Developers Calling All the Shots
In Asheville’s River Arts District
No Affordable Housing or Living-Wage Jobs offered in Apartment, Hotel Projects
By Roger McCredie
Two ambitious development projects have been launched in Asheville’s much-hyped River Arts District, but apparently neither will help the city’s affordable housing crisis or its lack of living-wage jobs.
And critics are saying that’s because the city, which could have insisted that the developers’ plans include provisions for low-income housing, living-wage commitments, and the inclusion of local small businesses in their projects, has rolled over rather than rock the development boat.
In late October, Charlotte investment company White Point Partners presented city council with its plans for turning the 1920’s-era Kent Building on the edge of the RAD into a 70-room luxury hotel with restaurant and retail space, as well as a possible rooftop bar. Jay Levell, a co-founder of White Point Partners, said his firm has “been able to partner with a really cool boutique hotel group in the northeast” that specializes in adapting historic structures.
“We like them because they go into communities like this and ingratiate themselves within the community, and they bring out the full color and character of what the building was,” Levell said. “They can’t be here right now because they’re renovating and opening an old department store in the northeast.”
He declined to name the builder, but the trail of bread crumbs seemed to lead to the door of Lark Hotels, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, an aggressive and relatively new player in the boutique hotel industry. At the time Levell made his presentation, Lark was about to open The Merchant, a property located in the former Newmark’s department store in downtown Salem, Mass. Lark Hotels did not respond to email and phone requests for confirmation.
In his presentation, Levell had said, “We want to keep everything as local as possible, to keep the character & fabric of the RAD; we want to have local retail, a local restaurant, we want to support the area.”
But when Councilman Brian Haynes asked him directly if the developers would commit to having local businesses in the building, Levell replied, “you can lead a horse to water but we can’t find local business to put in there – “
“I’m sure we won’t have a problem finding local businesses,” Haynes interjected
“ We’ve been talking to several local restaurants,” Levell said. He did not elaborate.
“Although we can’t know the name of the hotel, would they commit to paying a living wage?” Haynes asked.
“I think – I would say that’s definitely under consideration,” Levell replied.
But when pressed on the same point later by outgoing councilman Gordon Smith, Levell said, “I really can’t make that commitment.” Levell also hedged when asked if the hotel planned to make any of its onsite or adjacent parking spaces public.
That prompted Smith to ask, “What happens if this turns into just another minimum-wage, anthropology-laden stain? We really don’t have any guarantee against that, and that’s troubling.”
Smith did not explain what an anthropology-laden stain was, but he added, ““I was heartened three years ago when a group said they were going to create [affordable] housing in that building. They then decided not to. I think there might be more money in tourists than there are in locals,” he said. How are we going to grow responsibly in regard to our tourism industry? We have no plan.”
Smith was referring to the 2013 purchase of the building for $2.2 million by a group of private investors. “They got all kinds of conditional zoning permit changes because they were going to do all of this fancy stuff,” said local marketing consultant Mari Peterson. “Instead, they've ended up flipping it to [White Point]”.
Smith’s stance raised eyebrows among some familiar with RAD history, who recalled that Smith voted in favor of the 2014 Riverfront Redevelopment Plan, which was designed specifically to create commercial riverfront activity, with hotel construction as a key ingredient. “Gordon apparently has situational amnesia,” one wag commented.
Next up: the apartment builders who are siting their 133-unit complex in the middle of a flood plain and say they can’t afford to make any of the units “affordable housing” … because they’re building in a flood plain.
In June, Saluda-based developers Altinvest unveiled plans to construct a four-building apartment complex – 133 units in all – in the middle of the RAD, on the site of the old JR Stoneyard. The Stoneyard Apartments complex will also embrace turning an adjacent structure, the former Carolina Coal and Ice building, into parking and ten “affordable” artists’ studios, plus a restaurant. The apartments’ rent, Altinvest said, would range fom $750 for a studio apartment to $1,400 for a two-bedroom.
Almost immediately a majority of council members said informally that they would require a percentage of the apartment units – 26 was eventually the designated number – to be set aside as “affordable housing” with rents adjusted downward accordingly.
But Stoneyard stonewalled.
Altinvest principal David LaFave said his company wanted the project “to stand on its own merits” and added that there was no leeway in its budget for rent reductions considering the financial risk associated with building in a flood plain.
In that case, said then-Councilman Smith, Altinvest should sweeten the pot by contributing $750,000 to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This set off a round of haggling that lasted until November 15, when the Stoneyard project finally came before council for approval.
That was when Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler announced she had crunched some density and city subsidy numbers and concluded that $175,000 would be a suitable contribution to extract from Altinvest. Altinvest countered with a nose-thumbing $50,000. And no affordable units.
And that’s what passed; with Smith and Wisler voting “no,” the Stoneyard application still passed 5-2.
During public comment that day, Pattiy Torno, whose Curve Studios has functioned in the district since the 1980’s, and who chairs the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, said the inclusion of studios in the Stoneyard project represented a “tremendous outreach” to the community, adding that its overall public benefit extended far beyond some affordable housing units.
“It’s hard to give a crap about public benefits when you don’t have a place to live,” Asheville resident Cat Kerr commented.
City officials have hailed both the hotel and the apartment projects as votes of confidence in the future of the RAD. The city’s own master plan for RAD improvements and amenities originally budgeted at $50 million, has been undergoing hasty revisions since updated figures revealed the actual cost for the envisioned plan would be $76 million. The $26 million cost overrun has been called the biggest financial boondoggle in recent Asheville history.