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  • By Lisa Brody

Woodward Bates project agreement approved

By a vote of 5-2 at their meeting on Monday, April 22, the Birmingham City Commission approved a non-binding resolution between the city and Woodward Bates Partners, LLC, to proceed forward with the first phase of developing the Bates Street extension and N. Old Woodward parking structure redevelopment.

Assistant city manager Tiffany Gunter said part of the process was to provide a timeline of events going forward, with approval in mid-May to put a bond vote on the August primary ballot.

Attorney Joe Fazio, of Miller Canfield, who had reviewed the development agreement at a workshop meeting the previous week, said revisions had been made to the agreement and plans from the work session. “My presentation tonight focuses on the revisions, and deals with the development of the entire parcels. Key documents will be negotiated as we bring them back to you for approvals. This document does not bind the city.”

He said the principal concern was that the timing was too tight, as well as the scale of the project.

Fazio said they have broken the project and development agreement into two phases, the first, to build the public garage, retail liner which is owned by the city, and building two, which is to be built facing N. Old Woodward abutting the parking garage and above three floors of underground parking.

The second phase, Fazio said, will include the public plaza and buildings four and five, which after conversations with neighboring commercial and existing residents, have been scaled back in size.

“The developer cannot initiate phase two until certain milestones have been reached and are moving forward,” Fazio said, including the demolition of the parking garage and underground parking, improvements to begin the above ground parking, commencement of construction of Bates Street, and commencement of construction of building two, “so the developer has proven its commitment before moving on.

“If the city and developer do not come to an agreement, phase two does not continue,” he said.

Building three is the retail liner along the inside edge of the parking structure.

City manager Joe Valentine said that if the vote for the bond, which will be repaid out of revenues from the parking system, and not by residents or businesses, does not pass, the entire deal goes down. Fazio said that if phase one does not happen, phase two does not happen.

Commissioner Carroll DeWeese said he was not in favor of the proposed time line, “and I think we are guaranteeing failure if we go forward for a bond vote in August. We have not seen any details, and in two weeks we're being asked to approve a bond. This whole process is too soon, too fast, too much. I have a lot of discomfort.”

“I feel like I've been involved with this project for 25 years,” said commissioner Mark Nickita, noting his involvement with the creation of the 2016 Plan, which suggested the Bates Street extension. “We didn't think it would be 25 years. We didn't think about building a new parking deck then. We did a complete urban plan, a parking study. I've talked to a lot of people over the last few months and I only hear positive comments. It's an underused parcel in the center of the city with a parking deck that is falling apart, and we have a parking crisis. It is in accordance with the 2016 Plan, with the parking study, with (planner) Andres Duany's vision and blessing. I'm comfortable moving to the next step, and I think we can do it by August.”

“This is supposed to be a public/private development, but I think it's weighted for the private developer,” said commissioner Rackeline Hoff. “There are three or four other five-story buildings that will be built in the downtown at the same time – how much disruptions can the downtown take? And bonding – how will this affect our ability to bond for other things – parks, a senior center? It's a beautiful project, but I don't want to do it in a vacuum.”

Valentine said they are also looking at bonding opportunities in the future for roads and parks, and possibly a millage for a senior center.

“I want to underscore the public benefits,” countered commissioner Andy Harris. “The 2016 Plan has been widely successful for the city. The biggest challenge has been parking. It has been studied exhaustively, and is what we needed. Further, this structure is from 1967, and needs to be replaced. The developer has shown it wants to be a good partner. Staff has said there is adequate time baked into the predevelopment process.”

Commissioner Stuart Sherman cautioned commissioners to take a step back and remember what their charge was, to approve a development agreement that sets a non-binding agreement.

“This agreement does not commit the city or developer to continue the conversation,” Sherman pointed out. “Whether we like or don't like the development, I think we can all agree we should continue the conversation.”

“I could not agree more with commissioner Sherman,” commissioner Pierre Boutros said.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve the development agreement, with Hoff and DeWeese opposing.

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