Hotel rezoning illustrates Asheville's inability to manage growth
If you want to hear (and try to understand) the Asheville development debate, the rezoning request for a new 4-story hotel on Brevard Road is a good place to start. (You can watch the attached video starting at the 2:02:00 mark.)
It's over near the farmer market in West Asheville, at the corner of Brevard Road and South Bear Creek Road.
The three acre site borders I-40.
The developer will put in sidewalks on all the street frontages, a crossing signal across S. Bear Creek Rd., as well as a bus shelter. They promised to pay their employees a "living wage." They promised that the restaurant on the property would not be a drive-thru. They promised to run a shuttle bus to areas of local interest, to reduce traffic. They promised to pay a $150,000 bribe--- I mean DONATION to the Asheville-Buncombe Land Trust to help build affordable housing.
The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the rezoning request 6-1.
City staff found it compatible with the area and it generated no public opposition. It also complies with the City's own future land use master plan - as an acceptable land use in that "Urban Corridor."
All of this is to say that this is a commercial district, and it's precisely where you would expect to find a hotel.
So, what's the problem with this hotel project? Well.... it's a hotel.
And City Council members (along with the activists who make up the primary election voting base) don't really care for hotels. More specifically, they don't care for the tourists who stay in the hotels. They want the tourist money. They just don't want the tourists.
Hotels or affordable housing
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield opposed the project because she believes the property should be developed as multi-family residential. Even though the land is not zoned for that. And despite the fact that the developer "ran the numbers" and it wouldn't work for the site.
"Perhaps my greatest academic failing is that I never took economics, so when people say 'We can get the numbers to work' - I got nothing," Mayfield said. "I got nothing to say."
But she then added, "But here's what I do know. There's some relation between the market and demand. And until we start demanding multi-family housing in more places, we're probably not going to have more--"
"Clearly you did NOT take economics!" her fellow council members interrupted in laughter.
And here we see part of the problem.
Asheville has City Council members trying to figure out growth policies, affordable housing, and multi-million dollar developments who have virtually no understanding of the topics.
At points in the discussion, Council and the Mayor appeared confused about their own policies and process. At other points, the Mayor seemed annoyed at having to discuss project details with specificity.
And later, Mayor Esther Manheimer offered a potential explanation why. She admitted she has "toyed with the idea" of a moratorium on hotels inside Asheville city limits. But she said they're hard to get approved and usually don't last long.
The Mayor said they need to figure out a way to fund the infrastructure needed to host the people who are all coming to the city.
"I think there's a tendency - especially in the hotel industry - to think 'We're building these hotels, we're going to generate this property tax revenue, we create jobs, and so on and so forth," Manheimer said. "This city collects around $64 million in property tax revenue every year, and it's the majority revenue source that balances our budget. And of that - hotels contribute $3.25 million. And I think in their minds in a lot bigger number - but it's not."
She says taxpayers are subsidizing the infrastructure needed to help maintain a city that hosts as many people as Asheville does.
I call this the "Fat Tourists Are Breaking Our Sidewalks Argument."
Of course, the Mayor doesn't cite any of the other revenue generated by tourists, because that would mean the City Council might be to blame for not funding infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
According to the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, tourism generates way more than $3.25 million in hotel property taxes.
In 2016, Buncombe County attracted 10.9 million visitors, including 3.8 million overnight guests. Visitors spent $1.9 billion, generating $2.9 billion in economic impact and supporting 26,700 jobs, as reported by esteemed research firm, Tourism Economics. Tourism is the third largest employer in the area, and a significant driver of the Asheville economy.
- On average, 29,800 people visit Buncombe County each day, spending $5.2 million daily.
- Tourism generated $202.5 million in state and local taxes, helping offset the average Buncombe County household tax burden by $1,800 per household.
- 15%, or 1-in-7, jobs in Buncombe County are supported by the tourism industry. Without tourism, the unemployment rate would be 15.2%.
The Mayor doesn't think tourism is a net revenue generator for the City.
So, Asheville has a Mayor thinks restricting hotel development will somehow help the local economy - instead of driving up prices for the existing rooms and limiting tourism to only the rich.
And Asheville has a Council with several members who believe the reason affordable housing is a problem is because developers won't build it.
Councilwoman Mayfield said two developers told her recently that the numbers don't work for multi-family. And rather than examine WHY those numbers didn't work, she voted no on a project where the numbers DO work.
She opposed a hotel because she though multi-family would be better - while admitting she has no understanding of economics.
And that's the problem with Asheville's approach to growth and development.
Pete's Prep Sheet - Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018
Also, the Asheville City Council refused to rezone three properties behind the Greenlife grocery store, that have been subjected to noisy truck traffic and congestion for 15 years - after Council approved the grocery project. The owner wanted a rezoning to allow for short-term rentals (like Air BnB), because nobody wants to rent the houses. But Council hates short-term rentals, too, so they rejected his petition. So, he intends to file a federal lawsuit.
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