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The Maple approved for Hunter House site

By Kevin Elliott

The final wrinkles for a five-story, mixed use building on the west side of Woodward at the site of the Hunter House were ironed out Wednesday, June 23, by Birmingham’s Planning Board, but pending litigation may keep the project in limbo.

Birmingham Planning Board members voted 5-2 to recommend approval of the final site plan and design review for The Maple, 35001 and 35075 Woodward. The property is currently home to Hunter House restaurant, as well as a city-owned parking lot and a vacant parking lot leased to the city for public parking.

Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said plans for the property were discussed in the city’s 2016 Plan in relation to the existing five-story Greenleaf Trust building to create a gateway to the city at Maple and Woodward.

Planning board member and architect Bert Koseck, who voted against the plans, said the proposed building, while five-stories tall, appears to have a “horizontal bias.”

“I think it’s a beautiful building, beautiful materials, but in terms of, does it fit the criteria that’s required under the zoning requirement’s architecture standards?” Koseck asked. “Specifically item A, which says facade openings, including porches and windows, shall be vertically proportioned. “So, let me focus on the facade openings and windows. If you look at the Greenleaf Trust building, it complies with those windows that have more of a vertical proportion than they do a horizontal proportion. On the proposed building, this has a very horizontal sort of bias, if you will. What is considered a window, as I look at the illustration on threes three and four – that’s a ribbon window, that’s what an architect would call it. There’s a white section there that breaks it up, but if you look at the shape of what is in that, it’s clearly more horizontal than vertical.”

Kevin Biddison of Birmingham-based Biddison Architecture, who designed the project, said the building is more than double the length of the Greenleaf building, meaning it would not be an exact match. However, Biddison noted several elements incorporated into the design to add verticality.

Board member Stuart Jeffares, who also voted against approving the plans, agreed with Koseck. “Our master plan specifically called out for those two buildings to kind of get to know each other, and I don’t get that,” Jeffares said. “I don’t get that really at all on those two. I get a nice building and all, but … I don’t know.”

In 2018, plans for The Maple originally called for a five-story building with first-floor retail, a hotel use and residential units on the top floor. Design issues led for those plan to be scrapped, and new plans were submitted in 2019. The subsequent plans also called for a five-story building, this time with two levels of underground parking, first floor retail, commercial and parking; second floor office use; with the third through fifth floors used for 42 residential units. Those plans were amended in January and April of 2020.

While plans were approved in April 2020, an error in the notice process delayed the project, again. During that period, the applicant revised the plans another time, which was denied by the planning board in September of 2020. Ecker said the plans on June 23 include removing a proposed surface parking lot, added retails space and reduced office space on the second floor to allow for more residential units.

Planning board member Robin Boyle, who serves as chair of Wayne State University’s Urban Studies and Planning Department, said, “I have been discussing this particular site for 25 percent of my life. This matter came up at the very first meeting I ever attended as a member of the planning board...the fact that we are discussing tonight whether it has laundry facilities on the fourth floor or vertically versus horizontal is wonderful that we have reached this stage. I would ask people to be serious about what we are talking about. I have said this at least a dozen times: This is the most important site in southeast Michigan. It really is. We have an opportunity to build a glorious building on this corner. I would urge people not to make perfection the enemy of the possible. Let us move this forward and take this to the next level.”

Board members voted 5-2 in favor of recommending approval of the plans and design review. The matter goes next to the Birmingham City Commission, which makes the final decision on the plans. However, the ultimate decision on the project may be determined by the court.

The property is owned by Hesham Gayer, of Grand Blanc. However, Gayer and the owners of Hunter House, who lease the property, are in conflict over specifics in the plan. While plans call for providing space for a new Hunter House location in the building, co-owner of the restaurant Kelly Cobb said there has yet to be an agreement.

“This development is in clear and unambiguous violation of the deed restrictions on the use of the Hunter House property,” Cobb said. “I understand you consider it a civil matter and understand where the board is at on that and why, but it needs to be said. If this continues to go to the board, the development is headed toward litigation. It’s not headed toward construction. It’s headed to a courtroom.”

Planning board member Dan Share said the board must focus on the plans before them without bias as to ongoing disagreements or court proceedings outside of the board’s realm of control.

“Whatever action we take is without regard to whatever dispute Hunter House and the developer have,” Share said. “We are siding with nobody. An approval means nothing in regard to whatever dispute they have. That is something we said before, and it’s something I want everybody in the audience to hear, along with the combatants. Our decision isn’t a sword or shield for anybody.”


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