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A solution for downtown development site

Like many in Birmingham, over the last several years, we have been observing the requests, reviews, planning board and commission meetings for the former Mountain King and Talmer Bank sites on S. Old Woodward. The .423 acre site spans Hazel Street from S. Old Woodward to Woodward, and currently contains two vacant single-story commercial buildings.

Purchased over four years ago by developer Doraid Markus, he originally sought to build a nine-story hotel on the property, and then sought to rezone the property from D-4, which permits five-story mixed-use buildings in the city's downtown, to D-5, a new zoning district originally created to encompass higher and non-conforming buildings, such as 555 Building, Birmingham Place and Merrillwood Building.

When that rezoning attempt failed in 2020, Markus sought new avenues to make the site work. In 2022, he presented options to the planning board that would allow D4 zoned properties outside of the former parking assessment district to apply for a parking variance from the city commission.

See, Doraid Markus has a problem – the site, at 469 and 479 S. Old Woodward, is the only property in the only D4 zoned property not included in the former parking assessment district. What does that mean? It means he, as the property owner, has to provide enough parking on the building's site, for all the various users that will come to the proposed building – estimated at 74 parking spots. In downtown Birmingham, that is a fairly Herculean task.

He has asked the city's planning board, board of zoning appeals, and now the city commission for a waiver of the commercial parking requirements, although not the residential parking requirements. City staff and the planning board recommended against the change, noting it would set a bad precedent for the future, and initially, we agreed. Spot zoning is never a good idea as it prioritizes one land owner over another. Several city commissioners are in favor of providing a waiver to the ordinance, citing a development-challenged property, despite recommendations to the contrary from city staff and legal counsel, a position we first supported. However, as we learned more about this property, and researched the situation, speaking to those more knowledgeable than ourselves, we have changed our mind.

The Birmingham parking district is closed, meaning a developer can no longer pay into it, as many other developers have done, which is something that the city must address so that special development situations like this can be charged for a fee in lieu of what they would have paid as a past member of the parking district.

Birmingham is a desirable destination for commercial, retail and residential real estate and this property is sitting as blight on S. Old Woodward, a vital southern passageway in the city's downtown, near the new Daxton Hotel, the upcoming RH store, and next to Birmingham Place and the 555 Building. Yes, some smaller development could take place on the site but the location demands something more.

City commissioners concur with the planning board, which recommended creating a special land use permit, or SLUP, for the property, meaning the owner would have to come back to the commission in the future for any kind of changes. We think this is a “split the baby” solution, allowing the property owner to proceed while the city maintains control, including over the type of tenant that would occupy what's built.

As a commissioner noted, no one wants to go against staff recommendations, but it was clear there weren't a lot of good options in this situation. Better to direct and monitor the development of this property and achieve the best use of this land.


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