Request for nine-story building downtown denied

July 6, 2018

A request before Birmingham's Planning Board on Wednesday, June 27, to have the site of the former Mountain King restaurant and an adjacent former bank, at 469-479 S. Old Woodward, rezoned to allow a nine-story mixed use building for a luxury hotel was denied as not having met the necessary criteria.

At the beginning of the discussion, planning board chair Scott Clein noted that “This is a rezoning application, not a discussion of the proposed hotel,because if the project goes away, we have to live with the rezoning.”

He further noted that the city and board had received a lot of letters pro and against the proposed rezoning. “It's very clear the residents of Birmingham Place are against,” Clein said.

Planning director Jana Ecker pointed out the proposed property is located at the corner of Hazel, S. Old Woodward and Woodward, and both had been vacant since at least 2014. “They are zoned B-3, office/residential, and D-4, in the overlay district. The applicant is requesting it be changed from D-4 to D-5, and keep it B-3. D-4 allows for up to five-stories. Over five stories was created about a year ago – up to but not over a building abutting or adjacent to a higher building. There is no height or number of stories other than it must match the adjacent buildings.”

The properties in Birmingham zoned D-5 are the Merrillwood Building; Birmingham Place; and 555 Building, all building in the early to mid-1970s. Zoning was reduced to one-to-two stories in the late 1970s, and then the 2016 Plan raised zoning to five stories, Ecker explained.

Ecker said the new owners of the site at 469-479 S. Old Woodward wanted the rezoning “to preserve the rights of ownership, as the size and shape of the property would not allow for retail on Old Woodward. The width would not allow for a modern, mixed-use building. An infill would bring it into harmony with its adjacent neighbors (Birmingham Place at 10-stories to the north; 555 at 15-stories to the south), and would provide a unified block and gateway to the city from the south.”

She said the owners said it would put this property on equal footing with surrounding properties.

Ecker said since the change in zoning categories, this was the first request, and contrary to an issue raised in letters against the request, “the fire department is capable of fighting fires in buildings over seven stories. The fire department assured us they are capable of fighting fires in buildings of this size.”

Doraid Markus, one of the partners requesting the zoning change, asked, “Shouldn't I not be harmonious with the buildings around me?”

“To me, the D-5 zoning was done to bring the non-conforming buildings into compliance, so they could improve their buildings,” said planning board member Janelle Whipple-Boyce. “I do think this is an underutilized property. I don't know if 80-feet (the height permitted in D-4) isn't enough.”

“I come down on being favorable,” said planning board member Robin Boyle. “It's next to a 10-story building with a lot of people. It fits.”

“The reality I is I can't get a hotel concept on it – it's too narrow and long,” site owner Markus said. “I need to go vertical. We're using a very high end hotelier who's using a certain number of elevators and stairways. It's economics, yes, to get the flag. I'm limited by parking because I'm not in the parking assessment district – I can't put in office or restaurant – so the only thing that works is a hotel.”

He said he has owned the property for two-and-a-half years.

“What frustrates me is coming in and seeing a concrete wall,” said planning board member Stuart Jeffares.

“I don't have a problem with a building as high as Birmingham Place,” said Whipple-Boyce. “I don't think you guys have proved you deserve to be rezoned. I don't think this is necessary. You haven't proved the case. I honestly was appalled to hear the applicant say he bought the property and the only thing that will work here is a 10-story hotel, period, assuming you'll just be rezoned because that's what you want to build. I've never heard that before. That's not how we work.”

Attorney Rick Rattner requested a delay to rework the rezoning proposal, but Clein said, “I don't know there's another way. We've vetted this. To me, postponing is just kicking the can to another meeting and making everyone come to another meeting. What information are we going to get in two weeks or four weeks that will change our minds?”

“I agree with Ms. Whipple-Boyce that the case hasn't been made strong enough,” said planning board member Bert Kosceck.

A motion to approve the rezoning request failed, 5-2. Then a motion to recommend denying the rezoning request to the city commission passed, 5-2, with Boyle and Jeffares voting against.

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