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Fate of five-story Drayton Street hotel in Savannah City Council's hands

  • This rendering shows the West Elm hotel planned for 607 Drayton St. across from Forsyth Park. The Historic Review Board approved the height and mass of the five-story building in July, but the Savannah Zoning Board of Appeals overturned the approval last week. (Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects)

The fate of a planned hotel across from Forsyth Park could come down to semantics.

It is up to the Savannah City Council to decide if the planned five-story hotel at Drayton and East Huntingdon streets can move forward as proposed.

During Thursday’s meeting, the council is scheduled to consider a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow the hotel to qualify for a “bonus” fifth level in a zone normally limited to four stories.

The council meeting comes after the Savannah Zoning Board of Appeals last week overturned a decision in July by the Savannah Historic District review board to approve the project with the fifth floor. Such bonus floors are granted if certain design features are included, such as retail use on the ground floor, but only if the proposed development is in a zoning district that permits the additional level.

The zoning appeals board agreed that ordinance clearly states that the bonus story is not allowed in that zoning district, said Chairman Thomas Branch III.

“It really wasn’t anything other than an ordinance interpretation issue,” Branch said.

The historic review board’s approval was based on a different interpretation by the city’s zoning administrator, Shane Corbin, that the “RIP-D” district where the hotel site is located should be considered commercial and qualify for the additional floor, rather than residential where the floor would be prohibited.

In a letter to the review board, Corbin based his interpretation on the hotel site, adjacent to the Savannah Law School, being in a traditional commercial location that is surrounded by commercial uses. The interpretation is also consistent with the previous zoning administrator’s determination that the RIP-D district was intended to be commercial, he said.

Corbin’s opinion had been requested because there had been some confusion since other “R” zoning districts were specifically listed as districts where the additional stories were prohibited, while the “RIP-D” was not. At the same time, the ordinance states that zoning districts that have the word “residential” in the name are to be regarded as “residential” and are therefore forbidden from obtaining bonus stories. The zoning change going before the council Thursday is meant to clarify the matter by adding language stating the “RIP-D” district is not considered residential.

The hotel site is only one of three locations zoned RIP-D, which include the Savannah Law School, and the now closed Leoci’s Trattoria a block east on Abercorn, and it is clear the district is not residential, said Harold Yellin, an attorney representing the hotel’s developer.

“Reasonable people often disagree, but there are two opinions given by different zoning administrators,” Yellin said. “While both agreed the ordinance was not perfect, they came to the same conclusion the RIP-D was a district eligible for a bonus story.”

The Drayton hotel is supposed to be part of West Elm’s foray into the boutique hotel business, which the home accessory retailer announced on Monday would include properties in Savannah, as well as Detroit, Minneapolis, Charlotte and Indianapolis.

The project’s architect, Patrick Shay, said West Elm has relied on the historic review board’s approval to include Savannah in Monday’s announcement. If the bonus floor is taken away, the loss would have a big impact on the developer’s plans, Shay said.

“They are thoroughly confused as to what’s going on,” he said.

If the council approves the text amendment, the hotel developer would be able to reapply for the bonus story, but at least one alderman said he is leaning toward opposing city staff’s interpretation of the ordinance.

In addition to concerns about the Drayton hotel’s height, Savannah Alderman Brian Foster said Monday he is concerned the interpretation will set a precedent and lead to other areas being rezoned to RIP-D in order to be eligible for an additional floor.

During Thursday’s meeting, the council is also scheduled to consider a zoning request for the construction of a hotel with a lounge on the southwest corner of Tattnall and Liberty streets. The developer currently has the right to build a hotel at the site, but is requesting the zoning change in order to include a bar and restaurant on the first floor that would be open to the public.

More Info

Breakout Box: 

IF YOU GO

What: Savannah City Council meeting

When: 2 p.m. Thursday

Where: City Hall, 2 E. Bay St.

Online: Watch the meeting streamed live at savannahnow.com and follow reporter @EricCurlSMN on Twitter.

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