Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:

Question: As a longtime downtown YMCA patron, perhaps you might clarify the plans. I’d heard that they are going to raze the entire facility to expand. I was told that parking would be shared with First Baptist Church next door. Given the extensive renovations not that long ago, this seems a bit over the top. What can you share with us?

My answer: To be fair, I’m pretty sure the downtown Y dates to early European settlement in the mountains.

Real answer: In short, this project is a biggun’!

The YMCA of Western North Carolina, along with partners First Baptist Church of Asheville and the Greenville, South Carolina-based real estate development company, Furman Co., submitted plans to the city of Asheville last week for a major project that will include a new YMCA, as well as a nine-story hotel and an 18-level residential building. 

Hey, it’s Asheville. You have to include a hotel in your project.

I jest, but not by much.

Named “Project Aspire,” it calls for nearly a million square feet of residential, office, hotel and commercial space in five new buildings. Plans call for the project to be built in two phases over 10 years, with phase one including a new YMCA, the hotel, parking spaces, offices and retail, according to a YMCA press release issued Feb. 13.

This computer generated rendering shows potential buildings and views of a major project for downtown proposed by the YMCA of Western North Carolina, First Baptist Church of Asheville and a South Carolina developer. The project calls for a new YMCA, as well as a new hotel and apartments. The church will remain as it is. // Rendering from city of Asheville Planning & Development

Phase 2, which will start after phase one is completed, “will develop the property between the front doors of the church and the current Asheville YMCA. That area will become a mixture of affordable, workforce, and market rate housing, offices, retail, parking, and green space,” the release states.

Mack Dennis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville said in a Feb. 13 interview that they know this is a huge, transformative project for the downtown, but they will do it “in a beautiful way, in a constructive way.” Dennis said the project calls for 300 to 400 housing units, and, “we certainly hope that the majority of those will be affordable.”

“But that really all depends on how it comes together,” Dennis said. “It depends on how much support we find in the community and how much community investment there is. And in that way, it really is a project for everyone in Asheville to rally around, because the more folks who support it and the more investment we realize – from people who care about the same things – the more affordable housing I think we can pull off.”

Opened in 1927 and designed by noted architect Douglas Ellington, First Baptist Church will not be altered under a proposal for extensive development nearby that includes a nine-story hotel and 18-story apartment building. It is currently undergoing an unrelated $1 million exterior renovation. // Asheville Watchdog photo by John Boyle

Dennis acknowledged that both the height of proposed buildings and scope of the project will concern some folks, but they hope the end result will be “consistent with the love of the arts and architecture” that Asheville cherishes.

Also, Dennis and YMCA President and CEO Paul Vest know that just mentioning hotel development will bring out critics, even though they noted Asheville has designated this part of town off Woodfin Street as appropriate for high-rise hotel development.

The hotel is the “initial economic engine for the project, so without it, it just doesn’t work,” Dennis said. He and Vest, sitting for an interview at First Baptist Feb. 13, did not name the hotel developer, but Dennis said it’s a national company known for becoming a community partner.

Approval process could take a year

Both leaders also realize the permitting process with the city will likely take a solid year, possibly more.

Chris Collins, planning and development division manager with the city of Asheville, said, “The conceptual master plan for this project will need to be reviewed by the Technical Review Committee, the Design Review Committee, Planning & Zoning Commission and then City Council.”

Organizers of the project, which will also need a conditional use permit from the city of Asheville, note in the application that they desire to go before the city’s Technical Review Committee at its March 6 meeting. You can find all applications and plans for the project on the city’s planning website.

At the earliest, construction would begin the end of 2024, or early 2025, according to the release. 

Two pools?

As a swimmer, I had to ask Vest if the new Y, like the current one, will have two pools. This is key, folks, as lap swimmers like a cooler pool, while older folks and kids prefer a warmer pool.

Mack Dennis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, and Paul Vest, president and CEO of the YMCA of Western North Carolina, inside the church on Feb. 13. A redevelopment project will be transformational for downtown, but it will not affect the church physically, Dennis said. // Asheville Watchdog photo by John Boyle

“We haven’t gotten into the fine detail, but (the new YMCA will have) two swimming pools, a warm and cool water pool,” Vest told me. “One, the warmer water pool, probably geared towards our senior exercise, swim lesson programs – a family environment.”

The facility also will feature a full-size gymnasium, with a track above it similar to the Reuter YMCA in Biltmore Park, Vest added. The new facility also will have room for community education programs.

Vest said the new YMCA building alone will likely cost $30 million to $35 million. Dennis did not have a total projected price tag on the entire project, but he said Furman Co. is working on estimates.

The Downtown YMCA building opened in 1970 and underwent a $2.5 million renovation that concluded in February 2018. Under redevelopment plans, a new YMCA will be built nearby, and the older facility will be demolished. // Asheville Watchdog photo by John Boyle

The YMCA owns about three acres of the land to be used, and First Baptist, about seven acres.

Vest said financing options include some of the property generating ground-lease revenue. The YMCA’s board will soon analyze “a capital campaign feasibility study that we’ve been quietly doing in the community,” Vest said in the interview.

“So we will ask the community to support the moving of the YMCA into a new facility,” Vest said.

Vest said they’ll also turn to foundations, possible tax credit opportunities and other funding sources as part of that “stack of financing” options. 

Old Y will be torn down, but First Baptist to remain untouched

Under the plans, the current YMCA building, opened in 1970, will be demolished once the new facility is ready, but the historic First Baptist Church, known for its tiled roof and distinctive architecture, will not be altered. First Baptist, designed by famed art deco master architect Douglas Ellington, dates to 1927.

The release states the new YMCA will go up between Charlotte Street, Oak Street, and Woodfin Street, and the existing Asheville Y on Woodfin Street will remain open during construction. So downtown YMCA exercisers will have a facility to use.

The project has been in the works since 2021, according to the application on file with the city, with “visioning” sessions starting that September and including community feedback that was integrated into the master plan, according to the application. 

Plans on file with the city call for five buildings total:

– Building 1: YMCA, office and retail – A new four-level YMCA, six levels of office space and one retail level.

– Building 2: Hotel and residential – A nine-story, 121,000-square-foot hotel with 172 rooms, and six stories of residential space comprising 78 units.

– Building 3: Office space – Five levels of office space including 134,182 square feet, and one level of retail at 33,244 square feet.

– Building 4: Residential – 18 levels of residential space and one level of retail space. The residential space would cover 97,800 square feet.

– Building 5: Residential – Six levels and 97,800 square feet of residential space and one level of retail. 

The project partners say in the release it will include “affordable and market-rate housing options,” as well as “green spaces and outdoor gathering areas,” “community-oriented retail shops” and ample parking. Total parking for the whole project is estimated at 1,850 spaces.

Also, the design will “prioritize sustainable building systems, public green spaces, and pedestrian connectivity, ensuring that the development is environmentally responsible and accessible to all.”

“We understand the importance of designing a community that reflects the diversity of Asheville and creates a sense of belonging for all residents,” Dennis said in the release. 

Vest said in the release the goal “is to create a dynamic and inclusive environment where people can live, work, and play in downtown Asheville, making it a destination not just for guests and visitors, but for the residents of the greater Asheville community as well.”

The plan “also allows the Asheville YMCA to stay open during construction of a new state-of-the-art YMCA,” Vest said.

What about those renovations?

The Downtown YMCA has about 10,000 members. Under development plans, it will remain open while a new facility is built. // Asheville Watchdog photo by John Boyle. 

As far as the renovations the YMCA underwent a few years ago, as the reader mentioned, they were extensive. As a former frequent user of the downtown Y (since COVID I mostly go to Reuter now), I can tell you the upgrade was really nice and included redone locker rooms and an overhaul of the fitness area.

YMCA spokesperson MaryO Ratcliffe said that $2.5-million project began in July 2017 and was completed in February 2018.

Vest said it likely will be another three to four years before the new Y opens, so that renovation on the current Y, which he said was sorely needed, will have given the facility another 10 years of life.

For the new project, the partners noted the development plans will address community issues such as affordable housing and child care, and the plans came about with input from the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, and non-governmental organizations “to align with the Living Asheville plan.”

Dennis said First Baptist has about 1,200 members, and the church decided years ago that staying downtown was key to its mission of serving the community. The Downtown YMCA has about 10,000 members, Vest said, and it too values its downtown location.

Discussions about the project will continue as the project moves forward, the partners said.

Oh, trust me, when you propose another hotel downtown, and an 18-story apartment building, there’s going to be a lot of discussion on this proposal.

Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at or 828-337-0941.

17 replies on “New YMCA building downtown? And an 18-story apartment building? And a nine-story hotel?”

  1. Will solar panels be placed to reduce the carbon footprint? I suspect the project will use a massive amount of electricity.

  2. The YMCA owned land in north Buncomb County in the ’00’s with the intention of building a new facility to replace the Woodfin Y that was inadequate from the start. Since then the land was quietly sold and facilities in Biltmore Villiage and Black Mountain enriched and expanded. I felt deceived. Now they are pouring money into the downtown Y, but can they be trusted?

  3. I’ve been swimming at the downtown Y intermittently since the 1970s. I believe plans should include *3 pools* to anticipate and accommodate future growth (and downtown guests who will surely also use the pool). Could a 3rd pool be part of the hotel? If so, could at least one of the cooler pools be saltwater rather than chlorine?

  4. What a shame that the plan will make the beautiful dome of that church be dwarfed by boring new extremely tall buildings. Asheville seems determined to bury its landmarks. The pictures are so confusing and don’t clearly show which part is the new YMCA. I guess they figured out a few spots where you could still see the dome and highlighted them with the red highlighting? Don’t blink or you will miss the view!!!

  5. This land should be left alone or made into a park like setting.
    Asheville doesn’t need more hotels, condos or unaffordable apartments.

  6. Judging from the 3D renderings, this project is massive. Visually it will literally wall off part of the city. The foot print, and the elevations seem out of scale, out of proportion with the rest of the city. I understand the need for growth, but this feels like a money grab, with no thought of the architectural heritage of Asheville.

  7. Bye bye Asheville as we know it. Even with all the growth over the last decade or two, it’s managed to keep a unique and smallish feel downtown, with (mostly) independent shops and restaurants. This is just way too much, erasing our identity and replacing it with a new big city. I’ve only been here for 20 years but I left a big city for here for a reason… this is heartbreaking. Not to mention we don’t NEED it, but big developers want it, and they probably don’t live here.

  8. Everyone who has anything to do with development or expansion in Asheville–especially our feckless city and county governments–should read Lawrence Wright’s extensive piece on Austin, Texas, in the current “New Yorker.” Not just a cautionary tale–but a dire warning. The term “AsheVegas” may not be a joke after all.

    1. Marshall, I agree that they should read that piece, but of course they won’t. They should also read ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb to get some perspective on how things that may have worked in the past won’t necessarily continue to work in the future, but it’s unlikely that many local politicians or developers will (or even can) read that book. While we don’t quite have the traffic of Austin (not everywhere, not yet), we sure have the overpriced restaurants and ever-growing class division with anti-tourism sentiment simmering, simmering…

  9. Though no one is going to be 100% behind all aspects of this venture (as with any venture), and another hotel downtown is probably the major problem for many folks, it’s the hotel, and FBCA selling that corner lot for that purpose, that will make for much more affordable housing in the Phase 2 part of the construction. Sometimes, you have to give a little to get a lot. We can’t move backward and can’t stay the same. The future is coming whether we want it to or not. There are loud cries of needs in the downtown Asheville community that this project answers. Let’s be patient and willing to learn more about what seems to be an exciting, though scary, proposal.

  10. This property is too valuable not to be put to work (level-ish, near the Interstate and downtown, etc.). Good Lord knows that the downtown Y is due to be replaced. Having no loss of Y access, affordable housing, green building practices, carefully planned green space/urban space is good. While Austin does offer dire warnings, it’s either up or out with growth. People are coming whether we are ready of not. This is the best deal we’re going to get (assuming they are held to the high standards they are professing and show appropriate respect to Ellington’s masterpiece).

  11. Someone please define “affordable housing”. Does it translate to low rental costs compared to the published average cost in Asheville of $1,861? My thought for affordable housing is $800 to $1200 per month.

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s a b.s. term. Affordable is where you can afford to live and, if you so desire, save to purchase should that be your dream. Other terms that are more appropriate are ‘shelter’ and/or ‘adequate housing.’ Lately, many are using ‘workplace housing’, but really, at the rates being charged here, many live in ‘treadmill’ housing…and yes, it’s mostly due to the genius business model of whoring out for tourism dollars only to advertise for more tourists rather than invest in the community…but I fear I’m about to digress…

  12. The First Baptist Church dome will be hidden by a hideous hotel, which we don’t need. The city officials, including the zoning and planning departments seem to be listening to the wrong people. Historic Asheville is being destroyed. It used to be such a beautiful city.
    What happened to the land that was purchased for a new YMCA a few years ago? Guess the city leaders did something else with that land and any revenues from the sell or conversion of that property. I have lost faith in the elected Asheville city government and so does over 49% of the voters according to the last election. It’s a shame that many didn’t even bother to vote because they didn’t think their vote would make a difference.
    Water outages in select areas of our city in December and January as well as the destruction of historical monuments and memorials demonstrate the lack of transparency and the downfall of our city.
    I wonder if developers will find another landfill when they commence building?

  13. That’s today’s Asheville isn’t it? Whoring out for money. Thanks TDA, thanks republican General Assembly… have been successful in destroying the community that was Asheville.

  14. “Hey, it’s Asheville. You have to include a hotel in your project.” I propose all prospective hotel developers be sent a copy of the Watchdog’s article on the situation downtown. They may realize this ain’t Disneyland.

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