Recent Mobile Planning Commission decisions related to building occupancies in a downtown district have some questioning the procedure. Since May 2014, when the zoning ordinance was amended to create the Downtown Development District, two buildings asking for an occupancy exceeding 100 have been approved while two others have been denied.

The City Council has already denied an appeal of a decision related to a concert venue called The Merry Widow, located on the corner of Conception and Conti streets. Ryan Johnson had asked the Planning Commission to increase the occupancy from 100 to 150.

At the appeal hearing several residents of the O’Gwynn building were at the meeting in opposition. Developer Todd Drummond complained to councilors about noise, parking and the surrounding neighborhood, which he said was not an appropriate place for a concert venue.

Buzz Jordan, an attorney representing the building lessee Ryan Johnson, of Jingle Jangle LLC, said they’d take councilors’ advice from the meeting and operate for six months and if it goes well, come back before the board at that time.

Jordan is also the owner of 401 Dauphin St., which has faced similar denials from the Planning Commission in the past. He and Tom Townsend have previously asked the board to increase the occupancy of that building to 900 for a venue he said would be similar to the House of Blues in New Orleans. Jordan said an appeal of that decision has been filed and would come before the CIty Council in the next few weeks.

At Planning Commission meetings where hearings were held on Jordan’s building, several residents of the Mattress Factory Lofts across the street complained about the potential noise and nuisance levels. Many also complained because the building is so close to the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and senior apartments on Conti Street.

Of the two venues for which the Planning Commission approved occupancy increases, one is an event space called the Ann Marie Cottage at 453 and 457 Conti St. The occupancy was increased to 120 total for two buildings. Owner Stephen Carter said the space could be rented for weddings, baby showers and other private parties.

Carter said they promised neighbors they’d adhere to the city’s noise ordinance and wouldn’t be open past about 10:30 p.m., even though many of the functions could be held on the buildings’ grounds.

“We have a noise ordinance and there’s a certain level you must maintain,” Carter said. “We promised we wouldn’t go past that. We have to abide by that.”

Carter said he hasn’t received any complaints from concerned neighbors.
The second increase approved was for a restaurant at 455 Dauphin St., Planner Bert Hoffman said.

Joel Daves, who is currently the council representative to the Planning Commission, said every application has a different set of factors and therefore it’s hard to compare one to another. He said factors such as proximity to residential areas, adaptability of space for the proposed purpose and the occupancy increase requested are some of the factors reviewed before the commission makes a decision.

“There is a multitude of different things,” he said. “You can’t isolate issues.”

Further, he said neither the Planning Commission nor the Council are against music venues, but the proposal “has to be accomplished within the framework we have established.”

Carol Hunter, spokeswoman for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the biggest differences between the two approved and the two denied applications is the former had neighborhood approval. She said the Alliance is not against music halls.

“The Downtown Development District was created with those in mind,” she said. “We need to plan where they fit in with future development.”

For instance, she said music venues are allowed by right along Royal and St. Louis streets. St. Louis Street, she said, was on the verge of seeing major redevelopment. With projects taking place at the old Buick building and the Threaded Fasteners building being purchased by an engineering firm, Hunter said St. Louis street is “changing before our eyes” and would be the perfect location for a future music venue.

Commissioner Don Hembree said he remembers the two applications the board denied. With the building at 401 Dauphin St., he said he thought it would be a good business, but was concerned about the strong opposition and its proximity to the cathedral.

“I would love to see something like that downtown, but maybe somewhere else,” he said, mentioning Broad or St. Louis streets. “There’s still a lot of sour milk over the Alabama Music Box.”

As for The Merry Widow, Hembree said he believed there would be a plumbing issue, because of the limited number of restrooms, if 150 visitors were allowed in at one time. Jordan said the plumbing in the building shouldn’t be an issue because the city signed off on the plans. In addition, planning staff recommended the occupancy increase for approval.

As for other concerns, Jordan said The Merry Widow would hire off-duty police officers for security and the level of noise from amplified music would not change, whether there are 100 or 150 visitors at the establishment.

“I don’t understand it at all,” Jordan said.

Like Daves, he said applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.