During the Committee of the Whole before Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Ward 5 Council member Steven Dixon proposed for the City to honor its graduating high school senior class.
“This is a unique circumstance,” said Mayor Ron Anders. “I believe it would be great for the City to think about if there is an extra way we could support these young men and women who have faced an unusual end to their school here in Auburn.”
Ward 2 Council member Kelley Griswold made a motion to remove a resolution granting a conditional use approval to the Graduate Hotel. He noted the lack of planning for parking. Anders stepped out of the room to remove himself from the conversation, as the land is currently owned by Anders Enterprises.
Ward 3 Council member Beth Witten explained the conditional use approval only serves to approve the appropriate use for the property. Griswold responded by asking to attach a recommendation to the conditional use approval, remanding it to the Planning Commission. The motion did not get a second from a Council member and failed.
During his announcements, Anders reminded citizens to fill out the 2020 census. He noted that he wants to see greater participation in Auburn than in Tuscaloosa.
Anders expects for the Council to meet in its new chambers at the next City Council meeting in two weeks.
Anders also stated May 19 is the one-year anniversary of officer William Buechner’s death. In honor of officer Buechner, he read a proclamation stating that May 19 will be officer Will Buechner Day in Auburn.
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Anders asked the community to be mindful and respectful of the current pandemic situation. He does not want to see a spike in cases in Auburn.
Ward 1 Council member Connie Fitch-Taylor asked for the City’s response to the governor’s orders regarding businesses and social distancing. She also cited seeing groups of people not following current orders.
“The governor and the health department have advised us to be lenient,” said City Manager Jim Buston. “[We should be] the role of educator instead of giving out citations. When we see … someone that’s not adhering to the guidelines, we will advise them on what the governor has asked of us.”
Buston continued in saying the City is primarily acting on complaints. He expects for the governor to further reduce guidelines soon.
Witten congratulated Ward 4 Council member Brett Smith on having his third child on May 18. He was not in attendance at the City Council meeting due to the birth the day prior.
The Council unanimously approved two more applicants for the loan interest subsidy program. Fifteen businesses in total have been approved since April 21.
The Council also unanimously approved a 90-day extension to the student housing moratorium. The original moratorium was set to expire in late May.
The Council approved the LawnGolf USA development at the corner of East University Drive and Dekalb Street. All councilmembers were in favor except for Ward 6 Council member Bob Parsons.
At the beginning of the discussion regarding the Graduate Hotel development, Anders excused himself again, allowing Witten to serve her role as mayor pro tempore.
“We launched Graduate Hotels over five years ago, recognizing that so many great university communities have wonderful traditions and character … but not so much in the way of a place to stay that embodies those qualities,” said Tim Ryan, chief investment officer for Graduate Hotels. “We’re thrilled about the opportunity to join the Auburn community.”
Graduate Hotels currently has 22 hotels across the United States, Ryan said. There are also at least 12 projects in development in the US and in the United Kingdom.
The project in Auburn is expected to cost around $65 million, Ryan said. Between 500 and 600 jobs will be made during construction. Over 70 new jobs are expected after opening.
“We’re not requesting any assistance, no tax incentives, no fee waivers,” Ryan said. “This is indicative of the investment we’re prepared to make.”
Ryan addressed the concerns of parking, saying there will be at least one parking spot per hotel room. There will also be a combination of standard and valet parking.
Collegiate Hotel owner Brian Wirth had concerns for traffic impacts, especially in regard to drop-off and pickup for guests and event attendees. He also raised concerns about potential impacts of on-and offsite parking.
Collegiate Hotel owner Kim Wirth asked the Council to deny delays of the project, instead looking for a detailed parking plan. She also wanted to hear the plan for offsite parking, as parking was a time-consuming issue during the opening of the Collegiate Hotel.
“We’re not opposed to a smart downtown hotel development,” Wirth said. “Good competitors make you better, but we are against this project being built in one of the most congested areas of Auburn without having a plan in place to address onsite parking.”
Over 95% of Auburn hotel guests drive to the hotel, Wirth said. The Collegiate Hotel benefitted from City variances, but she believes variances should benefit both the City and the business.
Auburn architecture graduate Stone Ray stated that the City does not have separate definitions for urban and suburban hotels, meaning that both have the same parking requirements. He also said that Auburn has "egregious" parking requirements for non-commercial uses.
The current Auburn parking code has produced controversial buildings with excess parking, Ray said. He believes that modern cities will move towards less parking in downtown areas.
Parker Lewis, engineer at Hydro Engineering, said a traffic study should be conducted in the fall, as traffic is not currently at its usual levels. The hotel will not use Wright Street for pickup or drop off.
“I’ve worked on probably a dozen projects in the urban core over the years,” Lewis said. “There are always a lot of things that need to be worked out during design. They’re thought of right now, but they’re not fully realized.”
Dixon asked if any previous variance had been granted that amounted to half the required parking spaces. Auburn planning director Forrest Cotten explained that this would be the largest waiver, but most waivers involve hotel properties.
“I’ve got an analysis from the applicant’s engineer, and I’m conducting my own independent research,” Cotten said. “I’m going to take the time to truly get this right. I am well on the way, but [parking] has not been finalized by any means.”
Griswold proposed that the Council postpone the decision for a month. He did not receive a second from a Council member, and his proposal failed.
The hotel would have a required 258 parking spaces, which is being asked to be reduced to 121, Lewis said. The required parking also serves the onsite restaurant and other commercial activities. The Graduate Hotel is prepared to accommodate one parking space for each of the 177 hotel rooms proposed, though 66 would be offsite.
Lewis said the Graduate Hotel would have to find parking leases through private agreements. The City and Auburn University do not have parking available to be leased.
The hotel expects 65–75 full-time jobs, Ryan said. Many employees should be able to walk, bike or ride the bus to work, so they are less of a concern for onsite parking. The hotel cannot plan for parking on gamedays, as the majority of the year does not have that level of need, Ryan said.
Ward 8 Council member Tommy Dawson reemphasized the $65 million investment in the City. He could not recollect an investment of that size without requested tax breaks.
The Council unanimously approved the conditional use for the Graduate Hotel.
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