The first major change to the Civic Center site in decades will finally take place after years of debate over what should happen to the area.
On Tuesday, the Mobile City Council approved a 100-year ground lease on a piece of the 22-acre site that allows a private developer to construct a new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building there. The lease was approved on a 5-1 vote, with one abstention. District 4 Councilman Ben Reynolds voted against it and District 6 Councilman Scott Jones abstained.
The developer will pay the city $1 per month for the first 10 years of the lease and then $100,000 per year for the next 10 years after that. In year 20 of the lease, the developer will pay a monthly fee based on the market rate.
Reynolds’ main concern with moving forward on the ground lease was the 12 outstanding variances the project’s developer was asking for to make the building work in that location. Specifically, Reynolds wanted the council to delay the vote until early next month to see if the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) would approve the variances. An attempt to hold the vote over until Tuesday, Feb. 7, failed by a 5-2 vote.
“It doesn’t appear there’s support for this,” Reynolds said, right after the holdover vote. “I think it’s a mistake and unfortunately I can’t support it.”
Among the 11 variances the developers would be asking the BZA for, Reynolds’ biggest issue came from a proposed, federally mandated 50-foot setback. The city-allowed setback in the area from the curb to the front of the building is set at five feet, he said.
Jones joined Reynolds in voting for the delay; however, he supports the project.
“Those are so minor,” he said of the variances. “They’re not going to be an issue. I still would’ve liked to see the council delay this.”
While Reynolds argued the variances impact the zoning of the area, which was just approved for zoning late last year, District 2 Councilman William Carroll said the variances are architectural in nature and won’t affect zoning.
“They are asking for variances on some simple things, like material use,” he said. “The biggest issue is the setback, which is required for force protection by the federal government.”
When asked, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s chief of staff, James Barber, told councilors a clawback in the lease exists for issues arising that would prevent construction.
District 1 resident Christopher Edwards is tired of hearing about police chases within the city limits of Mobile and told councilors of his concerns.
Edwards said the latest chase on Stanton Road resulted in the death of a driver and caused damage to his sister’s house. He accused police on the scene of not being helpful and questioned the professionalism of the entire department.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “They had black ski masks on. They would say things like, ‘I don’t know. That’s above my pay grade.’ It’s unacceptable.”
He accused officers of being “too aggressive” in District 1 and wanted the chases to come to an end, especially if speeding is the only reason for the chase.
When asked about policies and procedures when it comes to chases, Executive Director of Public Safety Lawrence Battiste, a former Mobile Police Department chief, defended the department. He said the chase policy is nationally accredited and uses best practices.
“The policy is clear and we follow the policy,” Battiste told councilors.
Battiste said he also offered to allow Edwards to view the body camera footage from the car chase, but Edwards has not yet taken him up on that. Battiste also offered to help Edwards’ sister in any way possible.
Carroll asked if it is appropriate to ask what happened to provoke a car chase or what law was broken before it started.
Jones also defended the police and put the onus for the issue of chases on those who flee.
“We’ve got to be careful when asking about the policy on car chases,” Jones said. “It all could have been avoided if the perpetrator had stopped and didn’t run from police.”
In most cases, Jones said, the person fleeing from the police is doing so for more than just a speeding violation.
“Nine out of 10 times those eluding police have some criminal activity attached; it’s not just speeding,” he said. “Nine times out of 10 that’s the case.”
If the fleeing is a result of distrust of police, Jones said that’s something council should look into further and has in the past provided funding for.
The council could vote as early as next week on an $18,217 contract with K&K Systems for solar-powered, radar-feedback speed limit signs at the intersection of Kenneth Street and Old Shell Road.
“With Dew Drop Inn and that new breakfast place [that intersection] is a nightmare on Sunday mornings,” Carroll said.
Barber told councilors the city is looking to add other traffic calming devices at or near that intersection, including a pedestrian crosswalk or a raised pedestrian crosswalk.
Jones lobbied for better enforcement and the writing of more tickets to solve the problem.
“You can put all the traffic calming devices in you want, but until we see enforcement and writing tickets …,” he said. “I think we need more traffic patrol folks in neighborhoods.”