Property owners in DeTonti Square appear to be the only hurdle to a years-long discussion about adopting a new form-based code in downtown Mobile. At issue is how a proposed code may reduce the number of commercial properties in the historically mixed neighborhood, where professional office buildings currently blend in with adjacent housing and apartments.
During a public hearing at the regular meeting of the Mobile City Council March 11, several property owners spoke out against the implementation of a new Downtown Development District in the neighborhood, which is currently mixed-use. The proposed code, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and is waiting on an endorsement from the City Council, would give DeTonti Square a “T-3” designation, indicating a “low-density residential district.”
The new designation would allow existing businesses to remain, but would prevent new commercial construction and would cause any commercially zoned property to revert to residential use if the owner failed to maintain a business license for a two-year period. The T-3 designation is the lightest density of the proposed code, which escalates to a T-6 “high intensity mixed-use” designation in the heart of downtown.
Scott Ball of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), the project managers and architects of the new form-based code, said the purpose of the new designations was to ensure downtown redevelopment would mimic a “traditional urban pattern,” where travelers headed to the central business district would pass through “transition districts,” where they wouldn’t experience a “shocking threshold to walk across the street and suddenly be in a whole different universe.”
But existing property owners in DeTonti Square largely argued that the current zoning works fine. Bruce Knodel, an architect who acquired the burnt-out shell of a Baroque-style chapel at 257 State Street in 1980 and restored it for use as his office, said if the T-3 code had been in effect then, the building would have been demolished.
“I’m of the opinion it’s one of the most wonderful Baroque facades in the city,” he said. “But it wasn’t built for residential use. I’m asking to [the City Council] to leave DeTonti Square zoning as it is. If it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
Melissa Rankin, who along with her husband Clay bought and restored a home on Joachim Street in 2009, said she wasn’t against the new code, but also didn’t feel like the old code is detrimental to the neighborhood. While she said she “loves” the mixed use of the area, she also didn’t want to see any more residential properties converted to commercial use.
“Some people are trying to sell commercial property and don’t have a vested interest in the growth of the square,” she said. “I want to see people eating breakfast in those kitchen and not those kitchens converted to Xerox rooms and break rooms.”
Elizabeth Sanders of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, who has been advocating for the new code for the better part of two years, told the council the new code was primarily intended to guide new construction downtown.
“The next 10-20 years is all about new construction downtown,” she said. “It’s all of our mission to encourage the rebuilding and create the walkable downtown that encourages people to be out on the streets.”
Sanders said it wasn’t her intention to drive businesses out of DeTonti Square and encouraged property owners to look at the mixed-use Church Street East neighborhood, where property values have increased as both commercial and residential buildings have been restored.
“It’s remarkable we’ve worked on the entire downtown and have come to this one issue of six blocks,” she said. “It’s an important decision we’ve tried to walk down the middle of.”
The new code’s adoption was originally on the Council’s March 11 agenda but was postponed for two weeks to accommodate the absence of Councilmen Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie, who were attending the League of Cities conference in Washington D.C. To read the code and view a map of the proposed zoning, visit the Downtown Mobile Alliance.