Zoning regulations in one of Mobile’s oldest neighborhoods might stymie attempts for a new hotel development.
Gavin Bender Sr., of Bender Realty, said his company has a contract with Image Hotels for a six-story, 140-room hotel at 166 South Royal St. — the former Rousso’s restaurant in Fort Conde Village — but only if the project can get two different variances next month from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. The original application, which went straight to the board of adjustment, will be considered Monday, July 6 at 2 p.m.
Bender said the applicants could not make the June meeting and the issue was held over.
At issue is both the use and height of the planned building. Planner Richard Olsen said current zoning doesn’t allow for a building on the site of more than three stories, or for a hotel at all. The T5.1 zone within the Downtown Development District allows for an inn, or bed and breakfast, of less than 20 rooms.
The Fort Conde Inn, immediately behind the subject property, is a “boutique hotel” with 13 rooms and two private cottages.
“The main reason it was classified T5.1 was to help maintain the scale of development within Fort Conde Village,” Olsen said.
The T5 zoning district, which is meant to support mixed-use development of medium density, is split up into two sub-districts, according to information on the city’s planning website. A hotel project of this size would be allowed in a T5.2 sub-district, although the applicant would still need to seek a variance for the building height, even in a T5.2 sub-district.
The building on the site was a restaurant at one time and more recently had been under consideration by John Serda for a brewery. Under the current plan the building on the site now would be torn down, Bender said.
Although the Fort Conde Inn is around the corner, Bender said the market is strong enough for a second hotel in the neighborhood. Additionally, he said Image Hotels has experience building with respect to historical personality in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, and would do a good job blending the building in among its neighbors.
“It’s going to be a nice, boutique-style hotel,” he said. “It’ll keep the integrity of the historic district.”
He said plans for the hotel were spurred by a future Alabama Department of Transportation project to remove ramps to Interstate 10, which blocked much of the area’s visibility of the Mobile River. Bender argues that when new zoning regulations were put into place, the ALDOT project was unknown.
“It opens up this part of the city,” Bender said. “Fort Conde Village will become much more visible and accessible.”
Local ALDOT spokeswoman Katie Hamlett said the project to remove the ramps and “bring everything down to grade” is slated to begin in 2017. However, there is currently no funding available for the project.
Hamlett said the project could be funded and completed along with a nearly $1-billion bridge project designed to divert Interstate traffic away from the Wallace Tunnel.
Larry Posner, a Fort Conde Village developer and owner of the Fort Conde Inn, said he supports the new hotel project and doesn’t mind the six-story height.
“For a downtown area of the city, six stories doesn’t seem that extreme,” he said. “If I were building a hotel I’d want it to be six stories in order to let people see the water.”
Posner said he’s not too worried about the building’s height fitting in with its surroundings because of where it is on South Royal Street. If it were proposed for a different area in the village, he said, he’d feel differently.
“If it were right smack on St. Emmanuel Street it wouldn’t fit, but it’s not,” he said. “I hope the building is tailored to the area.”
Posner said he sent a letter of support for the project to the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Olsen said staff members recommended the project for denial because there was no hardship, which is needed when requesting a variance.
Listed among staff concerns in the report given to the board were comments from the city’s traffic engineering department regarding the dimensions of parking spaces.
“As currently arranged with the privacy fence along the eastern property line, there is little to no room for vehicles to overhang the curb, which could reduce the aisle width and negatively impact egress from this site,” the comments read.
To alleviate parking concerns, the applicant — listed as Stephen Overcash — wrote in the report that additional parking spaces would be located across Royal Street.
In the staff report, Overcash also wrote the hotel would create a strong edge along both Royal and Theatre streets, while respecting the form-based code in the area. Overcash also wrote the project would include public spaces along both streets to include outdoor seating and dining areas.
Overcash states in the report that a variance should be granted for this project because it would fill a vacant lot, but staff indicated a vacant building alone does not constitute a hardship.
Olsen also said the Downtown Development District’s Consolidated Review Committee, which is made up of representatives of the city’s planning department, historic development department, architectural engineering department and three mayoral appointees, recommended the application for denial.v