The fate of a Southern Living hotel on North College Street in downtown Auburn hangs in the balance, as developers attempt to iron out a deal this week while the city of Auburn grows increasingly impatient with delaying the construction of a planned public parking deck any further.
The city was advised over the weekend that Lifestyle + Hotel Group (LHG) had officially withdrawn from negotiations with landowners Godbold Development Partners LLC, said City Manager Jim Buston.
"With that, we are waiting to see if that’s going to really happen because you never know, they might get back together," he said. "But we have to move forward with our deck, so we advised our architects that there’s a good chance we’ll be going back to the smaller footprint and to get ready."
Russ Taylor, vice president of development and finance for LHG, said it would not be accurate at all to say the deal is dead, although he did acknowledge current difficulties in negotiations.
"There’s been problems throughout the life of this thing, three or four different times," he said. "As part of any real estate deal, you have some timers whether it be on a letter of intent or a purchase agreement or contract or whatever, and those timers are there to really motivate everyone to try to meet deadlines, et cetera. But about 50 percent of the time — maybe even higher than that — they get rescheduled, if you will. That’s happened a time or two on this project."
Taylor declined to discuss details of the negotiations, but said talks would continue this week in scheduled meetings and calls and that he could provide a clearer and more official picture possibly by Friday.
"Within every real estate transaction, you have challenges and obstacles that you have to overcome, and that’s what we’re trying to do now," he said.
Chris Godbold, of Godbold Development Partners, declined to comment on negotiations beyond saying that "we're just all working hard to make it all work."
The delays in negotiations have put on hold the process of building the city's planned parking deck on Wright Street.
The city's original plan called for a 350-space public parking deck that would house on the ground floor the displaced Baptist Student Center, which moved out of its now-demolished building on the site in late 2017 after selling the property to the city. That December, Buston told The Villager that the city hoped to have the deck open by the end of 2018. The projected construction time line was pushed back as the city waited on the outcome of negotiations and whether there will be a "land swap" between the city and developers that would allow the city to construct a larger parking deck with about 586 spaces.
"I think it was worth waiting," said Buston, who added that those with the Baptist Student Center may not share the same opinion. "We have a commitment to them to get them back into their space, and they have been very understanding up until now.
"I think it’s time that we have to start moving forward with the deck. And if it’s not going to be the larger deck, then we have to go back to our original plan with the original deck and get it done as soon as possible.
"Our promise has been 300-plus spaces for public parking, and that’s about all we can get on that footprint. We wouldn’t have two entrances; we would just have the one because we wouldn’t have the land swap."
Buston said that if the city doesn't hear anything back on the negotiations by Friday, architects for the parking deck would be instructed to go forward with designs for the original plan.
"We have already told them this is coming, but we don’t want to be too quick," he said. "You never know when people are in negotiations — is this a tactic.
"We’re at a point where we have to move forward."
If the city moves forward with its original plan for the parking deck, the design process would take a couple more months, with the start of construction possible as early as May or June.
"We’re going to try to push it as quickly as we can, but it’ll be into 2020 before we’ll be able to open it up," Buston said.
Taylor remarked on how much time has passed since LHG gave a presentation to the City Council on the development, which took place last March.
"We’re ready for some resolution on this thing as well, so everybody’s spent a lot of time, energy and effort on it," he said. "I echo the thought to get this done sooner rather than later."
If a deal is hammered out, the project would add a 102-room Southern Living Hotel, a grocer, additional retail space and game-day condominiums to downtown, in addition to a larger public parking deck.