12/6/2007 5:00:00 AM
Alderman walks out on high-rise vote
By ANDREW UJIFUSA
Assistant Managing Editor
The high-rise at Renaissance was almost undone over a dispute about the height of its parking garage, but it survived after the unexpected departure of a city alderman and should begin construction in two weeks.
Ward 6 Alderman Linda Davis originally motioned to approve the design of the 13-story building at 200 Renaissance but reject the parking garage.
This move would have killed the entire project, according to Renaissance developer H.C. "Buster" Bailey, because of a lack of adequate parking space.
Following an executive session and a discussion with Bailey, Davis did not offer her motion again. Instead, she left the meeting room, leaving a vote in the hands of Mayor Gene McGee. Her decision counted as a recusal from the vote.
McGee and three other aldermen voted to approve the design of the high-rise and the parking lot. The vote cleared the way for the construction of the 13-story building that is set to house offices for the Butler Snow law firm, the Horne CPA Group, and Regions Bank.
Reached by phone after the meeting, Davis said she felt the design changes to the high-rise were positive and made the building blend in more convincingly with the rest of Renaissance.
But she also said she had not expected the 1,066-space garage to be 67 feet high after seeing drawings earlier. Bailey reported this height to the board on Tuesday after initial reports on Monday that it would be 80 feet high.
"I was hoping there would be some way we could reduce it, maybe go with some underground parking," she said, "but it just became apparent in the executive session that that was not going to be an option."
Davis said she thought the garage, which is directly to the north of the building, should only be four stories tall, within the limitations she thought appropriate for development on Highland Colony Parkway.
Ultimately, however, Davis could not reconcile her feelings about the high-rise and the garage.
"I couldn't in good conscience vote for either side," Davis said, explaining her decision to leave the board room.
She said she suspected McGee might vote in favor of the design once she left, but said she had no prior knowledge about how he would vote.
Asked about people who might criticize her recusal, Davis responded, "I would tell them to please try to withhold judgment until they have walked in my shoes."
She said she received thousands of e-mails about the high-rise and met for more than 80 hours about the building, in addition to receiving dozens of phone calls.
Outside the board room, Bailey said he was pleased by the board's decision.
"Construction will begin in the next week or two," he said.
McGee said he was surprised by Davis' exit but had hoped for a consensus.
"I would like to have seen this one out with a unanimous 7-0 vote," he said.
The basic concept for the high-rise was approved at a six-and-a-half hour public hearing on Oct. 10. Davis was the last alderman to cast a vote, and said it was the hardest decision of her political career before voting to approve the building.
At that hearing, Davis also requested Bailey make design changes to the building to conform to other design elements within Renaissance.
As part of those changes, the high-rise utilized more sand-colored stone and less glass. The angle of the top of the original building design was also flattened.
"It does look better as far as fitting into the whole scheme of things," Bailey said on Monday.
But arguments on Tuesday centered on the parking garage, and whether the earlier approval of the high-rise meant the garage should be approved as well. The structure is over the regular four-story limit permitted for buildings in city ordinances.
At issue is whether the garage was a regular building and thus subject to normal regulations, or a different type of structure that could be considered contiguous to 200 Renaissance.
The garage has open-air ventilation on its east and west side and therefore fell under different rules, according to Community Development Director Alan Hart. Structures with two sides that have at least 50 percent of their area ventilated to outside air are not considered buildings in the regular sense of the term.
"It's not considered an enclosed building," he said. "Our zoning ordinances didn't contemplate parking garages in the first place."
Ward 5 Alderman Scott Jones then motioned to approve the site plan for the high-rise and garage, but it was defeated when aldermen Ken Heard (Ward 1), Kevin Holder (Ward 3), Gerald Steen (at-large) and Davis voted against it.
Davis then offered her motion to accept the building but deny the garage.
Before a vote on her motion was taken, Bailey rose to address the board and said rejecting the parking garage at its present height would eliminate the possibility of the high-rise.
"A vote to kill the parking structure will kill the building," he said.
The board then went into executive session that was closed to the public.
After Davis' departure and the 4-3 vote to approve the plans for both structures, Lawson Hester, a representative of residents who oppose the high-rise, told the board its conduct "arbitrary and capricious."
"I do not think there has been proper consideration of the site plan," he said.
When the parking garage's design was revealed on Monday, Hester said he was prepared to add it to the residents' appeal of the high-rise's construction.
Residents filed an appeal of the aldermen's Oct. 10 vote in Madison County Circuit Court. The appeal stated that approval of the building violated the city's own building ordinances.
Bailey would not comment on his plans to finance the building's construction, given that the building is under appeal and could be struck down by the court.
"I consider that private information," he said.