The yearslong battle over downtown building height continued at Auburn's Planning Commission meeting on Thursday as city residents once again packed the Ross Street meeting room to voice their concerns and support for a proposed increase to the height limit in the College Edge Overlay District.
On Thursday, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the height limit in the district, an area that covers parts of downtown, be increased from 65 feet to 75 feet.
Now, City Council will vote on whether to adopt the amendment at its March 20 meeting.
The history of height in the CEOD is a tumultuous one. Set at 66 feet by City Council in 2007 after a task force recommended the height for mixed-use development in the downtown area, the council raised it to 75 feet after a downtown review process in 2010.
Planning Director Forrest Cotten described the 75-feet limit as a sweet spot that allows for mixed-use development while remaining safe.
In 2016, during the adoption process of the Downtown Master Plan, the council reduced the maximum height to 65 feet, despite a recommendation from a downtown study to remain at 75 feet, after public input.
The issue came to the forefront again at Tuesday's City Council meeting, when residents confronted council members about the transparency of the recent process.
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Although the crowd of residents who spoke on Thursday was relatively split, Cotten said his office had received 17 emails opposing the increase and one email in support of it.
Much of the ongoing debate centers around the height of the planned Whatley building, a project that the council released information about in early November 2017. The building, designed by Auburn alumnus Steve Fleming, could be 75 feet in height, according to the plans.
"I'm not an out-of-state developer; I'm not a greedy developer who's trying to make a quick buck and move on," Fleming told the crowd on Thursday. "I'm trying to develop my home here."
While Fleming said the building, where he plans on living, could be built at 65 feet, 75 feet would allow it to be a "special building" that includes space for him to host events for the city's leading figures.
Opponents to the amendments focused on the small-town Southern charm of downtown Auburn and the risk taller buildings could potentially bring.
“Stick to what you have, you don't owe these developers anything," Keep Auburn Lovely member Susan Hunnicutt told the commission. "If you want a party floor on the top, it doesn’t have to be across the street from the University."
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Keep Auburn Lovely is a group that advocates for maintaining the City of Auburn's village feel – a mission that is mostly anti-high-rise buildings.
Ultimately, the commissioners expressed their approval for the amendment, saying the commission had agreed on the taller height years ago and was not involved with the 65-foot compromise.
"It's very hard to attack an emotional problem with logic," said Commissioner Charles Pick. "And this has seemed to create an emotional response from a lot of our citizenry."
Pick and others in support of the 75-foot cap said that in order for Auburn to keep up with the growth it has experienced over the decades, the limit needed to be increased.
Commissioner Sarah Brown brought along with her a 10-foot-long plank to display the quantifiable potential change that led to a more-than-hour-long public debate.
"I'm a very visual person, so I brought a little show and tell," Brown said pointing to the white plank next to the commission. "That's 10 feet. That's what we've been having a conversation over. When it really comes down to it – it's not a huge, big deal."
Commissioner Dan Bennett said the difference in perception between a 65-foot and 75-foot tall building to a pedestrian was negligible. Though Bennett agreed that many buildings near downtown are "pretty unsightly."
"The real issue is what is that building made of?" Bennett said. "What's the quality of the architecture? ... If (downtown buildings) were quality architecture, you would not mind. I think the height thing has nothing to do with it."
Bennett expressed interest in an architectural review board – a body that would review proposed buildings for that quality of architecture – though Cotten said the legality of such a board in Alabama was unclear.
The long debate came to a close with the unanimous passing of the recommendation. The amendment will move on to City Council, which will have the final say at its March 20 meeting. There will be a public hearing there.
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