A completely revised preliminary site plan for 35001 Woodward at Maple, currently consisting of empty parking lots and Hunter House, was reviewed by Birmingham's Planning Board on Wednesday, January 22, for a five-story mixed use building, and sent back for revisions, noting parking and access problems as well as disputes between the property owner and the owners of Hunter House.
Previously in 2019, the property owner, Hesham Gayar of Grand Blanc, had proposed a five-story hotel to be called The Maple for the site which would have included a spot for a new Hunter House in a corner. However, design encroachments on the site, parking, driveway and circulation issues forced planning board members to postpone approvals of its preliminary site plan in March, with board chair Scott Clein stating at the time, “The number of variances requested here is staggering.”
Rather than returning with revisions in April, as previously scheduled, Gayar and architect Kevin Biddison of Biddison Architecture in Birmingham presented a new preliminary site plan, for a five- story mixed use building, also to be called The Maple, with two levels of underground parking, three retail spaces and the Hunter House restaurant on the first floor. The plan also includes a residential lobby, an office lobby and a small parking area with three parking spaces in an interior driveway space for Hunter House, a second floor of office space, and 42 residential units on floors three, four and five. An outdoor terrace is also proposed on the rooftop.
Residential units range in size from 920 square feet to 2,220 square feet.
While planning board members liked the preliminary site plan for the mixed use building much more than for the proposed hotel, there were significant issues with the new one, including the three interior parking spots for Hunter House, as well as parking and circulation concerns on Hamilton and Park streets.
The major concern dealt with an ongoing conflict between Gayar and the owners of Hunter House, who lease the property in an unusual deal which gives them oversight on development. Gayar bought two of the parcels, with the third owned by the city.
“I feel this is a profound waste of your time and your expertise because this building is never going to be built,” Hunter House co-owner Kelly Cobb said to board members. “There are deed restrictions on the Hunter House property, to be included on the development of this site. The developer is in violation of multiple deed restrictions on how they're using our property. He's supposed to get my approval before he even submits it. I found out because a reporter called me.”
Cobb continued stating that there are new health department requirements from which he is grandfathered, as he only has 948 square feet. He said the new plans, at 1,000 square feet, would not accommodate the requirements.
“This is really a tragedy we're seeing right now,” Clein said. “Clearly, this is not the use that anyone in the city of Birmingham would like – in totality for the site – of this prime piece of real estate to reflect for a gateway into the city… I was thrilled to see three stories of residential. Residential units at 920 square feet. We have been wanting this since the 2016 Plan was considered. We're now in the position where we're struggling over this site because of one small corner. I am truly sympathetic to the owners of Hunter House. They're being pulled from a 20th century grab-and-go model to an urban center model, and you heard, they're being pulled against their will. The urban center model is one that we, as a community for more than 25 years, have been promoting. That said, there are elements of this that make me wonder if it all works...We do have an issue of function – the relationship between streets and traffic.”
Board member Bryan Williams said he did not like the access to the three parking spaces on Hamilton, and would never approve it because “I think it creates more problems than it solves. To approve a preliminary site plan with a restaurant we know won't comply with the law, I wouldn't approve that either.”
“It's clearly in everyone's interest to work these issues out,” said board member Dan Share, while noting the site plan was deficient regarding Hamilton and access to the restaurant, as well as traffic on Park Street. “Park Street is a heavily travelled street – it's a bypass, and we can't just say, 'it'll all work out.'”
Janelle Boyd said she was very supportive of the plan, but also very frustrated, noting that the legal situation was causing the design to suffer.
“I don't believe you are kindly accommodating this tenant with a design like this,” she pointed out. “This could be really fantastic. I can't support the situation off Hamilton. I want you to show what's right and good for the city. I just want you to do the right thing here.”
The board, with a consensus to not approve the preliminary site plan, urged Gayar and Cobb to meet and work out their differences, and come back with revisions on February 27.