Will the Flat Iron Building survive Asheville's anti-hotel cartel?

A lot of people who have no money at risk torpedoed the rehabilitation of the historic Flat Iron Building in downtown Asheville last night.

Cheered by their own ideas of importance and intelligence, coddled by an elected body that treats their insanity and greed as measured pragmatism, these self-appointed Praetorian Guards of Asheville demanded the building be upfitted to their desires - at no cost to themselves. And without any assessment of whether the costs could ever be recovered.

They offered all sorts of ideas about how the building could be converted into something that they think would be cool. They made arguments reflecting absolutely zero market research or understanding of construction, building codes, or development.

They threatened their fellow progressives on City Council with electoral defeat if they allowed the property owner to decide how best to save the building he owns. Without any hint of self-awareness, they greedily made costly demands of the owner, while accusing him of greed.

During almost three hours of public comment, nobody offered to help pay for any of it.

In one of her usual displays of economic illiteracy, Councilwoman Julie Mayfield ignored the spreadsheets provided by the owner and developer:

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield said the goal for everyone in the debate on the Flatiron's future is about preserving the structure, a building she called "the spiritual center of our city." But her concerns — of parking, of displacing tenants, of the amount of existing downtown hotels — were too voluminous to ignore. 
"It just cannot be that the only way for property owners and developers in downtown to make money is to build hotels or to convert buildings to hotels," she said. "If that is the only way for people in Asheville, for property owners to make money in Asheville, we are sunk. It cannot be."

Asheville City Council members Brian Haynes, Shenika Smith, Keith Young, and Mayfield all spoke against the project, prompting the owner to withdraw the rezoning request - rather than see it voted down (which would kill the plan for at least a year).

What never occurred to these folks: There are reasons why development costs are so high in Asheville. And a lot of them were sitting up on that dais... and in the audience.

It takes tens of thousands of dollars to shepherd a proposal through the city's bureaucratic and hyper-political approval process. Last night's performance is a major reason why the costs of development are so high.

Mayfield's "spiritual center of our city" line is an echo of Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle's recent piece on this topic:

It feels like we're overrun with tourists — 10.9 million a year, in the last study — and that leaves locals feeling squeezed out.
I bring all this up because Asheville City Council on May 14 is slated to either approve or deny a request from developers to transform the iconic Flatiron Building downtown into an 80-room boutique hotel. Opened in 1927, the building has long served as a relatively affordable office building for locals.
The building, at the corner of Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue, needs a lot of work, about $10 million worth. The owners and hotel developers say the only way they can make that investment work is to transform the building into a hotel with a speakeasy bar on the bottom floor, meaning that 70 small business tenants will have to move out.
Some local preservationists are on board with this, saying it's a good opportunity to keep the building intact and preserved.

And this is a critical point that these unskilled amateur Frank Lloyd Wrights don't address: The building is dying.

The people with expertise in this area all say that the building is falling apart and it needs this project to save it.

There is plenty of comparable and similarly-priced office space in downtown, as the developer's attorney - Wyatt Stevens - showed last night. So, dislocation isn't the real issue.

It's not about parking - because a hotel would require fewer spaces than an office building.

It's not even about saving the building - because no developer is going to sink $10 million into a project for a potential 2% return.

This is about change. Specifically, fear of it.

Cities change. They grow. They shrink. And for people who don't recognize this reality, change is scary.

And when people get scared they can freeze. That paralysis becomes contagious - spreading from anxiety-ridden residents to elected officials who lack any vision or expertise in development and city planning.

If folks want to save the Flat Iron Building and keep it limping along in it's current state, they should buy it and make their ideas a reality.

But they won't.

Let's hope they haven't condemned the building to the wrecking ball.

 
Pete Kaliner

Pete Kaliner

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