Mobile City Council approves 100-year lease for office building at Civic Center

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 2:36 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The City Council on Tuesday approved a long-term lease with a private developer that paves the way for the construction of a six-story office building on the Civic Center site.

The project, which would include an adjacent 1,000-space parking garage, would serve as the regional headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and about 800 employees. Planned for the southern part of the property, where Canal and Claiborne streets intersect, it is the centerpiece of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s efforts to redevelop the property that contains an aging arena and theater.

District 4 Councilman Ben Reynolds asked for a two-week delay in order to make sure the Board of Zoning Adjustment follows through with a planned variance that would allow the Corps building to be constructed 50 feet from the curb instead of the typical 5-foot setback. Officials from the federal agency have told city officials that those setback requirements are a security measure mandated for new Corps buildings.

Only District 6 Councilman Scott Jones joined Reynolds in voting for the delay. Jones then abstained and Reynolds voted “no” while the other five council members voted to approve the lease.

“I was glad to see that; you know, each one of these steps that we come up to, it’s kind of like, a hurdle,” Stimpson said following the vote. “We got to cross it so we can get to the next one. So, I’m glad they chose to go ahead and move forward.”

Under terms of the 100-year lease with FDS Mobile, the city would receive $1 a year for the first 10 years and $100,000 a year for the next 10 years. After 20 years, the lease would rise to the market rate, an amount that would be negotiated by the parties and includes a provision for a 1.5 percent annual increases.

Long before that point, supporters hope, the presence of a large federal workforce will spur private developers to come forward with their own projects. The city in March approved a master plan with Populous Architects, which later presented two different concept options last year. But city officials said there are no concrete proposals on the table.

Reynolds said the setback variance is one of a dozen on the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s Feb. 6 agenda.

“These variances, just to make it clear, are changing the zoning that was established just shortly ago for the Civic Center property,” he said. “Matter of fact, the zoning, we all suggested was so nice that we had to pass it twice. And now here we are, given the opportunity to change it, we’re gonna approve a 100-year lease without knowing what the changes will be. So I think it’s a mistake.”

Councilman William Carroll, whose District 2 includes the Civic Center, said the variances are routine requests.

“I think there’s some confusion with the statements that are being made,” he said. “The variances that they’re asking for are architectural variances that have to do with the operation and design and construction of the building. The variances that have been asked do not change the zoning.”

Added Carroll: “These simple requests, I don’t think are egregious.”

Although Jones favored a delay, he agreed with Carroll.

“We do know what these variances are,” he said. “We knew that there was an extremely high probability that they’re going to go through.”

Once the office building is complete, the Corps would vacate the 10-story building it occupies on St. Joseph Street next to U.S. Bankruptcy Court. City officials have said the Corps has told them that building may be demolished. The General Services Administration, which manages government-owned property, told FOX10 News no decisions have been made.

Reynolds long has questioned whether the Stimpson’s administration’s plan is the best use of the Civic Center site. He told FOX10 News that he objects to the setback provision because it makes the building a “space-eater” that diminishes other redevelopment options. He also said it would move federal workers from one downtown location to another – while providing a major financial incentive – without an obvious net benefit to the city.

City officials have pointed out that the Corps plans to consolidate workers now assigned to satellite offices throughout the region.

But Reynolds said the plan requires a leap of faith that private development will follow and generate enough tax and lease revenue for the city to recoup its investment – an investment that includes the parking garage, costing up to $30 million. The city would defray some of those costs by renting spaces to Corps of Engineers employees.

The construction timeline remains unclear.

“There’s several more things, I think, that have got to be done,” the mayor said. “As a matter of fact, I know there’s several more things.”

Updated at 4:14 p.m. to provide more detail about how the market lease rate would be determined and to note that the construction timeline is unclear.


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