The Auburn City Council gave conditional use approval at its virtual meeting Tuesday night for an up-scale hotel planned for downtown on the corner of West Magnolia Avenue and Wright Street, where Anders Bookstore currently resides.
The council unanimously approved the conditional use for a hotel. Auburn Mayor Ron Anders, who is a registered member of Anders Enterprises LLC, which currently owns the properties, recused himself from the meeting when the item came up on the agenda.
"This agenda item concerns a piece of property that my family owns, so out of an abundance of caution I'm completely removing myself from the discussion and the vote on this item," he said. "In full transparency, I want to let you know that I haven't spoken to the council about this item other than to confirm that Mayor Pro Tem (Beth Witten) would run the rest of the meeting for me."
The council's approval came after a lengthy public hearing and discussion by City Council members.
Tim Ryan, chief investment officer for Graduate Hotels, kicked off the virtual public hearing by providing more details about the project and addressing concerns raised about parking and traffic that were brought by others at the Planning Commission meeting last week and again on Tuesday at the City Council meeting.
The project would bring a 177-room Graduate Hotel to downtown Auburn, and would include a 6,250-square-foot conference room, a restaurant and fitness center, and be roughly 69 feet tall at the eave.
Graduate Hotels has spent more than five years working on building a hotel project in Auburn, said Ryan, who added that the hotel would represent a $65 million investment and bring more than 100 jobs to the community, in addition to an estimated 500-600 construction jobs. Ryan also indicated that Graduate Hotels would not seek any public assistance or financial incentives from the city and that the company projects to generate $1.3 million a year in revenue for the city through various taxes.
Ryan also addressed the main concern expressed about this project — its lack of on-site parking. The company has requested a parking waiver from the planning director to reduce the number of required parking spaces from 258 to 121. Under the city's current zoning ordinance, 222 spaces would be required for the hotel's 177 rooms, with another 36 spaces required for the proposed amenities.
"We've been actively involved in the Auburn community for over five years trying to make this happen, trying to make this dream real," he said. "That amount of time has afforded us a lot of meaningful insight, but maybe none more than a clear understanding of the concerns around parking.
"Not only are we sensitive to those concerns because the only way to do something authentic is to think and act with the local stakeholder from day one, but from a practical standpoint, we're the last people on earth who would want our hotel to have insufficient parking because we'd fail if we couldn't deliver the level of service and the quality of experience that our guests would expect. We'd be in a really bad way, and so we've never had an intention of trying provide less parking than is truly needed. We've always been cognizant of that."
Ryan said Graduate Hotels has always anticipated providing at least one parking space per hotel key through a combination of on-site and off-site parking.
Brian and Kim Wirth, owners of the Collegiate Hotel on South Gay Street, both spoke in the pubic hearing and wanted to hear a more detailed plan on how parking requirements would be met for the proposed hotel.
"We are against this project being built in one of the most congested areas of Auburn without having a plan in place to address on-site parking," said Kim Wirth, who also questioned where "this mysterious off-site parking" might exist downtown. "I have yet to hear a truly compelling argument from anyone on why this particular project and its enormous parking shortfalls is such a great fit for this particular location.
"The size of the hotel should fit the size of the property."
The lack of a traffic study was also brought up. Parker Lewis, a senior engineer at Hydro Engineering Solutions who is representing Graduate Hotels, said a traffic study has not been conducted yet because students are not currently living on campus.
""We need to wait on that traffic study until students are back in session so that we can get accurate counts," he said. "As much as it may benefit our project to do a traffic study right now with so many vehicles not on the road, that's not really what our engineering department wants to see. They want to see some actual numbers.
"We will be doing a traffic study. We will be doing that hopefully in the fall."
He also indicated that the drop-off location for the hotel will not be located on Wright Street, which was recently converted to a two-way road.
"We've got a lot to consider with that drop-off, including some underground power and some transformer locations, and so a lot of that is obviously not worked out. It will be worked out during design just like every project we work on.
"There's always a lot of things that have to get worked out during design. They're thought of right now, but they're definitely not fully realized."
Lewis also indicated that off-site parking would be leased from private entities and that Graduate Hotels understands that its parking requirement cannot be met with public parking in the city's parking deck currently under construction on Wright Street, which the city has made clear.
Planning Director Forrest Cotten is currently reviewing Graduate Hotels' waiver request for parking.
"In its current form, this would be the largest waiver that I have seen sought to this point in time," he said. "Having said that, the planning director's purview, as mentioned earlier, goes back to 2012. I've probably reviewed less than 10 parking variance requests in eight years. You don't see these very frequently, but the use that you see them the most for are hotels."
Cotten said he currently does not have a recommendation for the waiver request.
"I take this very seriously, and you can see why because of all the discussion that this has garnered. But I have got an analysis from the applicant's engineer, and I'm conducting my own independent research and benchmarking. And I've said this before, I'm going to take the time that is necessary to make sure we get this right. I'm well on the way, but it is not finalized by any means."
The project will still have to go through a number processes, including going in front of the Development Review Team, the Downtown Design Review Committee and possibly the City Council again for an approval of a potential development agreement.