Down the list

by David Forbes February 6, 2018

A road, a bailout, a hotel (again) and a parade of nuts and bolts items mark a Council meeting defined by changing power dynamics

Above: Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield. File photo by Max Cooper.

After a ceremony and a brief meeting in December, the new Asheville City Council faced a much more controversial January. The two meetings that month couldn’t have been more different. The first, on Jan. 9, was dominated by one major issue: a key vote on reining in whole home/apartment Airbnbs citywide in an effort to stop them from devouring the housing supply. The ban passed 6-1, showing how fast the tide had turned on the issue, and indicated that Council was now prepared to act far more quickly than in the past.

The next meeting, on Jan. 23, couldn’t have been more different. Instead of a single defining issue there were a parade of hearings, votes, discussions and surprises both welcome and…otherwise. They ranged from matters as small as an auto repair shop’s driveway to controversial matters like the spread of hotels, the infrastructure overhaul around the French Broad River and the state Department of Transportation’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to paving over swaths of the city.

These votes and comments proved in their own way as illuminating as the big showdown two weeks before, especially as they give a clearer picture of some key power dynamics both on Council and off.

Hearings and hotels

The meeting had five zoning hearings, most of them matters dealing with just a single plot of land, a big change from the citywide rules Council had deliberated on at its first January meeting. A proposal for a renovated Ingles on Smoky Park Highway got the go-ahead 6-1 (Council member Julie Mayfield thought it lacked sufficient green space). A rezoning for an apartment complex in West Asheville, an access driveway for tow trucks reaching an Oteen auto repair shop and zoning to allow part of a commercial Brevard Road property to be used as a home all passed unanimously, with little controversy.

But the remaining vote was a very, very different story. It concerned a 112-room hotel on Airport Road, within a square mile of nine existing hotels (a tenth, separate hotel already has approval from the city).

As you might have heard, hotels are just a bit controversial in Asheville. The 2015 election revolved in part around an explosion of them, especially in downtown, enabled by lax city rules and a complacent attitude from local government. A big shift happened afterward, with Council taking power into its hands, requiring that every hotel over 20 units have to go directly to them for a vote.

But since Council took that power, they’ve been incredibly reluctant to use it, though notably most of the hotels that have come their way haven’t been in downtown (a controversial one in the RAD won a split vote late last year). In some cases, some of the elected officials have even shifted to a more pro-hotelier stance, even though public anger about the industry hasn’t gone anywhere.

Council member Keith Young, who ran in 2015 partly on curbing the industry’s growth, has shifted his position and consistently voted for them in the past few months. Mayfield even speaks positively about the hospitality industry as a whole and has become its biggest booster in city government.

In some cases questions about living wages haven’t even come up, and an assurance that “we treat our employees like family” sufficed for a majority of the elected officials to give the go-ahead. This wasn’t entirely new. The 2016 approval of the BB&T building into the luxury Arras condos and hotels, which set a standard (now largely ignored) that Council claimed they would use in considering future hotels, was notably vague about how many workers would actually receive a living wage.

The Jan. 23 vote showed that so far the new Council, with some key exceptions, is largely following that course: even some members who raised concerns about low wages or the industry’s impact still voted to give the hotel the go-ahead.

‘There are a great number of Asheville’s citizens that do not want to see any more hotels’: Council member Keith Young cautioned his colleagues about the unpopularity of the growing industry, before he joined most of them in supporting an Airport Road hotel anyway. File photo by Max Cooper.

But not without some friction. The hotelier, Windsor Aughtry, best known for developing local subdivisions, now wanted to build an extended-stay hotel focused on corporate travelers. The project would be “significantly better than a restaurant,” attorney Wyatt Stevens asserted, and would offer a higher-quality experience than other nearby hotels. As a nod to sustainability they promised to provide guest shuttles, a bus shelter and abolish plastic utensils, among other steps.

Despite all that, however, it remained a hotel clustered with a lot of other hotels, and Windsor Aughtry’s “operator” (his term) David Berger even bragged that “I honestly don’t know what your living wage in Asheville is, but not one employee in our company makes less than $9 an hour.”

The living wage in Asheville, the minimum required to have a shot at making ends meet, is $13 an hour.

“I try to keep a very pragmatic view on voting for these sort things, but I will point out that there are a great number of Asheville’s citizens that do not want to see any more hotels, I’m just putting it out there,” Council member Keith Young said. “Don’t act like you’re giving the city of Asheville something.” But he liked the location, on a busy business corridor near an airport, and would vote for it anyway.

Mayfield happily supported the proposal, noting she was pleased with the sustainability measures (she meant the bus passes and metal utensils, not the employee pay rates).

But Berger’s pitch went over like a lead balloon with some on the dais.

“I’m quite strongly opposed to this,” Council member Vijay Kapoor said. “If we approve it tonight, we’re approving 11 hotels within a one-mile radius and I don’t think there’s any other part of the city where that’s occurring.”

“The question for us is not whether you’ll be successful, it’s whether this is good, rational and smart land-use planning,” he continued. “What we hear a lot of is: is there housing?”

The area had sidewalks and grocery stores, Kapoor said, it’s on a bus line near a mobile home community, so “there are residents. I don’t see how adding an 11th hotel within a one-mile radius is in the public interest.”

‘Is there housing?’: Council member Vijay Kapoor sharply criticized the proposed Airport Road hotel, saying the city needs to take better development seriously. Photo by Max Cooper.

“You showed the numbers you’re banking, but you made the statement that a lot of your employees don’t make a living wage, that shook me just a little bit,” Council member Sheneika Smith added. “I’m struggling with this tonight. The location is great, but at this point I’m really thinking about what benefit it would be to the employees and the residents around.”

But while Smith found the low wages “very troubling,” she voted for the hotel anyway due to its location. The project passed 5-2, with Kapoor and Council member Brian Haynes against.

The river and the bailout

The city’s plan to overhaul the area around the French Broad River is possibly the most ambitious infrastructure program in Asheville’s history. But the proposal, known as RADTIP, also a major controversy due to cost overruns, a lack of transparency and its overlap with neighborhoods still hard-hit by the effects of segregation and redlining. Its proponents on city government see it as ensuring prosperity and future development, its critics as just another step in the gentrification making the area less a neighborhood and more a playground for rich white people.

Last year local government plans hit a major snag when it was revealed the city staff’s estimates of the costs were wildly off — by over $20 million — a fact they didn’t share with Council until after they’d passed the annual budget. Facing massively higher construction costs, Council members scaled back plans accordingly, cutting more than $4 million from the initial stages of the plan and delaying several parts of the infrastructure overhaul. Pedestrian improvements in the primarily black Livingston Street area were dropped from the project entirely after contractors refused to even place a bid on their completion (city officials have promised to fund the changes out of the regular city budget).

An artists depiction of a changed river district, from the 2004 Wilma Dykeman Riverway plan.

Enter the Tourism Development Authority. Due to a state law, it’s the TDA — not local governments — that controls the millions in hotel tax dollars, bringing in around $17 million a year as tourism has boomed. While its board is largely appointed by local governments many of the members have to be hoteliers, and their primary goal isn’t the public good, but spending that money on creating more tourism. That cash has often gone to marketing the city around the globe, even as Asheville and other local governments face major challenges in funding and maintaining infrastructure and services.

If you think the situation’s a recipe for political conflict, you’re right. Repeated city governments have tried to secure some of the hotel tax for themselves to address Asheville’s many needs. Back in 2015 it looked like they might succeed, with some hoteliers on board with splitting a hotel tax hike between the TDA and the city. But the TDA, the Chamber of Commerce and right-wing hospitality moguls made an end-run around the city and made sure that the entire amount of the increase went into their coffers.

One might think that would further the city-TDA rivalry, but this is Asheville and the local political culture is loath to ever playing hardball with other institutions for any reason. In the wake of the double-cross, a majority of Council still agreed to hike the amount they were giving the chamber’s Economic Development Coalition.

Instead of exerting pressure and keeping up the push for hotel tax dollars, city officials decided to cozy up to the TDA in the hopes of getting some of that cash granted to some of their projects. Mayfield, who’s been the liaison to the TDA and the Council member most sympathetic to the hotel industry, has played a key role in this changing dynamic.

For goals that might spur tourism (and gentrification), the city’s leaders seem to have gotten their wish. The RAD is a logical place for the hotel industry to expand (a majority of Council signed off on a luxury hotel there late last year) and the TDA had already put up $2.5 million for RADTIP. On Jan. 23, Council voted on accepting $4.6 million more, putting the first wave of infrastructure overhaul back on track.

Assistant City Manager Jade Dundas noted how “pleasantly surprised” the city was when the TDA showed up with their millions, agreeing “graciously” to back the project due to its tourism benefits. He also noted that the wave of cash would allow the city to lock in construction rates before they went up any more.

Mayfield was effusive in thanking the organization.

“It’s the TDA’s grant of $4.6 million that has enabled us to even have this conversation, and move forward with this really important part of the project,” she said. “So I want to say a big hearty thank you to the TDA board. I think it’s important to say the city did not ask the TDA for this money, the TDA made this decision on their own.”

In fact, she noted, with this addition the TDA had granted Asheville about $23 million for various projects over the years. “It’s the popular narrative that the city of Asheville doesn’t benefit from the [hotel] tax, that we don’t get anything from it, that city residents don’t get anything from that.” She wanted to correct that impression.

“I don’t know if this is the largest one, but it’s certainly pretty spectacular.” Council accepted the $4.6 million unanimously.

But it’s worth noting that in pursuing a cozier course with the TDA over the past few years Council has, whatever the benefits, ceded the fight to bring the hotel tax into city coffers, in exchange for a temporary arrangement that the TDA will occasionally help them out. It’s unlikely that will remain stable forever — public ire against the industry and the TDA’s hold over the purse strings make this dynamic inherently unstable — but for now cooperation is the rule of the day.

No merriment about Merrimon

Not all of the city’s relationships were going so swimmingly, particularly as it concerned a plan by the state Department of Transportation to change Merrimon Avenue. The road (named, like many things in Asheville, after a prominent white supremacist) is known for heavy traffic, accidents and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. The latter has literally killed people; an elderly woman was fatally struck while crossing the street in early 2015, following years of locals expressing concerns.

The state DoT’s solution to the state of Merrimon is to spend $2.8 million next year to expand lanes, demolish two buildings (a home and an apartment building) and put down more pavement on a stretch running along one of the busiest parts of the road. According to the DoT’s own figures, traffic has fluctuated the years, but remains about where it was in 2000. They didn’t consult the city before pushing this forward. This happened despite the local government deciding back in 2014 to try to accommodate the DoT on the controversial I-26 expansion in hopes of relationship building and blunting the detrimental impact of that and other potential road overhauls.

Council was not happy, and looming over their discussion was a feeling of betrayal, shock that playing nice with an entrenched bureaucracy seemingly hadn’t made state officials any more willing to take their concerns seriously.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler admitted that she’d voted, as part of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group representing 18 local governments that oversees transportation planning, for an unspecified “improvement” to Merrimon, despite the DoT declining to present any detailed plans or maps.

“That was the entire description of the project,” she said. When later attending a forum held by the DoT, “I and a majority of Council were disappointed that there was a very detailed plan put together with no input from city staff,” no alignment with the city’s many transportation plans or own studies about the Merrimon issues.

“There’s a large footprint that the plan would take away from the neighborhoods to provide more space for cars,” Wisler said. She wanted the city to push for DoT to “open the process back up” and get real involvement from the city and the public.

The state agency needed to “get DoT to change its policies and procedures so that nothing happens in Asheville like this where DoT imposes a plan without any input from our citizens or our city staff,” she concluded. “I had felt like we were making good progress with DoT around the I-26 project. I felt like they’d really opened up their minds.”

“I really want to put a point on the longer-term structural relationship,” Mayfield said, noting 19 road projects DoT had planned for Asheville shouldn’t advance without real local input. “These are our streets, they are the fabric of our city, we are the ones that live with them everyday. We have to get this working relationship right.”

Mayor Esther Manheimer, who lives in the area, was also surprised by the speed and scale of the project. “It’s obviously going to be more effective for DoT to engage the community on the front-end, rather than dealing with it this way.”

Transportation Director Ken Putnam informed the city that if Council passed a resolution expressing their concern at its Feb. 13 meeting, DoT would take it into consideration.

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