Bowing to pressure from DeTonti Square property owners, the Mobile City Council tabled a recommendation to adopt a proposed form-based development code for downtown while it considers a last-minute change that more closely mimics zoning currently in use for the six-block neighborhood.
The change was recommended by the council’s Public Service Committee after a hearing last week.
“Essentially the committee decided to recommend all of the DeTonti Square area be zoned T-4, a classification very much similar to the mixed-use already in place,” said Councilman Levon Manzie, who sits on the committee and represents the neighborhood on the council.
Today, what was one of Mobile’s first neighborhoods is almost a 50-50 mix of private homes or apartments and small businesses such as law offices or architectural firms. Originally, the plan designated the square T-3, which is low-density residential and would have mandated commercial properties revert to residential use if the owners failed to maintain a business license for a period of two years.
“Our intention was to make a public statement of support for residential development,” said Elizabeth Sanders, whose Downtown Mobile Alliance supervised the creation of the plan. “I think you can do that without intending to get rid of business because we have this very liberal non-conforming use rule where the business can stay until they abandon it.”
About a month ago, nearly a dozen DeTonti Square property owners appeared before the council to oppose the T-3 designation, fearful that it would change the character of a neighborhood that was largely revitalized in recent years under existing code.
The T-4 designation is defined as “a mixed-use district of low intensity, primarily residential and neighborhood retail.”
“It’s the closest option we have to what is currently in place and in my conversations with the affected property owners, they would be amenable to having area rezoned T-4, if it was rezoned at all,” Manzie said.
With the plan tabled, the council will have to readvertise the proposed changes and may not consider the plan for approval until late May. Sanders said she hopes by then, everyone’s concerns will have been met.
“The neighborhood is very divided and has been since I met them over a year ago,” she said. “Everyone up there cares passionately for the neighborhood and will make it work no matter what the city does, but I would say the people who were passionate about the residential are disappointed.”
Both sides are also concerned about what constitutes an abandonment.
“If you have a business license but don’t keep the lights on, is that abandonment?” asked DeTonti property owner Pete Burns, a supporter of a mostly residential neighborhood who urged the council to work with the administration to form a “clear and liberal” definition of abandonment. “For 30 years urban planners have said we need residential downtowns and if we don’t put it in DeTonti, there’s no place for it.”
Counciman Joel Daves said the T-3 designation was too restrictive on private property rights and some existing buildings in the square are not suited for residential purposes.
“DeTonti’s best interest is always to be mixed use so there is somebody always there, in the daytime you have business people and in the nighttime you have residents,” he said.
In other action April 8, the council waived the business license requirement for property owners around Ladd-Peebles Stadium who sell overflow parking spaces during events. Several of those property owners received tickets this year during the Senior Bowl after a complaint.
Rather than pay an annual fee, the city will require the owners or representatives of the owners to obtain a free annual permit from the police department to allow parking. Applicants must show proof of ownership or have the written permission of property owners to obtain a permit.
On April 22, the council will hear at least 14 appeals from residents in opposition to the proposed Blue Creek Coal Terminal on the Mobile River, which was approved by the Mobile Planning Commission March 20. City Council President Gina Gregory said each appellant will be given five minutes and one person from each side will be able to provide a closing argument.
The appellants represent a much larger group of residents and business owners who are opposed to the terminal’s proximity to general public and who believe it will emit excessive quantities of coal dust on surrounding neighborhoods. Walter Energy, the company behind the terminal proposal, has said it would combat dust at the 40-acre facility with a system of 20 “misting cannons.”
Council approval is the last regulatory hurdle the facility must cross in order to begin construction.
In resolutions held over, the council authorized a $58,500 professional services contract with Dogwood Productions for ongoing maintenance of the city’s website and a $64,499 professional services contract with KONE, Inc. for elevator maintenance services.
During council announcements, Vice President Fred Richardson said he regretted his vote a week earlier in favor of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s revised budget. After reviewing a comprehensive financial report he said he wasn’t provided until the vote, Richardson said he was of the opinion the city did not have a $4.3 million debt in the general fund. Daves reminded Richardson the debt was reflected in the unassigned portion of the fund and if the councilman couldn’t trust the mayor, perhaps he should believe the city’s independent auditor, who uncovered the debt.
“I’ll be the first to admit our budget documents are very complicated and can be interpreted a number of different ways,” Daves said.
Upcoming public meetings include the Public Safety Committee May 6 at 2 p.m. in the 9th floor conference room, where the topic is scheduled to include emergency response times at the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department and a meeting of the Finance Committee April 29 at 2 p.m. in the same location, which will include a discussion of ongoing budget issues.