Despite an activist campaign opposing it, apparently led by the Townsend Hotel, Birmingham city commissioners approved amending the city's zoning ordinance to permit liquor licenses for hotels in the downtown area with a valid special land use permit at their meeting on Monday, May 14.
At the beginning of the public hearing on the ordinance amendment, mayor Andrew Harris announced that commissioners were only considering a zoning ordinance change. “The property at 298 S. Old Woodward has already been approved by the planning board,” he said, referring to a group actively opposing a new hotel for the site, The Daxton.
The week prior to the public hearing at the city commission meeting, a press release was sent out by Mort Crim Communications, noting in a follow up phone call it had been retained by a “concerned citizen and Birmingham businesses.” The public relations firm’s email alleged that “The new Daxton Hotel development is being allowed to transfer a liquor license from another city, which bypasses the huge fees that other area business are required to pay for the privilege of serving liquor at their establishments. In addition, the Daxton Hotel development is being given a pass on the parking requirements by which other businesses need to abide. It is not required to provide parking to accommodate the anticipated 100 employees, guests for 140 rooms, or for the 200-person event facility,” none of which was completely accurate.
Further, Jennette Smith of Crim Communications acknowledged she was the administrator of a Facebook page called Level the Playing Field in Downtown Birmingham, with Townsend Hotel managing partner David Sillman the only client she could name. The Facebook page, and the email, encouraged residents to fight the new hotel at the city commission meeting on May 14, due to congestion and excessive parking problems in Birmingham. A full page ad was also placed in a local publication, urging people to attend the public hearing to oppose the hotel.
Planning director Jana Ecker said at the meeting that about a year ago, the commission considered and approved a zoning ordinance change for the liquor license ordinance to permit the sale of alcohol in theaters. She said this change would allow for “theaters and hotels. It's already there for theaters, and it's all the same standards. The limit is currently two per year, for a theater and/or a hotel.”
She said an applicant would have to provide a site plan, an economic impact study, the approximate amount of money planning to be invested, the number of jobs they would be bringing to the city. She said the planning board recommend a size restriction of a minimum of 100 rooms, and the hotel would have to operate under a special land use permit (SLUP) contract. The change does not specify new or existing hotels – just like with theaters, Ecker pointed out.
“We did it for the Birmingham 8,” she said. “Many of you may know there is an interest for other hotels to come into the city,” with another application already submitted to the city.
She said if the city decides that hotels are good for downtown, “it is because it brings in business to the city's stores, restaurants and provides walkability, that they spend enough money to warrant providing them with a liquor license.”
A second aspect of the public hearing would zone hotel licenses only on 94 parcels within the downtown business district, so the other side of Woodward, including the Triangle District or the existing Holiday Inn, would not qualify.
“The idea is to invigorate downtown,” Ecker said, noting like the original bistro ordinance, they only applied in the downtown area, then spread out throughout the city.
Commissioner Rackeline Hoff addressed the elephant in the room regarding The Daxton Hotel wanting a liquor license. “Why isn't this (property) considered as an economic development license?” she asked.
“Because when the commission set up economic development licenses, it on was on big Woodward. We discussed expanding it, but we didn't,” Ecker said, noting it has recently been expanded to the Rail District.
“Why is it 100 (rooms)? It could be 70 and that would be significant,” said commissioner Mark Nickita. “It seems like an arbitrary number.”
“This ordinance allows for high class, first class hotels. When someone stays at the Townsend or The Daxton, they go to retail, restaurants, theater or the market, and never get in their car – because this is the only city in metro Detroit where you can do that – because the 2016 Plan anticipated that,” said Daxton hotel attorney Rick Rattner.
Those in favor of the new Daxton hotel, and expanding the use of hotel licenses, outnumbered those who were concerned about “leveling the playing field.” Duraid Marcus, the owner of the Holiday Inn, said, “It would be ridiculous for this hotel to spend this money and not receive a liquor license,” while noting his own hotel would not benefit from the ordinance change.
Commissioners asked him how many rooms his hotel has, and he responded 64, “and all my guests shop and dine in Birmingham.” Later, commissioners debated how the Holiday Inn could perhaps benefit from changes in the zoning law.
David Foster, a long-time resident, said, “There have been a lot of changes in the last several years, and I don't like them,” complaining about congestion and the difficulty in finding parking. “It's not Chicago, it's not Detroit, and it's not even Pontiac. How many people are you losing because of density?” he asked.
Commissioners did not agree. “I would rather deal with a busy city and deal with parking,” said commissioner Pierre Boutros. “It is not what is good for S. Old Woodward and Brown, but what is good for Birmingham. Birmingham is unique in itself, that is why everyone wants to visit Birmingham. It's how are we going to keep the city vibrant and active. We'll find solutions, like for parking.”
Commissioner Mark Nickita noted that about 15 years ago, a proposal for a Hilton Hotel died for the corner of Woodward and Maple, at the Hunter House site, “because they couldn't get a liquor license. And it's still a dirt road. And I've wished it was a Hilton Hotel. We've always addressed a need. Cities as we should know are organic. We respond to needs and demands to move forward. I don't agree this ordinance was designed for this hotel, just as bistros weren't created for Townhouse. I have problems with 100 rooms, because it was determined without some thorough backing. I would like to see how other hotels, other than the Townsend, like the Holiday Inn, could benefit.”
Nickita pointed out the economic development license could be considered spot zoning – “which we've never done,” he said.
Commissioners approved the change for the liquor license to permit hotels as well as theaters, by a vote of 5-2, with commissioners Hoff and Patty Bordman voting against.
To amend the zoning to only permit the hotel licenses in the downtown business district, commissioners were split, with several feeling it was too restrictive and needed more study by the planning board, and others feeling it was appropriate. They voted 4-3 to approve it, with commissioners Boutros, Stuart Sherman and Carroll DeWeese voting against.