The Mobile Planning Commission on Thursday denied a request for increased occupancy at a proposed entertainment venue on Conception Street downtown and delayed a decision on a second one — one the building’s owner compared to the House of Blues.
The occupancy increase, for a building at 51 S. Conception St., was denied despite a favorable report from planning staff. Lessee Ryan Johnson and Jingle Jangle LLC were seeking an occupancy of 150 at the proposed entertainment venue and bar. Any occupancy of more than 100 in the Downtown Development District must be approved by the Planning Commission.
In its report to the Commission, planning staff recommended the increase, subject to a number of conditions. For one, the staff advised the venue’s hours of operation be limited to 5 p.m. until midnight from Sunday through Thursday and from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Although Johnson allegedly proposed those hours of operation as part of her application, she told commissioners at the meeting she had reconsidered. At the very least, she asked for leeway for weekday nights before holidays like Mardi Gras or Thanksgiving.
At issue with commissioners was the size of the building and the number of bathrooms. The group discussed the difference in occupancy allowances between a special event venue and a bar. A bar is allowed an occupancy of about 80, due to the plumbing code and the building’s two existing bathrooms, Planner Bert Hoffman said. He added the occupancy could be 150, if it were solely a special events venue.
“I’m not comfortable with 150 occupancy,” Commissioner Don Hembree said. “I can’t vote for it.”
John Vallas said he was “surprised” that an occupancy of 150 would be allowed there for any use.
During a public hearing on the issue, four residents spoke in opposition to the application. Mary Cousar, manager of the O’Gwynn Condominiums at 20 S. Conception St., said she and residents there were concerned over trash, noise and the possibility of patrons urinating outside.
She also compared the planned venue to the Alabama Music Box, which she said was a big problem for residents on Dauphin Street during its existence, resulting in a lawsuit.
She also accused Johnson of lying to her about her involvement with the Music Box during a recent meeting. Johnson told commissioners she was never employed by the Alabama Music Box and had just been a patron there.
“Who I’m friends with and hang out with is not what you’re deciding today,” Johnson said. “I want to continue to have an open dialogue with residents so the Alabama Music Box problem doesn’t happen.”
Deborah Tillman, a condo owner at the O’Gwynn building, said she has invested in downtown and is concerned about noise.
“It is a good, quiet building,” she said of the O’Gwynn building.
Tillman said she’s also concerned about litter and parking being a problem.
Johnson said she wouldn’t focus on hosting ticketed concerts, to alleviate concerns from those opposed that the venue would have lines of people waiting outside. She said the space would be mainly for private parties.
In a separate application, the Commission voted to hold over until Thursday, Sept. 3 a decision on a similar request for a concert venue at 401 Dauphin St. The owner and applicant of the proposed venue is requesting approval for an occupancy of more than 900, according to the staff report. That area of Dauphin Street is also subject to form-based code, meaning any occupancy over 100 is subject to Planning Commission approval. A similar request made by the same applicant for the same building was denied by the Planning Commission last year.
The building is also within a three-block gap in the Downtown Entertainment District, which was the focus of those in opposition to the application.
Joseph Black, who spoke on behalf of residents of the Mattress Factory Lofts downtown, said they were “strongly opposed” to the increase in occupancy over the negative impact to their “quality of life.”
Black told commissioners the building was not in the entertainment district and its approval would “send a strong message” there’s no enforcement of zoning anywhere. He called the increase from 100 occupancy to nearly 1,000 an “order of magnitude” change in occupancy.
Wanda Cochran, who lives and works downtown and spoke on both occupancy requests, told commissioners it’s important to look at the “nature of the decision-making process.” She told them the city’s noise ordinance was not being properly enforced now and there’s no proof noise abatement precautions would be effective for the building as proposed.
Real estate broker Jean Lankford said the increase in occupancy for the venue would create “stress” on residents and business owners downtown.
Lankford also told commissioners that the building’s owner and applicant, attorney Buzz Jordan and Tom Townsend respectively, owned the building for 19 years and she had never seen it up for lease or sale. She said she doesn’t think they’ve tried very hard to market it as anything but an entertainment venue.
Lankford said she would suggest marketing it as a multi-use space with retail on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.
In a phone interview following the meeting, Jordan said that he has only owned the building for eight or nine years and even had it listed for a short time. He added that Townsend has only been involved in the last six months or so.
Property tax and probate court records actually indicate Jordan acquired at least half of the deed to the building in March 1996, but was granted the full deed in July 2004.
He said his proposal was to allow Huka Entertainment to use the vacant building as a concert venue to market national acts. Jordan compared the proposed venue to the “House of Blues” in New Orleans.
The holdover was recommended by planning staff.
Oakleigh’s Russell School
Also on Thursday, the Planning Commission approved a number of applications to allow developers to turn the old Russell School buildings at 304 S. Broad St. and 903 Augusta St. into apartments.
Taylor Atchison said plans would transform classrooms into 27 to 30 one-bedroom and two-bedroom rental units in the school, which was built in 1915. The main building would become 24 one-bedroom apartments, while a secondary building on Augusta Street would either be used for four one-bedroom units, or two two-bedroom units.
Atchison said the renovation is only possible with the help of the state’s historic building tax credit.
As a unique feature in the plans, Atchison said the old chalkboards would be incorporated into the apartment’s design.
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.
Updated to correct Johnson’s connection to the project and clarify her comments.