Birmingham N.O.W. prop fails at the polls

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 13, 2019

 Birmingham resident Gigi Debbrecht casts her ballot Aug 6.

Birmingham resident Gigi Debbrecht casts her ballot Aug 6.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BIRMINGHAM — The nays have it.

A contentious ballot proposal for a $57.4 million bond to replace and expand the North Old Woodward parking structure was defeated with 68% of the vote Aug. 6.

Nearly 6,000 ballots from nine precincts had been counted, rejecting the bond that would have updated the structure at 333 N. Old Woodward Ave. and replaced it with a larger structure with more spaces, an extension of nearby Bates Street out to Woodward, and the opportunity for mixed-use development.

“The city of Birmingham would like to thank everyone that voted on the ballot proposal for funding to replace the North Old Woodward parking structure and related street extension project. This ballot proposal did not pass, and the lack of funding for the public elements will not allow the project to proceed. As the city continues to work to address the growing demand for parking in the downtown, it will look to implement parking mitigation programs in the near term until a permanent solution is advanced,” reads a prepared statement released by Birmingham Communications Director Kevin Byrnes.

The statement went on to thank all who participated in the development of the project, including various boards and committees.

Before the election, the Birmingham City Commission said that any plans in the works to develop the site would dissolve, including private projects like the potential for a Restoration Hardware gallery.

“While we’re disappointed in the outcome of the election and the lost opportunity for downtown Birmingham, the voters have spoken,” Birmingham architect Victor Saroki said in a press release. He is a partner in the Woodward Bates team, which was contracted to develop the private end of the project.

“As a longtime Birmingham resident and someone who has been very involved in the city, I was looking forward to the progress and boost this would give our downtown businesses and seeing the fulfillment of the 2016 downtown plan.”

Former City Commissioner George Dilgard said he is disappointed in the proposal’s defeat.

“This was a major lost opportunity for our community. Unfortunately, most voters did not realize this project would have generated $1.3 million in incremental annual lease and tax revenue. Also, parking will continue to be a problem in the North Old Woodward area for years to come, and RH Gallery will become a retail catalyst for another city,” he said in an email.

The proposal faced vocal opposition from the political action committee Balance 4 Birmingham and civic activist Clinton Baller, who argued that the project was a better deal for private developers than city residents.

He said in an email that, “while money apparently can buy an election here, it can’t buy an outcome.”

He also said that “an attempt to censor residents resulted in a temporary restraining order and landed the city in federal court,” referring to a lawsuit he brought against Birmingham for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights when he was prevented from discussing the N.O.W. proposal during the public comment section of a July City Commission meeting.

Baller said that by their silence, “six commissioners acquiesced in the censorship, and all seven in the ridiculous spending that bent the truth and insulted our intelligence.”

Baller has officially filed to be a candidate for the City Commission in the November election.

Former City Commissioner Gordon Rinchler was vocal about his opposition to the proposal, too. He said that now that it has been defeated, he has mixed feelings.

“I’m pleased with the outcome but concerned that the impact of both the megabucks ‘yes’ campaign and inappropriate, out-of-character behaviors of some city officials will poison the well for implementing good ideas in the future,” Rinchler said in an email. “Hopefully, the November election will provide new leadership and a positive direction so we can put an ugly fight behind us.”

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