The third time was not the charm for developers hoping to turn the historic building at 401 Dauphin Street into the city’s newest music venue.
Following denials in 2014 and 2015, the Planning Commission again voted down planning approval that would’ve allowed an occupancy of 750 in the 9,000 square-foot building that has been abandoned for more than 15 years.
Tom Townsend, the developer for the project, said there have been changes to the plan since it was first introduced, including a reduction of occupancy from 900 to 750 and a requirement to staff off-duty Mobile Police officers as security guards during shows.
“We wanted to be able to compete effectively with the House of Blues in New Orleans,” Townsend told commissioners about the occupancy level. “If we keep dropping it, we’ll lose our ability to book certain artists and sell the city as a music tourism destination.”
Also, unlike the last attempt, Townsend said developers would not ask the commission to allow for rooftop access.
The venue would average around 300 to 400 visitors and would only probably reach its capacity during larger shows. The proposed hours of operation would be from about 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., Townsend said, with a “trickle” of visitors leaving between midnight and 1 a.m.
Police would also be able to help disperse the crowd, if needed.
To further address concerns about noise, Townsend said the venue would be properly heated and cooled to prevent windows and doors from being left open. The building would have 16 inches of masonry and would be equipped with insulation to prevent noise pollution, he added.
“We’re confident we’ll be able to build it soundproof,” Townsend said.
While the immediate area is surrounded by residential buildings and the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Townsend argued that the proposed venue would fit in well with the downtown district, which includes as many as eight different music venues.
“It seems like we’re being fairly harmonous to what has been approved previously,” he said.
As for concerns over property values, Townsend offered examples in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. as proof that property values would actually increase near a music venue and not decrease. Condominums adjacent to the Metro Theater in Chicago sell for $400,000 or more, while 1,500-square-foot spaces adjacent to the 930 Club in the nation’s capital sell for $800,000 each.
“That’s proof that we’ll increase your property values if we’re a properly run venue,” he said. “We haven’t even had the chance ….”
Local attorney Buzz Jordan, who owns the building at 401 Dauphin Street, said the venue would benefit downtown businesses, like Southern National, O’Daly’s and Pizzeria Delfina, which intends to open up a location on Dauphin across from the cathedral.
“It’ll be just like the Saenger,” Jordan said. “(Loda Bier Garten) is packed out before Saenger events. We want to be a part of that restaurant, hotel, entertainment district.”
Trey Oliver, Mobile Metro Jail’s warden and a co-owner of an adjacent art gallery, said he and his partners in the gallery would like to see the building developed and support the idea.
“The last thing we need is one more vacant building with no lights to bring down our property values,” Oliver said. “I know Buzz … and if it gets rowdy the first person I’m going to call is him. If he doesn’t clear it up, the next thing I’m going to do is call the police.”
Oliver said the venue would be good for downtown. It would help Mobile gain an identity, he said.
“We’re not the Big Apple, or even the Big Easy; we’re the Little Quirky and we have been for about 320 years,” Oliver said. “We need to find our niche and it seems like music venues wouldn’t be a bad niche.”
The commisison heard from four people in opposition to the plan, including an attorney for the board of the Mattress Factory Lofts and the vicar general of the Mobile Archdiocese.
The Rev. Bill Skoneki, the cathedral rector, told commissioners the church already deals with loud noise from concerts at Cathedral Square caused by speakers about a block away. The building in question and the venue’s main entrance would be right across a narrow street.
“The developers have said they’d work with us as to not interfere with weddings, or other events, but that’s unenforceable,” he said. “I don’t blame them. They’re not going to turn down money because of an evening wedding.”
Of the roughly 1,800 people who live downtown right now, about 10 percent live within a one block raidus of the proposed venue, including those who reside at Cathedral Place Apartments for low-income elderly residents, Skoneki said.
“I’m in favor of downtown development, but not for his use in a medium-density district because it’s not,” he said. “It’s a venue that can hold three times the number of residents of Cathedral Place.”
Jerry Speegle, attorney for residents of the apartments across Dauphin from the proposed venue, said a key component of a vibrant downtown is residents. He warned the commission against sending the wrong message to potential residents by allowing a large music venue to open next door to apartments.
“What this development does is cause a problem with the promise this ordinance affords to have a medium-density area downtown,” he said. “Do you want the city to tell people not to move downtown?”
Speegle said he’s not against the venue itself, but wants it to be moved to an area where it’s allowed by right, like along St. Louis, or Water streets.
Following the 8-4 vote denying the application, Townsend said he and Jordan would appeal the decision to the Mobile City Council. No date has been set on that appeal.
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