Mobile Civic Center redevelopment: Take sure thing or hold out for something better?

Published: Sep. 7, 2022 at 6:04 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A divided City Council facing a proposed overhaul of the Civic Center has a fundamental choice: Take the sure thing or hold out of something better.

That sure thing is a six-story office building that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed. But some city leaders have questioned whether the development would complicate a more ambitions redevelopment.

For the better part of a decade, city officials have grappled with what to do with the aging and costly buildings but have not found consensus. With some City Council members urging Mayor Sandy Stimpson to slow down plans, agreement remains as elusive as ever.

“I know that there have been other master plans that have not been discussed. … We don’t know what’s out there, is what I’m hearing,” District 6 City Councilman Scott Jones said at a council work session prior to Tuesday’s public meeting.

District 2 Councilman William Carroll suggested the city put out a formal request for companies to submit ideas for a master plan for the entire Civic Center site. He said it would help the city determine if there are better options than the Corps of Engineers plan.

“All of these things would be clear if we had a master plan in place moving forward,” he said.

Others, however, said the city has dickered long enough over a facility that is aging and increasingly costly to maintain.

“We’ve had this white elephant over there for 15 years,” District 5 Councilman Joel Daves told fellow council members. “And in that period of time, we have had multiple plans come forward for its use. And the city has never taken any action. And in the meantime, it just sits over there and gets crummier and crummier and crummier. Every. Single. Day.”

The Mobile Planning Commission last week endorsed a rezoning framework that would allow for taller buildings, paving the way for the office building that the Army Corps of Engineers wants to build on the southern portion of the property. The plan also includes a 1,000-car parking garage to make up for parking spaces that would be lost to the new building.

The timeline is aggressive. The Corps had hoped to start construction just after the new year, a schedule that would require swift approval by the City Council. But there is no word on when the council might take up the Planning Commission recommendation.

“There’s not a gun at your head or at our head,” Stimpson said on Tuesday. “There is a timeline where if we don’t do something, you will lose that opportunity, and then we’ll be sitting here with nothing. And so, is that bird in the hand, you know, worth two in the bush?”

Stimpson told council members on Tuesday that he is open to slowing down redevelopment plans. He said he toured a development in Atlanta a couple of weeks and ago and listened to a proposal for the Civic Center site but concluded it did not fit the site. He noted how difficult it has been to attract developers and argued the Corps of Engineers plan is the best one the city is likely to see.

“I don’t know another company in Mobile that’s gonna build almost 200,000 square feet of office space and put it with 800 employees,” he said.

Carroll told FOX10 News on Wednesday that he is open to the Corps of Engineers project. But he said there are many details to iron out and concerns to address. He said people in the Church Street East Historic District are concerned about increased traffic and more people parking along the streets during big events – especially since the parking garage would add fewer spaces than would be lost in the construction.

Carroll also said taller buildings have the potential to overshadow the residential neighborhood.

“There’s so many things that we have to consider that are part of the master plan that will project out into the quality of life of the surrounding community that we need to take a little bit of time and get it right,” he said.

Some outside the council have voiced concerns, as well.

“It’s the most important open site in downtown Mobile and maybe in a large part of the city,” said Elizabeth Stevens, the president and CEO of the Downtown Mobile Alliance.

Stevens added that she is glad to see serious effort going into redevelopment efforts.

“The question is, you don’t want it to take up more space than it needs to on a very important site that has a lot of opportunities,” she said.


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