By Sam Prickett
The Homewood City Council spent three hours during its Monday night meeting fielding questions and concerns from residents over proposed changes to the city’s zoning ordinance.
Though the council rebuffed requests to postpone a vote on the changes until the new year, councilors assured residents that their complaints had been heard and that they were going to “get this right.” The issue is set to be considered during the council’s Dec. 16 meeting.
The proposed changes to the city’s zoning code would change the number of categories of commercial zoning from 13 to three: low-, medium- and high-density. The high-density area would allow for buildings to be up to five stories tall; the medium-density area would limit buildings’ height to two stories.
The plan has drawn criticism from residents. One online petition asking for the rezoning to be stopped had gathered more than 2,200 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Many residents argued the changes would not allow enough room for parking; others argued that the downtown area’s character would suffer as a result of the changes, which would allow for mixed-use developments.
At the beginning of Monday night’s meeting, Council President Peter Wright said the changes actually were meant to do the opposite, saying they would guard downtown Homewood against “development risks.”
“This is about protection and preservation,” Wright said. “We don’t want something different. We want to keep what we have, and who wouldn’t? It is a jewel! … Development is probably going to come here, just from a pure standpoint of capitalism, and we want to be in a position that we don’t have 13 zoning districts that will expose us to problems from developers coming in and making our town be something we don’t want it to be.”
Wright’s comments drew audible scoffs from the crowd, which grew steadily more frustrated and unruly throughout the meeting.
Some said the changes to the zoning code – particularly those requiring storefronts to have a certain percentage of “glazing,” or glass, in their facades – would render many existing buildings legally nonconformant with the ordinance.
“I don’t think that’s protecting what we’ve got,” one attendee told the council.
Susan Henderson of PlaceMakers, the national urban design company contracted to work on the zoning ordinance, said that the proposed ordinance had been changed to include the language that owners “can do modifications to a nonconforming building as long as it brings it closer to compliance with the code.”
But many business owners present argued that their primary concerns with the proposed changes centered on parking. As proposed, developments would be required to provide one parking spot per residential unit and two parking spaces for 3,000 square feet of retail space.
Jennifer Mims, co-owner of Real & Rosemary and Caveat Coffee, told councilors that parking was the “biggest threat” to her businesses, not the downtown area’s character or charm.
“If customers can’t get to our buildings, it doesn’t matter how charming they are,” she said. “Years down the road, it may be true that families can use ridesharing and public transportation, (but) today, when our rent is due next month, that’s not a practical option for families that dine with us,” she said.
“Parking is a necessity, and I don’t believe that parking that is proposed in the plan today is adequate for customers’ use. I don’t know how you can consider a rezoning plan without comprehensively including parking.”
Her opinion was echoed by Salon U owner Issam Bajalia.
“It’s clear to me that we’re not all on the same page, and before we move forward, we need to get on the same page,” he said. “I think (parking) needs to be our focus, and once we’ve achieved that, we can move on to other things.”
No Delay Despite the Christmas Rush
Many business owners present at the meeting also argued that while notices of the proposed rezoning had been sent to property owners, it had not been sent to business owners, leaving many of them blindsided. When councilors tried to argue that they had reached out to the community, members of the crowd began shouting that this was not true.
Some business owners argued that, because of this perceived lack of communication, a final vote on the ordinance should be delayed until January, after the hectic holiday retail season had subsided and business owners would be able to engage with the issue more fully. Despite multiple direct requests to do so, Wright demurred, instead reiterating that the item would come before the council on Dec. 16.
“Why would you not postpone this vote until after the first of the year?” asked one meeting attendee. “What, is the contract running out with (PlaceMakers)?”
Several councilors on the daïs shared a look and simultaneously answered “Yes.”