On Tuesday the Birmingham City Council approved a $3.7 million bid by Chilton Contractors to build the site infrastructure for future Crossplex retail developments.
Five Points West residents and other organizations have been vocal in their opposition to the tenants proposed to occupy the space adjacent to the $46 million athletic facility. Chief among their concerns is the Comfort Inn and Suites, a two-star hotel that would not offer a restaurant or bar accommodations; the other proposed retailers are Starbucks and a Walgreens.
In a press release sent out by the Jefferson County Millennial Democrats after the council passed the item, the organization’s president, Le’Darius Hilliard, called the move “blatant political pandering” during an election year in an area that has been “ignored for 40 years” by local government officials.
“We may have lost the battle today, but the war is not over,” Hilliard said. “Jefferson County Millennial Democrats will continue to fight for the West Side to receive the same treatment, care and consideration that is given to developments in downtown and other parts of the city. Today, the Council awarded $3.7 million of our taxpayer dollars to a white-owned contracting firm for development in a 99-percent black neighborhood, and they did so using a casual slip to the Consent Agenda, preventing a roll call vote on this item and shutting down debate.”
Hilliard took issue with the fact the item was not marked for a public hearing. The item had repeatedly been referred back to the economic development committee after first appearing on the agenda on November 1. However, Tuesday’s vote does not guarantee the tenants that were proposed will in fact occupy spaces in the development, according to Council President Johnathan Austin, who has been opposed to the approval of the Comfort Inn and Suites.
“The issue is far from being resolved,” Austin said after the meeting. “What the council approved today was for the infrastructure of the site. That’s all it approves. The issue of who occupies those spaces is still before the council and has to go through the economic development committee.”
In order for approval to be granted to future tenants, the council must determine the particulars of tax incentives and rebates for proposed retailers and hotel accommodations. As it pertains to the council’s role in deciding what businesses will occupy the development, Austin said they have been getting “piecemealed” by Mayor William Bell’s office.
“We’re only getting small bits of information at a time. Obviously the mayor is not concerned with the substandard tenants a two-star anchor hotel would attract. I’m going to continue to push for the mayor to demand better for the western side of Birmingham.”
“No matter how good and positive a project is, there will always be naysayers,” Bell said of the proposed project. “We certainly do not want Councilor Austin to be unhappy, but sometimes it is difficult to see the big picture. In addition to neighborhood and community input, we asked the high school athletics association and NCAA for input on how much their student athletes can spend. The Comfort Inn and Suites is a great match for the athletes, their families and visitors who will come to the CrossPlex to compete.”
Bell pointed to the fact that there are no five-star hotels in Birmingham. “The hotels around UAB and even the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa are of identical quality. When you tie the hotel in with Starbucks, a Starbucks training facility for future employees, and the five new restaurants to be announced soon that will be included on the property in Phase One, we think the development will be a great asset for Birmingham, especially for our western neighborhoods,” Bell said.
He did not indicate what restaurants would be included, but rather that he hopes that any “critics or naysayers” will be won over when they see this development take shape. “At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our citizens,” Bell said. “That is our common goal and that drives every decision we make.”
On December 7, Bob Nesbitt, the proprietor of Chilton Contractors and owner of a 99-year lease on the retail property near the CrossPlex, met with concerned residents at the Applebee’s across from the future development. Emma Tolbert, who lives just up the road, said she did not leave the meeting encouraged for the possibility of having local business owners occupy the retail space. After their conversation, Tolbert said she’s unsure if Nesbitt needs further approval from the council to determine which businesses can operate on his property.
“When we met with Bob [Nesbitt] and his attorney last week we asked them if it was a done deal once the infrastructure funding is secured,” Tolbert said on Tuesday. “We felt like our only bargaining chip was holding up the approval until they included better options for the community in this development in terms of having local tenants. [Nesbitt] said he did not have to go back to the council after the infrastructure was approved.”
Randall Minor, the attorney representing Nesbitt, did not return calls seeking clarification. Tolbert said she left the meeting feeling as though the developers were “going to do it their way whether [residents] like it or not.”
“Obviously the council didn’t have any debate or discussion about this in the meeting today,” she said. “They passed it without a word. But what we were told is that the developer has to go back to the council for tax incentives to actually build the buildings. I guess that remains to be seen.”
Despite divergent opinions on what Five Points West needs, Tolbert said she finds satisfaction in knowing a debate has been started about how to revitalize the long-neglected borough.
“We understand that [Nesbitt] is a business owner and a private developer,” Tolbert said. “Quite frankly, it might be a little unfair that he’s saddled with the burden of redeveloping Ensley because that is a huge responsibility for a single business owner. But you’ve been given the keys to this project and we intend to hold them accountable.”
Austin said it is still unclear when approval for the proposed tenants will come before the economic development committee. But he said he expects that to happen before any retailers are finalized.