The Birmingham Planning Board approved a community impact study for a new proposed five-story mixed use building with a hotel, retail and residential uses that would potentially include the iconic Hunter House restaurant, on three parcels at Woodward and Maple, including the Hunter House site, at their meeting on Wednesday, January 9, but postponed a preliminary site plan review, noting there were too many problems with the plan, including traffic and parking issues.
The proposed building, to be located at 35001 and 35075 Woodward Avenue, is to be called The Maple. It would have first floor retail and commercial uses, relocate a Hunter House restaurant, have banquet facilities, three floors of hotel rooms, and residential units on the fifth floor. Proposed are two levels of underground parking with 71 spots, as well as a ground level parking area for 14 spaces, with one handicap spot.
Planning board chair Scott Clein began the discussion by noting that the community impact study and the preliminary site plan were separate but interrelated issues. The community impact study, he said, “is an opportunity for the developer to provide answers on how it would impact the community.”
Regarding questions of ownership and questions of multiple ownerships and possible disputes of ownership, planning director Jana Ecker said there are three parcels for the site, and three owners. One parcel, where Hunter House is located, is owned by the city. The other two sites, with a parking lot and gravel lot, she said, are owned by Select Hospitality, LLC, whose main agent is Dr. Hesham Gayar of Grand Blanc. She told board members it was not their concern to determine or worry about ownership issues.
“He is the owner and the applicant of both parcels,” Ecker said. “Whenever someone is seeking to use city property, they must enter into a lease agreement.” She said Gayar is seeking to lease the parking area and then build above it, and go into the right of way. “The city commission would have to enter into a lease agreement with the applicant.”
Board members had great concerns about parking and traffic issues, especially in regards to potential valet backups on Maple and Woodward when events were held.
“Is the traffic consultant sure the valet plan would work?” asked Bert Koseck.
“That was our concern as well,” responded Julie Kroll of Fleis & Vandenbrink, Birmingham's traffic consultant. “If there was a banquet in the middle of the day, both the Peabody and Park structures are full, and there's nowhere to place the cars. If there is an event in the evening, there is plenty of room in those garages to park vehicles. Right now, there are only three, four spaces to que up vehicles (on Park Street).”
“We are working on operational statements, additional valets and other ways we can look at that. We'll have that prior to site plan approvals,” said Kevin Biddison, architect for the project. “We don't want it in the intersection either, and we'll work to make it right, also.”
Planning board's Robin Boyle noted the building design had a small space for banquet facility. “How many people can you put in for a bar mitzvah, wedding, meetings you're going to steal from the Townsend?” he asked.
“Fifty to 60 people at most. It's not a huge space,” responded Biddison.
However, the preliminary site plan stated it would accommodate 150 to 200 guests, which would change the amount of vehicles queuing up to the building for an event, and the number of spaces needed to park.
Bryan Williams noted the traffic backups on Maple, forcing backups onto Woodward, are already significant.
“I don't agree with your analysis,” he said. “The lights aren't coordinated. It backs up. It's not pleasant being stranded on Woodward Avenue.”
Kelly Cobb, the son of one of the owners of Hunter House, spoke during public comment, and noted that Hunter House is in its 67th year of operation at the site, “and we're the oldest restaurant in Birmingham.”
He said they have many concerns with the project that they are trying to work out with Gayar. “It was submitted without our approval, without our knowledge,” he said.
He said they have air rights to the property “which gives us complete approval on use.”
Ecker said they did not have sole discretion. Cobb said they were working with attorneys.
Cobb said, “We have two issues which are your purviews – parking and traffic. We have concerns over the assumptions we would need at least 15 more parking spots in the deck. Another is the Peabody development, which relied on this same study, and showed a parking deficiency. Between the two projects, there's a deficiency of 87 spots.
“It raises concerns for us because we already have parking concerns,” Cobb continued, as well as traffic concerns, noting that 40 percent of their business are phone-in orders, with people circling and looking for a spot to open up to pick up their food. “Also, we want to bring up the historic eligibility. We believe we are.”
“We have never received any application for historic designation by this or any previous ownership,” Ecker retorted.
Board members approved the community impact study by a vote of 6-1, with Williams voting against, but unanimously voted to postpone a vote on the preliminary site plan until their February 27 meeting.
“I'm not approving anything that doesn't have recommendations on traffic and parking,” Clein said. “Many of the items that came up tonight make me completely uncomfortable proceeding with a preliminary site plan.”
Williams noted that many of the issues are problems of the parking assessment district. “It is a problem that needs to be addressed by the city, and anyone applying for development,” he noted.