Mobile finds itself at a crossroads. With a rich and historic past, and ongoing economic development, it’s a city possibly poised for the future. In no area is this more apparent than downtown, where skyscrapers quite literally adjoin historic buildings.
After recent controversies involving two hotel developments — one in Fort Conde Village and one near Bienville Square — residents complained the city wasn’t staying true to its historic roots, but leadership agrees finding a balance is the way to move forward.
Councilman Levon Manzie, whose district includes downtown, said Mobile should look to cities like Charleston, South Carolina, where leaders have done an admirable job approving new development while preserving the past.
“You have to be able to strike a balance between progress and preservation,” Manzie said.
This year, Mayor Sandy Stimpson realigned the city’s urban development department in an effort to make it more “business friendly.” Last year, the City Council passed a form-based code section of the zoning ordinance for downtown while the administration also sought to make it easier to redevelop historic buildings.
Recently, the administration worked to streamline the inspections process and the amount of paperwork required to apply for certain permits needed for develop. With the installation of new software, the city hopes to open an online portal to allow prospective business owners the tools to fast-track development.
“The form-based code, when it was created, was to help develop downtown,” Stimpson said. “Even though we’re in the early stages of it, there are people in Urban Development and the Downtown Alliance that already realize there are some things that need to be tweaked in order to make sure we get it right. We’re very much promoting the buildings that are standing vacant and wanting them to be restored to their former grandeur.”
Form-based code, regulated within the Downtown Development District (DDD), requires certain materials be used for new projects, Director of Planning Richard Olsen explained, adding that the relatively new code works very well in historic districts.
“A lot of design elements and materials are similar to those in the historic district guidelines,” Olsen said. “I know those guidelines are under review to be amended, but I believe they are taking into account the standards in the DDD code.”
The culmination of these efforts, Stimpson said, will hopefully be more people residing downtown in the future.
“When I think of downtown, I would like to see more people living downtown, whether it’s in condominiums, or apartments, or any other type of dwelling where we can have people living within the Henry Aaron Loop,” he said. “The more people we have living there, the more robust it’s going to be. There’s no great city that doesn’t have a great downtown. The vibrancy and energy that having people live downtown would bring would be part of the transformation process.”
Stimpson’s vision also includes new retail development, hotels and restaurants.
“So, where are we 20 years from now?” Stimpson asked. “I think you’ll find there will be a couple of more hotels, you’ll be seeing a lot more businesses locate downtown because of the proximity to the labor market on the Eastern Shore as well as the rest of Mobile. I think it’s the epicenter for population and so, I see a lot more foot traffic, bike traffic and a lot more people …. ”
The future plan for Water Street downtown includes a “multimodal” layout and access to waterfront.
A little more than a year ago, Makul Malhotra, an urban designer with MIG in San Antonio, Texas, began speaking to business and community leaders about what to do to fix Water Street. One of the answers, he said, was allowing access to water.
“It’s very ironic Water Street actually prevents you from accessing water,” Malhotra said. “So, one of the challenges was to physically and visibly connect to the water. That’s what we saw that this project can actually realize.”
To help achieve this, Malhotra has broken Water Street down into four distinct areas: Beauregard to Adams Street is called the “north gateway,” a segment between Adams and Dauphin streets is referred to as “the parkway,” “the promenade” is from Dauphin to Government streets and a “south gateway” runs from Government to Claiborne.
Changes to the south gateway would have to come after the completion of a proposed Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) project to take the Interstate 10 interchange down to grade, but the other three segments have different characteristics that will be evident in the future plans, Malhotra said.
The first step, which could begin as early as next year, would simply involve a “coat of paint.”
“It really starts with a simple striping that encourages not just commuters, but bicyclists and people who are willing to explore other modes of traffic,” Malhotra said.
The changes in striping would coincide with new traffic signals along portions of Water Street and a reduction of two lanes of traffic on the six-lane roadway. Malhotra used San Francisco’s Upper Market Street corridor as an example of where a “coat of paint” strategy worked.
“We have created a very vibrant plaza at what was previously a very dangerous intersection,” he said.
The immediate changes would cost the city about $1.5 million; future cost estimates for the project have yet to be released.
There is nothing right now on Water Street that tells a driver they’ve reached downtown Mobile, Malhotra said, a problem that can be resolved by adding “gateways,” such as signs or statues, to not only tell drivers they’ve reached the downtown area, but also to calm traffic and make it safer for pedestrians.
While bike and pedestrian lanes will run the length of a reconfigured median, the promenade section — roughly the site of the Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center — could be transformed, in the short term, by colorful painting and in the long-term with the addition of a plaza to allow pedestrians, cyclists and drivers to share the roadway.
While one might expect a reduction in travel lanes on a busy stretch of road to only cause traffic conditions to deteriorate, Malhotra said his studies suggest the opposite. The new additions of traffic-calming devices and new signal technology could result in smoother traffic flow in two years and in 20 years, after the first phase of the project is completed, he said.
Future plans could include changes to curbs and gutters, as well as the development of shops and restaurants along Water Street. One idea would be to capitalize on Mobile’s maritime history by turning shipping containers into shops and attractions.
Stimpson and Malhotra both said improvements to the street would help stimulate development.
“If you create an environment that is attractive for our current citizens to get them to Cooper [Riverside] Park and be able to get them to the waterfront, I think that you would see greater utilization, meaning they would frequent these container shops,” Stimpson said. “We have a pent-up demand, actually there’s a hew and a cry to be able to get to the waterfront, and this is part of that process.”
Interstate 10 bridge project
The I-10 Mobile River bridge project took another leap forward July 23, when ALDOT announced it had chosen local firm Thompson Engineering as its design team.
ALDOT region engineer Vince Calametti said the designs are needed before a final environmental impact study (EIS) can be submitted. He said contract negotiations are underway and could take six-to-nine weeks, instead of four-to-six months, because of the importance of the project.
“This was a huge step,” Calametti said of naming a design team. “It feels good. We see the traffic every day.”
Thompson, along with two other teams, gave presentations to ALDOT and community representatives, showing conceptual designs for the projects, Calametti said.
The I-10 Mobile River bridge and Bayway widening project includes the construction of a new I-10 bridge over the Mobile River to alleviate congestion in the Wallace Tunnel, the current I-10 Mobile River crossing. Hazardous cargo trucks, which currently have to detour through Water Street downtown to take the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, would also be able to use the bridge. The Bayway would also be widened two lanes in each direction.
The draft EIS for the project, which named the B-Prime route as the preferred route, was approved by the Federal Highway Administration last year. Traveling on I-10 from the west, the B-Prime route starts at Virginia Street, crosses the Mobile River just south of the Mobile Cruise Terminal, continues across Pinto Island and rejoins the center of the Bayway to continue east.
Protection for oak trees came into question on the Fourth of July weekend after Cowart Hospitality Services had nine large oak trees cut down to make way for a new Hilton Garden Inn on what was previously a parking lot across from Bienville Square — a block bordered by St. Francis, Conception and North Joachim streets.
The move sparked outrage from some, due in part to three of the trees being “heritage trees,” a designation given to all with trunks larger than 24 inches in diameter. The previous zoning ordinance, under which Cowart’s project was approved, required developers to get a permit to remove heritage oaks. Responding to backlash after one heritage tree was removed without a permit, both the city and Cowart blamed miscommunication. Cowart received a $298 fine for the oversight, along with permits to remove two remaining heritage trees.
Last week, Stimpson again acknowledged the city’s mistake, but insisted the episode was an anomaly.
“There was a mistake made,” he said. “So, really it was an oversight. So, what you do is you work with the people that were involved with that oversight, but as far as it requiring additional oversight, or another committee, I don’t think that’s right.”
Stimpson further argued the owner of the property had the right to take the trees down and the city’s tree commission, which is a council-appointed body tasked with approving removal of trees on public property and private property within a historic district, wouldn’t have been able to prevent it.
Jesse McDaniel, a member of the Mobile Tree Commission, said since the project was on private property and not in a historic district, the group did not have the authority to review the removal of the trees.
“I felt sick to my stomach about it,” McDaniel said. “I would’ve liked to have seen the trees included in the design of the hotel.”
McDaniel, who was appointed by Manzie in January, said oak trees are part of Mobile’s culture and even called them the “fabric of the community.” He said in the instances where cutting down oak trees is determined to be justified, the city has a tree bank, where developers can give money toward replanting.
In response to the controversy, Manzie suggested expanding historic districts downtown to prevent the removal of existing trees in the future. However, the DDD code, encompassing all of the Henry Aaron Loop, doesn’t allow for any protection of trees on private land, Olsen said, despite protections being present in other parts of the city.
“When the Downtown Development District [code] was adopted — in the preamble to it — it states it’s the only zoning code for the Downtown Development District, which means none of the other zoning ordinances apply, that removes the tree-protection part and the landscaping part, so there is no tree protection in the Downtown Development District code,” Olsen explained.
In other words, if the Hilton Garden Inn project had been developed under the DDD code, a permit wouldn’t have been needed for any of the nine trees taken down. On the other hand, in historic districts outside of downtown, trees on private property can be reviewed by the Tree Commission, McDaniel said. Residents in the Oakleigh, Old Dauphin Way and other historic neighborhoods are required to fill out an application before trees on a private lot can be altered, with a few exceptions based on the diameter of trees or limbs being cut, he said.