Photo |City of Fairhope
Owner Matt Bowers said his proposed boutique hotel on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street won’t exceed height restrictions for downtown Fairhope. Instead, he is seeking a variance on interior ceiling heights.
The new owner of a parcel of land fronting “Fairhope’s most important intersection” wants to be clear about what he’s asking of the Zoning Board of Adjustments and Appeals.
“It’s not a height variance,” Matt Bowers emphasized last month, speaking about a four-story boutique hotel he hopes to build at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street in the heart of downtown. “I’m not asking the city to allow me to build taller than what is already down there.”
Instead, he said, his application to allow the building to have four stories instead of three — within a maximum height of 40 feet — is simply asking for the hotel to feature common 9-foot instead of 14-foot ceilings.
“The [existing] ordinances make perfect sense,” he said. “But most uses downtown are retail with residential upstairs. This is not residential, it’s a lodging hotel use. I’d ask everyone to look at other hotels — The Grand Hotel, the Hampton Inn — do they have 9-foot or 14-foot ceilings? I’m just thinking of a more commonly used ceiling height.”
Bowers is a 44-year-old married father of two and native of New Orleans. The president and co-founder of Southern United Auto Group, he has five dealerships in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. Bowers has a family history of visiting Fairhope and after he purchased the former Chris Myers Nissan in Daphne last year along with his business partner, Franklin McLarty, they began looking for an opportunity to develop real estate in Fairhope.
“We have a company in New Orleans called Town North Custom Homes, where we build custom houses in older, established neighborhoods,” he said. “We’ve done some revitalization-type stuff there and in Tennessee … [McLarty] came out of the hotel and hospitality industry.”
Bowers said when he was a kid his mother used to drive the family to Fairhope and, while they “weren’t raised with a lot of money,” Fairhope “presented a lot of things that were good — it was quaint and there wasn’t much crime.”
When searching for an investment opportunity, he simply sought out what he thought was the best piece of property — a reverse L-shaped parcel in Fairhope’s core, anchored by its landmark clock. Owned for more than 20 years by Lydia Myers, Bowers introduced himself and started an ongoing conversation.
“I knocked on the door of the restaurant and it was owned by the same lady for quite some time, and we began a friendship. She talked to me on what she wanted to do and all the people that wanted to buy it from her.”
In fact, representatives of the city approached Myers in 2008 about purchasing the property for a reported price of $500,000, but the City Council went into executive session and later voted against the expenditure, citing a lack of money.
Bowers said he and Myers had a similar vision for the corner, and last November, Myers agreed to sell the property. Tax records indicated the deed was exchanged for $1.3 million.
“I’ve done other real estate projects, ranging from mixed-use to retail car dealerships, houses, subdivisions … that’s my interest and my interests are diverse,” Bowers said. “I want to do something nice … I’m keenly aware how important the location is. I think not many people understand it was privately owned and I think it’s a great use on a property that’s going to get developed one way or another.”
Bowers assured he would preserve the clock and noted he believes the proposed hotel, while designs are not finalized, would complement the aesthetic of the rest of downtown. Bowers said while the city allows balconies, the hotel was designed without them to permit a more open sidewalk and pedestrian access.
“Downtown Fairhope is a collage of buildings built over many periods of time,” Bowers said. “The renderings are renderings and are fluid … but I thought they looked pretty good. There are probably five iterations in different colors and styles.”
On Dec. 17, the Zoning Board approved Bowers’ application to use the property as a hotel, but a separate variance to exceed the city’s three-story height limit was held over until its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 24.
In addition to the nine- to 12-room boutique hotel on the upper three floors, Bowers said he would find an appropriate retail tenant for the ground floor and attempt to employ local contractors, employees and a concierge service throughout the building’s construction and operation.
“I’m a human being, so I read some of the comments that are written and it’s interesting there are a lot of people that really support the use … but there also has been some criticism,” he said. “But I’m open to ideas.”