The late realization last week that a handful of young live-oak trees were slated for removal to make way for a proposed hotel across from Bienville Square sparked strong reactions from some residents and prompted the mayor’s office to review the project’s permit.
Of the nine trees bordering the future site of a Hilton Garden Inn on the half-block bounded by St. Francis, Conception and North Joachim streets, three required a permit to remove because they were larger than 24 inches in diameter, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said last week.
Cooper said the project received a land disturbance permit, but did not receive the individual permits needed to take the trees down. Cowart Hospitality Services, the project’s developer, was fined $298 for removing one of the trees before the permits were secured, Cooper said. The other two trees were properly permitted and removed as work resumed on the site last Friday.
“I made a mistake and cut one of the trees prior to picking up the permit to cut it,” Cowart Hospitality Services owner Mike Cowart admitted in a defensive statement released over the weekend. “This was an unintentional oversight on my part.”
But Cowart also said all plans, including tree removal, had been previously approved by the city. A site plan published in April 2014 showed none of the existing trees remaining on the property, but did show two new, unspecified heritage trees in the hotel’s parking lot.
Contrary to several media reports and public comments, the trees that were removed were not “historic” in nature. The lot itself is not part of a historic district, and the trees were no more than 40 years old, according to Cooper.
However, the three trees in question were “heritage” oaks — simply defined as having trunk diameters of 20 inches or more.
Removing or pruning heritage trees is prohibited unless approved by the Mobile Tree Commission, a division of the Urban Development Department.
Downtown resident Melissa Rankin said she was shocked and saddened by the removal of the trees. Rankin was one of many who questioned the timing of the trees’ removal, which coincided with a long holiday weekend.
But in his statement, Cowart explained that he only acquired the property July 1.
“I did not try to hide this over a holiday weekend as is being circulated on social media,” he wrote.
Cowart further explained that he would have preferred to develop the hotel without removing the trees, but their shallow roots would have been damaged by construction and would have threatened to damage his investment in the property.
“They also consume a significant part of the land, making it uneconomical for development,” Cowart wrote, noting, “they have damaged the sidewalks.”
For at least a couple of generations the site has been a parking lot. A day-labor company at its northwest corner often draws people seeking temporary employment. Before, it was the site of the Cawthon Hotel, which opened 1907.
But Rankin joined many others with the opinion that neither the age of the trees nor the current use of the property matters.
“This is a common-sense, be-a-good-neighbor situation,” she said.
City Councilman Levon Manzie expressed similar disappointment Monday over the tree removal, saying he would like to look at ways to expand historic districts downtown to prevent similar issues from happening again. Many parking lots and areas redeveloped in the mid-20th century have been excluded from historic districts downtown.
On Monday, there were also more than 2,700 signatures on a change.org petition sponsored by Margo Alderton, owner of Firehouse Wine Bar across St. Francis Street, urging Cowart to replant heritage oaks at the site or elsewhere.
“We’re just asking that when they landscape, they add two or three tall trees,” Alderton said.
Alderton understands the 92-room hotel will be good for her business, but said it was “a bit of a shock to see them coming in and razing a bunch of trees.”
While many residents have complained, several have also criticized the modern design of the hotel for not aligning with the historic appearance of other buildings downtown.
Rankin said she would like to see the builders add balconies to the building similar to the Hampton Inn on Royal Street, which was another Cowart Hospitality Services property that opened in 2009.
But Cooper said an artistic rendering of the design of the 92-room hotel recently presented during a groundbreaking ceremony doesn’t “do it justice.” He said the building is a concrete shell but will have a brick facade.
Whether the episode results in changes to planning processes will be at the discretion of the Mobile City Council. Cooper called the hotel a “sizable $16 million investment,” but admitted there were faults in the permitting.
“The contractor should have known and the city should have done a better job of its own quality control. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.
Updated to correct a quote from downtown resident Melissa Rankin.