The continuing saga of what will happen to the white Hunter House restaurant property near Maple and Woodward in downtown Birmingham has made its way to the city commission.
And the commission has questions.
A developer wanting to to construct a multi-story mixed-use development, a project that’s been in the works for several years on that land, needs some city-owned property at the northwest corner of the intersection to make it happen. City officials drafted a 50-year lease agreement for the property, which came before the city commission at its May 23 meeting.
“In any case, we went back and forth for a very long period of time to determine the fair market value of this piece of property. We used an assessor that we chose who came back with a value,” said Mary Kucharek, a city attorney. “The lease before you is a good lease that protects the city, and I’m happy to answer any questions.”
But like throughout the proposed project — which would demolish the white hamburger restaurant building — several city commissioners raised issues with the level of detail in the plans.
Commissioner Clinton Baller said he had several concerns over the lease, including the lack of detail on the exact property that is to be leased, as well as the impact of leasing such a prominent piece of city-owned property.
He said the city commission can and should take a more scrutinizing look at the agreement, especially since they have the ability to. That’s a different standard than what the planning board has when it comes to first reviewing projects.
“From a substantive stance, I think it’s very important for this commission to understand that while the planning board must approve a project based on whether it complies with our ordinances and they’re allowed very little wiggle room, the commission, in deciding on the use or lease of public property for a private development, has discretion that the planning board lacks,” he said. “We should be convinced that the public benefit is there and we should not fail to exercise our discretion.”
More debate on project’s merits
The proposed project, which has been in the works for years, calls for a five-story mixed-use building constructed on the corner of Woodward and Maple. It would consist of residential and commercial spaces, and would most likely include a space that could house the slider restaurant currently on site. The iconic white building that Hunter House currently occupies would be removed as a part of the plan.
The commission opted to not take any action on the lease, deciding it would take the item up at a future meeting after gathering more information.
The project continues to receive scorn from Kelly Cobb, owner of Hunter House. He told the city commission he was appreciative of the cautious approach they appeared to take toward the lease. That was because he expects the project to end up in litigation if it moves forward due to leasing rights he said Hunter House has on the site.
Cobb said the project has to be something that is a success for the city, Hunter House and developer Hesham Gayar.
“I would say that this is going to go back to the drawing board regardless of whether this body votes yes or no because this building is heading to a courtroom and not construction,” he said. “Any proposal that is not a win-win-win for the three of us is a failed idea that will never happen there.”
Robert Weisberg, a lawyer representing Gayar, said the claims Cobb mentioned should have no bearing on the land lease, calling that a separate issue.
“Mr. Cobb is not a land owner here. Mr. Cobb has no real real estate interest, land interest in connection with this property,” he said. “He may have some contractual claims that he may want to avail himself of — that’s an issue that I don’t think the city is a party to.”