The Fairhope Board of Adjustments and Appeals approved a use variance to construct a boutique hotel on “the city’s most important intersection” Monday night, but a separate variance to exceed the city’s three-story height limit was held over until its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 24.
Used for decades as a pocket park and courtyard anchored by the city’s often-photographed “Fairhope” clock, the reverse L-shaped property on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street is owned by the Fairhope Single Tax Corp. but presently leased to Black Oak Holdings of Covington, Louisiana.
Property records indicate Black Oak — owned by automotive dealer Matt Bowers — paid $1.3 million for the lot and existing building in November. The building currently houses a printing business on the first floor and vacant restaurant space on the second, with the façade fronting Fairhope Avenue.
The proposed building — a 10,500-square-foot boutique hotel with ground floor retail space and nine to 12 guest rooms above — would encompass the entire corner of Fairhope and Section, reducing the size of the courtyard but preserving the clock, according to designs submitted to the board.
Currently zoned B-2, a hotel is allowed on the site, but it must meet certain conditions. However, current zoning allows for only three stories and a maximum building height of 40 feet. The proposal calls for a maximum height of 40 feet, but also four stories. In its report to the board, city planning staff recommended the variance denial.
“Staff believes that granting of a variance to exceed the maximum of [three] stories would create a dangerous precedent that could negatively affect downtown,” Planning Director Wayne Dyess wrote in his report to the board. “The City Council recently adopted an amendment to increase the minimum height to [three] stories and 40 feet. This amendment created an important urban design goal of proportionality of buildings. By allowing [four] stories within the 40[-foot] maximum negatively impacts the desired proportionality caused by the amendment.”
Meanwhile, the use of the property as a hotel was recommended by planning staff.
“The Comprehensive Plan encourages developments which contribute to the long-term vitality of downtown,” the report says. “Staff believes that a downtown hotel, with proper parking consideration, can positively affect the long-term vitality of downtown by bringing people downtown for longer periods of time and different times of the day.”
Parking, which planning staff also took into account, “is a concern for the proposed use …” but “considering the limited size of the hotel … the effect on current parking will be limited.”
The Fairhope Board of Adjustments and Appeals is chaired by Anil Vira, but also includes Troy Strunk, Richard Scheider, Cathy Slagle and John Avent. On Monday the board questioned why the Hampton Inn across Section Street was allowed to have four floors, and were told since its construction, the city has adopted amended ordinances.
Architect Clay Adams, who has worked with several clients designing new buildings and developing existing properties in downtown Fairhope, told the board as it is planned the hotel “embraces the clock” and Bowers “wants to do the right building on the right site … something Fairhope can be proud of.”
“We respect the property and the location,” Adams said. “He understands it’s the center of our town and just how important it is.”
Adams said Bowers is “not a developer,” but has built similar properties in other cities across the Southeast. As envisioned, each of the guest rooms will have a different Fairhope theme and the retail space will be leased to “someone or something we think is appropriate.”
“He does … unique projects he feels will make a difference,” Adams said. “Whenever he does them, he enjoys them.”
Adams said the project was seeking the height variance based on hardships encumbered by the lot’s size and shape, plus existing encroachment to the north and “trying to avoid ground-floor rooms.”
In recommending a denial of the variance, planning staff followed the ordinance and found no “extraordinary and exceptional conditions,” no “unnecessary hardship” and “no peculiar conditions.”
But in spite of the comments in his report, Dyess told the board Monday they in fact “do not set precedent … each case is based on its own merit.”
There’s no review of Board of Adjustment rulings except in circuit court but if approved, the project would also require a permit from the Fairhope Planning Commission and approval from the City Council.
In tabling the height variance until January, Avent said the property is on the “most important intersection we have in town.”
“I don’t want to jump into a negative vote or positive vote until I review it more personally,” Avent said, noting he went to the intersection in an attempt to visualize it before the meeting. “I try to visualize this — this thing is over-the-top awesome — but my hangup is we have rules and personally, I’m torn.”
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