Garden District residents fret over growing hotel 

Additional rooms put federal building rehab at 161

Mazyck-Wraggborough resident Peggy Ricker is looking forward to seeing the energy a hotel will bring to the Mendel Rivers Federal Building. The abandoned 10-story building that stands adjacent to the downtown neighborhood has been vacant for more than a decade.

Around the corner, resident Dewey Golub calls the redevelopment of the asbestos-laden building "a herculean task" while neighborhood president Vangie Rainsford said the Garden District has supported the hotel from the beginning. "We want the hotel to be tremendously successful," she said.

But these residents and others are now arguing the Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood is getting a lot more hotel than it bargained for.

In March 2010, the city's Board of Zoning Appeals approved a 120-room hotel. Last week, the hotel design team was back in front of the board asking for an additional 41 rooms, dulling the enthusiasm among residents to see this dusty landmark brought back to life.

Rainsford said she was promised by no less than Mayor Joe Riley that this would be a "boutique" hotel. "To say the least, we are very concerned," she said. "We find it confusing as a neighborhood."

Ricker, meanwhile, lives at the back of the building's parking lot and has reservations about the 41 new rooms. "That will cause more impact on my daily life," she said. "I was very concerned about the traffic coming through that parking lot — now it's increased."

Project architect Reggie Gibson, who is also a nearby Garden District resident, said the plan changed after the 2010 approval because the designers really didn't have a clear idea of what was necessary. The hotel didn't need the large restaurant and bar that was originally envisioned, but it did need other amenities befitting a high-end hotel, like on-site laundry service.

Urban planner Scott Parker, another member of the design team, noted the project has also changed to respond to resident concerns; meeting space and a small restaurant have been moved to the front of the building, away from the neighborhood and closer to Meeting Street and Marion Square.

"This is a new hotel coming to this neighborhood. I understand why the neighborhood would be concerned," Parker said. "What we're doing is creating a high-class hotel for discerning guests. It's almost like creating a home here for the people who use it."

For the city's zoning staff, the hotel designers had them at hello. "They have gone to great lengths to make this project top quality," said Lee Batchelder, the city's zoning administrator. "That's what really jumps out at you as you study these plans."

It doesn't hurt that a lot more of something is better than absolutely nothing. "You haven't had any cars traveling to this building," Parker said, noting the structure has been vacant for some time. "What you have had is an ugly parking lot surrounded by chain-link and barbed wire."

When it was time for the zoning board to debate the 41-room upgrade, board members expressed similar fears that traffic and noise could find its way to Mazyck-Wraggborough.

Board member Russell Rosen couldn't get over the number of new rooms. "We're trying to put 161 pounds in a 120-pound sack," he said. "That means we're going to have 30 percent more of everything — increased delivery traffic, trash disposal. Everything is getting bumped up by 30 percent. It can't not have an impact."

But Chairman Leonard Krawcheck warned against supporting a particular room number. "What number of rooms is right? 250? 80?" he asked rhetorically. "It's not our job to design the project. It's our job to determine what impact it's going to have," he said. "We have to satisfy ourselves that the traffic pattern won't increase neighborhood traffic."

The board unanimously approved the increase, but limited hotel deliveries to traditional business hours (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and cut off all activity at the rooftop pool and spa at 10 p.m. It also approved the creation of additional noise buffers on the edge of the rooftop to prevent noise from traveling to the neighborhood.

Ricker wasn't satisfied. "We keep seeing fragments, and we don't know the full picture of this hotel," she said.


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