalition ranging from leftists activists who resented political power being placed even more directly in the hands of the wealthy to conservative property owners who didn’t like the tax hike. After much political back-and-forth, the idea went down in defeat despite the ardent support of a good chunk of the downtown gentry involved in the master plan. Notably, it didn’t go down easy. Council members (with the exception of Bothwell) started out broadly supportive of the idea but, under intense political pressure, adopted more of a wait-and-see approach. Many of the downtown gentry excoriated them for this in the BID’s meetings, and that both shook what were previously fairly tight relationships and indicated that political support for their agenda didn’t extend nearly as far as they believed.

The political hit-and-miss continued as the years wore on. For example, the repeated push by the Downtown Association to give the downtown commission more power over development floundered, as did another to curb the city’s press by restricting newspaper boxes.

In 2015, a push by Greiner, downtown commission member and one of the ADA’s leaders, sought to move the Department of Health and Human Services away from downtown rather than expanding it. In rampantly bigoted comments to Council, Greiner and a property developer involved in constructing the Parisian luxury hotel claimed DHHS attracted “undesirables.” They elected officials didn’t take the suggestion, though Greiner kept his commission seat. Both the toxicity of the remarks in the latter phases of the BID effort and the open contempt of the Parisian backers at a time when many locals were struggling with a higher cost of living also hurt the downtown gentry’s public reputation. “We revived downtown” rang a little more hollow when you had some of the gentry emphasizing that they didn’t believe many Ashevillians belonged there.

As recently as Council’s Jan. 24 meeting, an array of notables from the Chamber of Commerce, the Grove Arcade and even a former Council member all pleaded for Council to pass the Embassy Suites hotel project. Ruth Summers, director of the Grove Arcade, even tried to get them to spend city dollars to subsidize the developer building additional parking spaces. They were turned down. While Council members still have a range of views on how to deal with hotels, they voted against the project unanimously.

Divisions among the downtown gentry have become more prominent as the gentrification backlash has mounted too. The wealthier among them have done well, especially with a profusion of hotels and the conversion of many downtown apartments and studio spaces into short-term rentals. But at the same time, rising rents and the increasing profusion of chains left other downtown business owners feeling more squeezed than before. For example, while Greiner and prominent local business advocate Franzi Charen both backed the push for the BID, Charen’s increasingly criticized the effects of gentrification. At a recent downtown board meeting where the Parisian project came up for review, she also sharply condemned it and the “undesirables” remarks.

But while its power has declined and its divisions increased, this group remains key in many city committees and influential in its politics. It retains money, clout and a fair amount of institutional say-so. But most of its goals are, bluntly, really unpopular. That’s put it at more at odds with a Council that does have to get some support from increasingly skeptical local voters to stay in office.

The conflict at hand

However, as the different reactions from the master plan’s former bases of support show, there’s plenty of trying to adopt to the new political terrain going on as well. Despite the barbs expressed at the planning meeting two weeks earlier, the passage of the new rules was itself a political anti-climax.

Planner Alan Glines reiterated staff’s current support for the changes. Only four people spoke during the public hearing. Greiner was one of them, actually endorsing some of the moves (to increase public input meetings for developments), though he did note the commission was “very concerned” that the requirements for developers be clearer in advance.

“That was a real concern of the commission, so I told them I’d bring it to you,” he said.

Camille McCarthy, co-chair of the local Green Party, endorsed the new rules as a way to curb “the trend of gentrification that is strangling our residents” and the negative effects of the hotel industry.

“Our interests are ignored because we’re not wealthy,” she added, summing up an incredibly common sentiment hotel critics have leveled at the city.

Mostly, Council members indicated that they thought the changes would lead to better conversations (“come here if you care about the community,” as Council member Gordon Smith put it), praised staff for drafting the rules. Just by observing it, there were few indications of the depths of political fights that had preceded it, with two main exceptions.

Mayfield noted that she was “torn about the hotel piece” and didn’t believe the new rules would halt many of the problems the public was concerned about (but would support the changes anyway). She did mention that those in the tourism industry and who profited off it downtown were concerned about the new rules and proposed raising the threshold for Council review of hotels from 21 rooms to 50. No one else took up the motion.

The other exception was Bothwell, who noted that he’d opposed the changes back when the Downtown Master Plan first came forward, and he thought its consequences had damaged Council’s reputation.

“I thought it shuffled our Council responsibility down to P and Z,” he told the public. “I think that we’re elected to try to oversee what goes on in the city. People believe that we have approved every hotel that’s been built here. But the truth is we haven’t. We don’t even see the plans here.”

The new rules, he said, shifted debates over each hotel back to the “much more public venue” of City Hall. Rather than automatically rejecting them, it would allow Council to use its “moral suasion” to compel hoteliers to offer better terms.

“It’s going to improve both development and the sense of the people that they have a say in it, because I don’t think people feel like they have all that much say at P and Z.”

This time, the rest of his colleagues largely agreed. The new restrictions passed unanimously.

But the conflict likely isn’t over. As the issues behind the hotel backlash are deeply rooted, this won’t be the last time that members of the public push for a change that the planning commission or staff simply don’t want to make.

While senior staff may have officially fallen in line, at Council’s retreat (about which you’ll hear more later this week) a few days later they pushed hard to consolidate power, to “clarify” what boards could and couldn’t do (in case they disagreed with staff) and give the city manager more control over which commissions review a matter before it goes to Council. The conflicts of the last decade still remain, lurking just below the water line.

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