How close is too close?

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 7, 2017

BIRMINGHAM — Plans are in motion to build at the site that formerly housed the popular Peabody’s restaurant on Woodward Avenue, which closed last year.

But the welcome wagon is on hold for the moment, as neighbors near the new development at 34965 Woodward Ave. are complaining about the size of the five-story construction slated to be built — rather snugly — between existing buildings on either side.

A representative for the property owners, Alden Development Group, went before the Birmingham Planning Board July 26 to present a community impact study (CIS) and preliminary site plan for the structure, which would be mixed use — retail and office space, with at least 10 residential apartments on the top floors.

Chris Longe, the architect for the project, explained that the project would be about double the size of buildings sitting on either side, with 90 parking spaces underground to accommodate residents and some visitors or retail employees. That’s plenty more than the 15 needed by city ordinance for residential units.

“I can tell you I’m there every day, and I’ve maybe not been able to find a spot twice. I won’t tell you there isn’t a parking problem, but I’ll tell you everybody in my office finds a spot to park,” Longe said.

While the retailer for the first floor hasn’t been discussed yet with the board, the residential units are a highlight of the space, in Longe’s opinion.

“The fourth and fifth floor would be apartments, approximately 1,500 square feet to 2,500 square feet,” he said, adding that the building is designed to accommodate more than the 10 apartments currently outlined in the design plan. “I hope there are more than 10.”

The project would take about $30 million and two years to build as planned. But Alan Greene, representing the Balmoral building on the development’s south side, would like to see those plans tweaked.

“Those buildings (on either side) were designed as gateway projects,” Greene said to the board. “They have four sides, each side is cast stone, and the side of the building (facing) the proposed development has 50 windows, decorative metalwork.”

Greene argued that not only would the wall of windows facing the south be blocked by the new structure, which is designed to be built right up to the property line, but the design attributes that were created to mark the “gateway” into downtown would be lost.

“All those features that we have, that we spent a lot of money on and consideration of design on, will essentially be hidden for the rest of time,” he explained. “All our tenants will see when they look out their windows is an orange-colored block wall going up five stories 5 feet away. There will be no more light.”

Vice President and Managing Director of Catalyst Development Patti Owens, representing the Greanleaf Trust building on the north side of the proposed development, echoed Greene’s concerns.

“We worked very closely with all of you throughout the entire design and development of (our) building under the understanding that this building met all the requirements of the 2016 master plan with new crosswalks, public art … because we understood this was to be a gateway building,” she said. “We went and bought 450-million-year-old stone, and we built what we felt was the idea of Birmingham: a jewel on the gateway of Main. This is not a strong and harmonious continuation.”

Owens also lamented what she called a lack of communication from the developers, saying the first her party had seen of the plans was in the agenda packet for the Planning Board meeting, posted five days prior.

Planning Director Jana Ecker said that while communication is encouraged, all of the standards for a CIS had been met in the more than 500-page report.

That includes the design plan, which details the potential cover of windows on buildings nearby.

“The applicant does have a right to build on their property,” Ecker said. “In regards to those windows that are built closer than 10 feet (from the property line), there was never an expectation that those windows would remain unblocked.”

She added that the city’s 2016 master plan actually promoted connected buildings without gaps, and it suggested long before Peabody’s closed that the site would likely be redeveloped in the future and the block would become a “super block,” a city planning concept popular in urban areas with many closely placed buildings.

Planning Board member Robin Boyle added to Ecker’s disclaimer about the windows.

“I’m going to be honest and be blunt and say take a hike: Take a hike to Fifth Avenue. Take a hike to Washington Boulevard,” he said. “Look at the fantastic street walls that have been constructed over 250-300 years or longer. Do you think they were all built at the same time? Hell no.”

He added that congestion in building is a good thing and a marker of a healthy economy.

Planning Board member Janelle Boyce wasn’t so quick to dismiss the complainants’ concerns, though.

“I am concerned the CIS did not study the community of its neighbors,” she said. “I think it’s very relevant, and I found it unfortunate  — why wouldn’t this have been considered part of the CIS? Some thought to it; some mention of it,” she expressed.

The board agreed to take the topic up again at its next meeting Aug. 23, encouraging the new developers to communicate better with surrounding neighbors in the meantime.