Birmingham may see more tall buildings

January 17, 2020

A split Birmingham City Commission on Monday, January 13, approved zoning ordinance amendments to expand the D-5 overlay district in downtown Birmingham to permit the possibility of buildings taller than five stories in sites that abut the 555 building or Birmingham Place locations.

Previously, the city commission approved the category of D-5 to encompass the already built buildings, along with the Merrillwood Building, and grandfather them in order to allow renovations and updates to the 555 Building. However, as commissioners noted, that has opened a can of worms, as a developer has applied to build a nine-story building on the site of the former Mountain King restaurant next to Birmingham Place. It is zoned for D-4, which permits a five-story, mixed use building of no more than 80-feet in height.

Commissioners had returned the zoning ordinance to the planning board in July for clarification. Planning director Jana Ecker informed commissioners that the planning board determined that building height is already defined as the highest roof point, not inclusive of chimneys, elevators, towers or mechanicals. The other issue was clarification of adjacent and/or abutting.

“The planning board discussed this extensively and wanted to make this abundantly clear, to take out 'adjacent to' and leave in abutting – sharing a boundary or property line,” she said, explaining that adjacent could mean private property that comes in contact with public property, such as a street, sidewalks, alley or other, and that would not qualify. She reaffirmed that the only way an applicant could qualify for a D-5 building was through a special land use permit applied for and approved by the city commission.

Questions regarding properties abutting the Merrillwood Building were cleared up, because while the building has seven or eight floors, they are shorter heights than currently being built today and the overall height is lower than 80-feet, the approved height for a five-story building – meaning the D-5 zoning amendment would only apply to sites abutting Birmingham Place and 555 Building.

Commissioner Rackeline Hoff was concerned that if approved, new D-5 buildings could create new abutments. “With this now, there's the potential for several 10-story buildings,” she noted.

Ecker said that potential currently exists, and this amendment actually provides limits.

“Today, you cannot limit anyone from applying to build up. This is limiting it to a few parcels,” explained mayor Pierre Boutros.

“This ordinance was to make three non-conforming buildings and grandfather them and make them conforming. This is not a legitimate discussion,” said commissioner Brad Host. A motion he made to limit the district to only the three grandfathered properties failed with no second.

“This clarifies the language and it limits the scope,” countered commissioner Clinton Baller. “Nothing would get done without a special land use permit, and if we don't want a project, we wouldn't grant a special land use permit.”

“We want to avoid unintended consequences, and this language accomplishes that,” commissioner Stuart Sherman said.

Commissioners approved the zoning ordinance amendments, 4-2, with Hoff and Host opposing and mayor pro tem Therese Longe recused for conflict of interest.

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