MAY 14, 2019, ASHEVILLE CITY COUNCIL
Good evening, Madam Mayor and Esteemed Council Members. My question for City Council is this: Who is Asheville for?
Is it for tourists? Is it for hoteliers? Is it for developers?
Or is it for the people who live here, the people who work here, the people who create and play and raise families here? Is it for the small local businesses or for national chain stores? Is it for the service workers who daily demonstrate the truest, kindest, most genuine hospitality to locals and visitors alike, or is it for the so-called “hospitality industry?”
Time after time this city has asked its residents what it wants to be. And time after time, survey after survey, study after study, the answer has been the same: we want to be diverse—racially, economically, socially, creatively, in business and in industry. We want to be a city that puts its people first; a place where quality of life for all is more important than quantity of profit for some. We want to preserve the quirks and genius that have made us unique and wonderful, while lifting up those of us who historically have not and still do not enjoy full access to opportunity here.
The future of the Flatiron Building is a litmus test for this community and especially for its city government.
This structure is an important and beautiful architectural anchor for downtown. But is also a living, breathing community of small businesses, entrepreneurs, and typical Asheville professionals of all kinds. As the Central Business District sprouts hotel after pricy hotel, the Flat Iron Building makes possible popular local retailers and restaurants at street level, and a veritable bee-hive of local enterprises in the floors above. This is the mix of work and play, of affordability and attraction that made Asheville a city worth living in. This is the kind of downtown where residents feel at home, where they feel a part of the city, where they recognize the creativity, industriousness, and imagination of their neighbors.
I am not here to minimize the economic challenges of maintaining the integrity of an historic building, but I am here to remind Council of the many other historic buildings downtown that have made it work and that contribute so much to the charm and character of our mountain town. The notion that the only salvation for this building lies in converting it to yet another hotel is, frankly, simply not credible.
Small business is the incubator of future prosperity—small business hires, small business experiments, small business is the foundation of a diverse economy. Artists and musicians and creatives of all sorts are the seed from which a rich and burgeoning culture grows—the culture that makes a city shine and its citizens proud. These are uses the Flatiron Building supports now, and with the City’s help, those uses can in turn flourish and support the building.
Other people tonight will address concerns about parking, about traffic flow, about hotel room saturation numbers, about the export of profits and the import of yet more workers from outside the city borders who can’t afford to live here on a job that doesn’t pay a living wage. I share those concerns.
But in the last few years, the lament I’ve heard over and over from my fellow citizens goes like this: “I just don’t want to go downtown anymore.” The traffic, the parking, the hordes of beer-soaked tourists, the infiltration of could-be-anywhere chain stores—all this is deterring my neighbors, my friends, my colleagues, from spending time in the heart of their own city. It sometimes feels that we are destined to become Disneyworld—Appalachian Edition, with residents relegated to the role of “cast members” for the amusement of the guests.
Who should feel most at home in our Asheville—residents or visitors? And who should be served first and best by any major city planning choice this governing body faces—its citizens at large or a narrow group of interests?
Before you vote this evening: I ask you, esteemed City Council Members: Who is Asheville for?
See the video of this speech at City Council here. [The vote was not taken that evening, but continued until June 25th.]
Commentary after the final vote on the Flatiron Building, which took place on June 25th.
This evening, Asheville City Council endorsed the argument that the only way to save the chicken coop was to sell it to the wolves. The wolves assured the Council that no other solution was economically viable, and that the sale needed to happen pronto.
Councilmember Mayfield walked back her comments at the previous session about how the Flatiron Building was an icon representing Asheville’s soul. Of course no one would describe the soul of Asheville as a hotel! No, the soul of Asheville, she said, is its people.
Those would be the people who said over and over, in myriad ways, that they do not want another hotel in downtown. Who said that the character of the Flatiron Building as a home for local business was essential to its form, its function, and its historic legacy. Who spoke for hours six weeks ago and this evening, begging Council not to approve this use. Who pointed over and over to the city’s own UDO and its visioning documents.
The Council majority that voted to approve this change did not listen to its constituents. And why would they? One of them is going to be running for General Assembly and the parochial interests of Asheville will matter less to her. Another will enjoy an extra year of unelected tenure on the Council and then have a district to run from rather than being answerable to the whole city. Yet another just happens to be a real estate lawyer for a firm with a broad portfolio of commercial real estate clients. And then there’s the one who is content to take the wolves’ word for it—surely they would never present selectively interpreted data about the viability of the chicken coop?
The wolves said there was no other way to save the coop. The chickens put up a fuss, but hey ~ they can always find another coop on some other farm, right?