Flat Iron Building

Flat Iron Building

Last night, after seeing that City Council would not approve a request to preserve the Flat Iron Building by permitting it to be used as a hotel, the developer withdrew the application.  I supported the request to permit it to be used as a hotel and made the following statement at the meeting.

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As Council members, we need to make a lot of tough choices and the Flat Iron Building decision is certainly one of them.  I support the request to permit using the Flat Iron Building as a hotel because I truly believe that this is the best way to preserve this iconic building for generations to come.

As I’ve said many times, I look at each project that comes before City Council on a case-by-case basis.  That’s not just because I believe it is right thing to do, it’s also because that’s what the law requires us as Council members to do.  We cannot simply say that we are opposed to all hotel projects, nor can we insist on conditions that do things beyond our legal limitations.  Rather, we need to determine whether the project’s use is consistent with our adopted Comprehensive Plan and we can require conditions that mitigate certain impacts.  We can’t just reject projects because we don’t like them – that would be arbitrary and capricious.  We need to have legitimate and legal reasons for doing so.

With respect to the Flat Iron Building, this is not a choice between keeping the building the same and building a hotel.  Long-term, I cannot see how the Flat Iron Building can stay an office building with low rents.  The building does not have a sprinkler system which is a requirement for any similar type of building.  This puts tenants as well as first responders at risk.  It is serviced by two elevators that require elevator operators which makes getting up and down its eight stories very difficult.  Because they are so old, new elevator parts need to be custom made.  The building is not ADA compliant.  The heating and cooling system is nearing the end of its useful life.  These items in and of themselves are necessary to fix and very expensive.  And this doesn’t even include other things that will go wrong with an old building.  As much as I might want it to as well, I simply can’t see how the math works to keep this a safe office building with low rents long-term.

I’m sympathetic to the small businesses in the Flat Iron – I’m a small business owner myself and had office space for several years in the Jackson Building.  Moving is never easy even where in this case the developer has offered 6 months rent to them.  But I don’t see any long-term solution that doesn’t displace them.  Even if you renovate it as an office building, which would need to happen to preserve the building long-term, I can’t see how these small businesses could possibly pay the increased rent needed to fund the renovations.

So what should we do with this building?  I want to preserve this iconic building for the long-term.  As the staff report notes, using it as a hotel is consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan.  Mr. Woollcott is willing to invest the money into this building to preserve it for future generations.  He will put in a sprinkler system.  He will add a historic preservation easement and in order to receive preservation tax credits (which he needs to finance the project) he will need to adhere to the property’s historical integrity.  Mr. Woollcott is also willing to provide the City $2/night per occupied room in order to compensate for the loss of parking spaces and other parking impacts. 

All of this without a dime of taxpayer money (which by the way, we don’t have even if we wanted to give it to someone).  In fact, the appreciation from property taxes will help us to fund important things going forward.  I don’t want to see this building limp along until the upkeep simply gets too expensive – I want it restored to its original grandeur and I believe that approving this project will do that. 

I also wanted to address two of the concerns raised regarding this project.

First, some people correctly note there are two other hotels in the immediate area and they are concerned with an oversaturation of similar uses.  I think that’s a perfectly legitimate concern and I’ve cited that in circumstances where I’ve voted against hotel approval.  If it weren’t for my concern about the Flat Iron Building’s long-term preservation, I would likely have opposed a similar proposal.

Second, some have also complained that using the building as a hotel does not offer parking and would increase traffic.  This one puzzles me.  Currently, the building doesn’t offer parking.  All of the small business owners in it and their guests are parking somewhere now.  We received an email from a tenant who said that they had 20 clients come to their offices a week – they have to park somewhere.  Also, in this case, the traffic engineer showed that the area would likely see a decrease in traffic if the building is turned into a hotel. 

Finally, I want to address one final issue that needs to be called out.  In recent months, I’ve seen a direct and what I think is a deliberate attempt to vilify people who earn their living in the tourist and hotel industry.  As many small hotel owners in this area are from the South Asian community, I’m particularly sensitive to this.

People who work in tourism or own businesses that benefit from it aren’t part of some “machine”.  Using the word “machine” seeks to dehumanize them.  It makes them seem like they are part of a faceless entity rather than individual human beings.  Hotel and restaurant workers and owners in Asheville are our neighbors.  Their kids go to school with our kids.  They came to Asheville for many of the same reasons we did.  Some have been here a lot longer than many of us have. 

I took a tour of The Foundry hotel two weeks ago and talked to hotel staff members who were really happy to be working there.  They had worked at other hotels in the area and got jobs at The Foundry that paid more.  For them, hotels are the reason they can stay in the area.

There are plenty of issues that tourism raises – some positive and some negative.  We need to be thankful of its many positive aspects and deal rationally with its negative aspects using facts and data.  But dehumanizing hardworking people to score political points needs to be called out and needs to stop now.