The Fairhope Planning Commission unanimously approved a site plan for a three-story, nine-room boutique hotel at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street Monday night, the latest hurdle cleared since the site received a use variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustments in December.
Since that move, developer Matt Bowers has reduced the scale of the building from four stories, but has incorporated a rooftop terrace to the design. The first floor includes a 1,500 square-foot retail space, while the second floor will have four rooms and the third floor will have five.
The elevator and stair shafts will reach the city’s maximum allowable height of 40 feet, eight feet above the roof deck.
As assured in previous meetings, the city’s landmark clock will be preserved in the space it currently occupies.
“I’m very aware of how important this site is and my hope is to do a fantastic project that any future buildings can be measured against in every measure of quality you can imagine, with an enduring use that will last for many, many years to come,” Bowers told the Commission.
Interim Planning Director J. Buford King recommended approval with conditions regarding utilities access, site preparation, and a routine request for construction documents when applying for a certificate of occupancy.
The scale of the project did not cross the threshold to trigger a traffic study and there are no on-site parking requirements because they are non-dwelling units. The Fairhope City Council must also approve the development.
Bowers said he has contingency plans for the property if market conditions in Fairhope should ever change, but his commitment at this point is to feature a very “limited service hotel” with self-parking in the municipal garage across Section Street and all bookings and check-ins done online.
“It’s a personless hotel,” architect Clay Adams said.
This will be the third corner on the intersection Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects has put its thumbprint on. The Fairhope-based firm also restored the Fairhope Pharmacy and McKean Building on the south side of Fairhope Avenue and have designed a total of 34 buildings in the downtown area.
Adams called this particular project a “special site,” saying it “is probably the most photographed area of town besides the bay and pier.”
Planning Commission Chairman Lee Turner said it was a “beautiful design” and commended the architect for a “great job.”
Commissioner Hollie MacKellar, a realtor, said she was excited to see the rooftop terrace.
“I have many people that have been asking me about it for a long time so I think that’s something Fairhope will really enjoy.”
But there were some concerns expressed during the meeting.
City Councilman Robert Brown, co-owner of Pitman Brown Building Company, asked Bowers about the possibility of swapping the city’s small pocket park behind the building for the same amount of space around the clock, which would reorient the L-shaped building similar to a three-dimensional game of Tetris.
“To me, this design says this little courtyard is more like an entry courtyard for the hotel, and not a city courtyard,” Brown said. “So the public use for that spot, I think, will be diminished. Where if it’s flopped to the corner …”
Bowers disagreed, noting the city had an opportunity years ago to purchase the corner or make that swap with the previous owner, but the time has passed.
Still, he said he was “open, easy and flexible” to any ideas that “would make that work.”
Commissioner Rebecca Bryant, co-founder of architecture and building consulting firm Watershed, said she appreciates the hotel’s proposed design there may be a solution with the way the city improves the courtyard.
“It makes a nicer courtyard when you’re bound … but I’ve had the same concern that it doesn’t feel like it’s a public courtyard,” she said. “And maybe if the city is going to improve that courtyard there is some way it [can be] more city-branded or more obviously public … you don’t want it to feel like people aren’t welcome.”
Bowers, owner of Matt Bowers Nissan in Daphne and developer of other residential and mixed-use projects around the Southeast, noted he has never sold any of his investments. He also addressed concerns he may alter the use of the building after its completion.
“When I approach a project I have institutional, investment-grade feasibility studies and reports done.” In this case, he said, “it’s not good, it’s excellent. There are few different other uses down the road that could be used for that building if at some point staying downtown in a city like Fairhope becomes out of vogue … But the Hampton (Inn) and the Grand (Hotel) do very well and stay very full so I think I feel OK about this one.”
The Commission opened the floor for public comment but no one spoke. Fine print in the site plan acknowledges full construction plans have yet to be submitted, but the site will require a 20-foot wide access roadway to comply with fire prevention codes. There is a waiver for the standard 8-foot sidewalk width along Fairhope Avenue, where the sidewalk will be 7-feet wide. It will remain 8-feet wide along Section Street.
The applicant emphasized it will be built by a local contractor with an off-site staging area and the site plan suggests it “may need to be built at night” in order to ease potential burdens on traffic and sidewalk access.
The guest rooms, which will range in size from 350 to 800 square-feet, may be decorated with themes including local artists, writers, history and the environment.
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