Birmingham City Council delayed plans for rezoning the city’s West End community at Tuesday’s meeting, citing concerns that the city had not effectively communicated with residents.
Two West End residents — Oakwood Place Neighborhood Association Secretary Nell Allen and resident Samuel Mills — said the rezoning plan the council was being asked to vote on significantly differed from what city planners promised residents at recent neighborhood association meetings. Both Allen and Mills said that properties zoned as single-use residential were being rezoned despite protests from residents.
“We had a meeting, and it was told to us that the changes would be made before we came to the city council this morning,” Mills said. “We really don’t want this.”
Council President Valerie Abbott expressed dismay that the changes requested by — and promised to — West End residents had not been made.
“The residents are the people (whose) opinions we’re interested in, and Ms. Allen and (Samuel Mills) both have issues that they brought up and were told would be fixed by the time the hearing came before the council,” Abbott said. “And now we’re having the hearing before the council and these items have not been fixed … . We either need to fix them now or delay this and fix them.”
Tim Gambrell, the city’s principal planner, said the changes promised at the neighborhood association meeting had not been made because the rezoning plan already had been advertised.
“The meeting took place after the advertising of the map that we’re looking at now,” he said. “You’d end up having to re-advertise, or I guess an option is you could adopt it as-is and go back and correct … . If we have to re-advertise, we’re just going to have to spend a bit more money.”
Some West End residents expressed unhappiness with the way the city communicated to them about the rezoning plan. Mills, for instance, said he only received a letter about the proposal on July 21. “That was the first I’d heard of it,” he said. “That decreased the attendance at neighborhood meetings.”
While District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt admonished some residents for not faithfully attending neighborhood meetings, where they would have received the information earlier, he acknowledged that, under former Mayor William Bell’s administration, the city stopped distributing informational flyers in neighborhoods. He urged Mayor Randall Woodfin to resume the practice.
District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales suggested that the city use the same strategies as political campaigns to spread word of meetings.
“It seems to me we need to deal with the issue internally … . If we know that something is broken, let’s do a better job in fixing it,” she said. “Obviously, it’s not working.”
The rezoning item eventually was withdrawn; Woodfin said his office would “take a very hard look” at the city’s communication strategies. He also said that the city would take the West End rezoning plans “back to the drawing board,” and that new plans would be brought before the council in the near future.
Public Hearing for an Ensley Shell Station
The council also set a public hearing to discuss revoking the business license of an Ensley Shell Station where three homicides have taken place. The gas station was placed under a yearlong probation by the council’s public safety committee during its July 17 meeting, after attorneys for business owner Mohamed Nasher presented a safety plan to prevent future violence and loitering at the station.
But District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, whose district includes the station in question, said the committee had violated proper procedure by not sending it to the full council for a public hearing. At the council’s July 24 meeting, he vowed to repeatedly place the item on the council agenda “until we can have a public hearing,” and he enacted a sort of filibuster the following week by forcing the council to vote separately on each item on its consent agenda.
With today’s vote to approve the public hearing, which will take place during the council’s Sept. 11 meeting, Hoyt’s gambit appears to have paid off. After members of the public are given the opportunity to speak on the matter, the council will have the option to uphold the public safety committee’s recommendation for a yearlong probationary period or to vote on alternative proposals. District 9 Councilor John Hilliard was the only councilor present to vote against the hearing.
Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity
The council also voted to officially create the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, which was announced by Woodfin in March as a retooling of the mayor’s office of economic development. A vote had been delayed on the item for several weeks so that the department could add a position dedicated to diversity and minority inclusion issues.
Before the vote, Woodfin walked to the podium, prepared to pitch the department to the council. But the council unanimously passed the item before he could speak. Shrugging and smiling, he walked back to his seat.
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Abbott called after him, laughing. “I ignored you because I knew what you wanted. I hope you didn’t mind.”