Old Woodward project moving forward
By Kevin Elliott
Processes moved forward on Monday, March 14, for the third and final phase of the Old Woodward reconstruction project, between Brown and Landon streets, as Birmingham City Commissioners unanimously approved a public hearing on April 11 to establish a special assessment district (SAD) for property owners in the area.
The project, which previously included the completed reconstruction of North Old Woodward and Maple Road, includes sidewalk and streetscape changes to enhance safety, traffic and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. On April 11, the commission will hold a public hearing to establish the district. If approved, the city pays for 25 percent of the cost of sidewalk and streetscape improvements, with affected property owners responsible for an amount proportional to the approximate frontage along the roadway.
The commission meeting on March 14 included a hearing of necessity, which is required before establishing the special assessment district.
“There is a sequence of hearings that have to take place, and there were gaps in the estimates between the original estimates and when it comes before the commission as a necessity,” said Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus.
Costs for the final phase, which includes the streetscape and sidewalk improvements, as well as construction of the roadway and utilities, are about $2.2 million higher than originally planned prior to COVID. Markus said final costs are still very rough estimates, as world affairs continue to dramatically impact the cost of construction projects.
“Anyone who thinks they can estimate (costs) with what is going on in the world right now – they are fooling themselves,” Markus said.
Commissioners indicated they were eager to move the project forward in hopes of avoiding additional increases for construction. However, three business owners in the project area asked commissioners to hold off on the project, which will result in a loss of 68 on-street parking spaces.
Jason Long, who represents 555 LLC, said the property owners in the proposed SAD for sidewalk and streetscape improvements are being asked to pay for a benefit that they don’t feel will benefit the businesses.
“We feel the cost far exceeds the benefit we receive,” he said. “In fact, with the loss of parking, we believe the benefit may be moving away from us, rather than closer to us.”
Jack Reinhardt, co-owner of Mannerwood Properties and managing partner of 555 LLC, said the loss of parking will hurt business.
“The street parking is critical,” Reinhardt said. “People come in for an hour and pump money into the meter, and then they are gone. It’s very busy from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and it’s critical to the tenants – this taking 60 parking spots burdens that whole area. We are losing 60 parking spot and you expect us to pay for it?”
Reinhardt said he has struggled with vacancies at the building for many years, eventually marketing to lifestyle tenants, such as yoga and fitness studios. He said the building is now just one lease away from being at 100 percent capacity.
Joe Vicari, owner and operator of the Birmingham Pub, also urged commissioners to hold off on the project to see if some parking could be saved. Further, he said he believes construction costs would go down in the future, as he braces for a potential depression.
Former mayor and city commissioner Mark Nickita, an architect and urban designer, said the loss of parking is necessary because the current design is outdated and illegal.
“City staff has defined that we have issues with parking, ADA compliance, turning radius and fundamental, problematic situations,” Nickita said. “The only way to keep parking the same is to never do this project. Whenever we do this project, we will have to address parking, and the current parking situation is illegal. It can’t be rebuilt as-is. The only other option is to do the project, essentially never.”
Commissioner Andrew Haig noted he has had longstanding concerns about the loss of parking, said Nickita raises valid points, but still hoped there could be changes to help retain parking. However, he was clear that the southern portion of Old Woodward is in need of reconstruction to match the rest of the improved roadway.
“South Old Woodward looks like a dump,” he said. “We need to finish this side.”
Commissioner Pierre Boutros also said the project must be completed.
“I don’t want to lose parking, but you can’t rebuild under new requirements and have it the way it is. We are enhancing the street and finishing the hard work we started six years ago,” he said. “We are trying to help businesses and our downtown thrive.”