City accepts District Lofts impact study
By Kevin Elliott
Preliminary plans for a four-story, mixed use building in Birmingham’s Rail District were lauded by the city’s planning board on Thursday, September 9, as the board reviewed plans and a community impact study for a third and final phase of the District Lofts.
The building, which would replace the site of The Reserve, 325 S. Eton, with a 59,077-square-foot building consisting of a mix of commercial and residential space on the first floor and room for nearly 50 residential units on the upper three floors. The development is part of an overall 143,593 square-foot campus that encompasses the area from Villa Street to East Maple, between S. Eaton and the railroad.
Because of the overall size of the development, the applicants, Birmingham Lofts LLC, is required to submit a community impact study. While a study was submitted for the original project, it was required to be updated to include the third phase of the project.
Planning board members unanimously approved accepting the study with four conditions. Those conditions include: providing a public access easement between the sidewalk and street; indicating an area for collection of recyclables in a dumpster enclosure; and indication on the plans for a fire lane on the east side of the building. The board also approved a preliminary site plan and design review for the site, which included the conditions.
“This is a beautiful submittal,” said Birmingham Planning Board Chairman Scott Clein about the proposal and plans submitted. “We appreciate all the hard work, and I’m thrilled about the smaller units and parking on-site, and no transportation issues.”
The overall campus consists of five buildings, including the Big Rock Chop House, The Reserve, a four-story private parking deck, District Lofts building A and District Lofts building B. Both of the existing District Loft buildings account for about 90,000 square feet of commercial space, live-work units and residential units. The third building will include 74 one-bedroom units and three two-bedroom units.
Planning board member Bryan Williams said the residential units are smaller than those in the other buildings — a push that coincides with the city’s master plan, which calls for more affordable housing options in the city.
Architect Victor Saroki, who is on the development team for the project, said the smaller units are a direct result of market demand for more affordable housing in the city.
“We are seeing the need for smaller units,” he said. “The smallest in the other buildings are 1,400 square feet, and they go to 1,800 square feet and some are 2,000 square feet or bigger. The bulk of our (new) units are 700 square feet. We are seeing a need by younger, professional people that want to live in Birmingham, who want to live in this area — this is an exciting part of town — but we want to make it more approachable. We are seeing a need for it. We are always getting requests for something smaller, and this is the time to deliver it.”
While the existing building housing The Reserve will be replaced by the new project, Saroki sought to address concerns about the future of the Big Rock Chop House, which is housed in the historic train station. Big Rock owners Bonnie and Norman LePage announced the day prior to the Sept. 9 meeting that they would be closing the restaurant at the end of 2021. The building is listed in the city’s historic properties, with changes required to be reviewed by the Birmingham Historic District Commission.
“There is some interest in the train station,” Saroki said. “The train station is the crown jewel of this site, and it’s going to remain. We are working with Wakefield and there is some local interest and some national interest. It may be a restaurant, it may be something else. We really don’t know right now.”
In terms of design, the building will be similar to the existing District Lofts buildings, but will vary in some of the texture and aesthetics, including a variations to the windows and balconies.
“We did two buildings that are pretty much identical, and we are intentionally changing the materials, including changing the windows and balcony details,” Saroki said. “We want it to be a companion building, kind of like a sister building, but not just another District Lofts building. We think that adds more interest to the campus.”