The ways things get done around Tuscaloosa’s City Hall aren’t too hard to fathom. Unfortunately many ordinary citizens who might actually think that their voices count don’t understand that only the voices of the right people really count.
Just who the “right people” are depends on many things.
Well organized neighborhood groups have repeatedly stopped a development that they thought would be injurious to their property values and quality of life. As Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News, the Tuscaloosa City Council recently voted on “a rezoning decision that could allow the construction of an apartment complex on a 17.07-acre tract off Hargrove Road.” Morton further reported that the council would face “another round of opposition from nearby neighbors and residents who maintain that an apartment complex of this size will hinder public safety, add traffic to an already burdened road and infringe upon their overall quality of life.” The Council voted the complex down, in keeping with an earlier Planning and Zoning Commission vote.
Morton wrote that at the Planning and Zoning Commission all but one of the “commission members voted in line with the recommendations put forth by the mayor’s Student Rental Housing Task Force in November. Those recommendations, adopted by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council, urge both panels to deny or refuse to consider any rezoning requests that would allow the development of an apartment complex of more than 200 bedrooms.”
Many of the neighbors who lived in another part of town were blindsided by the rapid approval of The Collegiate however. In an article about the City Council’s vote on zoning amendments that would limit student housing Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News:
The only proposed development currently in the city’s approval pipeline that stood to be affected by the changes was able to escape their limitations on Thursday.
Trinitas Ventures LLC, a development company out of Lafayette, Ind., is planning to construct a $26 million, apartment-only complex of 677 bedrooms in configurations of one, two, three and four bedrooms on 13th Street just east of the 1,226-bedroom Lofts at City Center on the former site of the Wood Square shopping center. The development is to be called the Collegiate.
Bryan Winter, the Tuscaloosa attorney representing Trinitas Ventures, said it would be a quality location for new residents, while its construction would bring jobs to the community.
“Trinitas and The Collegiate are truly excited to be a part of the Tuscaloosa’s championship community,” Winter said. “Trinitas especially appreciates the diligence and professionalism of the Tuscaloosa city staff throughout this process.”
Without any legal authority to refuse issuance of the permits — the development met the current rules pertaining to these types of projects — John McConnell, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services, said a building permit was reviewed, approved and issued.
The permit required the approval of the Office of the City Engineer for the associated land development permit, which City Engineer David Griffin also issued on Thursday.
Because these permits were approved prior to the zoning amendments becoming law, Trinitas Venture’s project — as long as it is completed and occupied by September 2015 — will be allowed to remain and operate as a grandfathered, non-conforming structure.
The developers for The Collegiate had not even bought the property for this project and applied for any kind of permit when the Student Housing Task Force was meeting. At the time the project was considered by many on the City’s planning staff to be dead in the water.
But the counsel for Trinitas Ventures Bryan Winter virtually camped out in City Hall for a couple of weeks and was the project’s midwife. Every time the project’s application process hit a snag he was there to work it out. He just about single-handedly birthed The Collegiate. Winter, as well as other local people involved, may have gotten a significant bonus for pulling all the strings necessary to have the project “grandfathered” in. The normal Tuesday meeting for the City Council had been delayed by foul weather. Last-minute procedures to grease the wheels for The Collegiate were going on right up to the time of the rescheduled Council meeting on the following Thursday.
Many of the people who lived in neighborhoods located in the vicinity of The Collegiate read about the student housing project for the first time in Friday’s newspaper. It is true that they had had no neighborhood organization or connection to a group such as Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together. But even people who were supposed to be “in the know” were probably surprised too.
One of Winter’s other projects had been the Hilton extended stay motel “Home2 Suites” that will be built on a city block where many buildings of historical value once stood. In his presentation to the Planning and Zoning Commission he repeatedly claimed that the motel was really a “hotel.” The location of an extended stay motel had been prohibited in the Downtown Riverfront Overlay District. The property it was to be located on was finally rezoned.
Winter is on the Board of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. The Tuscaloosa City Council recently unanimously approved renewal of a $175,000 contract with the chamber to manage its economic development activities. A new building to house the chamber’s EDGE “business incubator” is being built, partly with disaster relief funds, by the city.
In T-Town certain powerful individuals and sometimes even large groups of ordinary folk determine how it’s done.