UPDATED: Marietta gives developer 4 months to revise plan for downtown building

May 11—MARIETTA — Faced with the option to accept or reject a developer's design for a seven-story residential building downtown, the City Council opted for detente.

The council voted unanimously Wednesday night to give Bridger Properties four months to tweak its proposal for an 84-foot, 135-unit building a few blocks off Marietta Square.

Bridger's application to the city remains pending. The council asked the developer to hold town halls to collect input from residents before coming back with new plans.

Bridger has 120 days to do so, and will again go before the city's Historic Board of Review. The historic board, which advises the council on applications for building changes within Marietta's downtown historic district, voted 6-3 last week to recommend the council deny Bridger's design.

"We're very pleased by the outcome," said Marietta attorney Chuck Clay, a former state senator who lobbied on Bridger's behalf. "We came here with the intent of defusing. ... Rightfully so, emotions were pretty high on all sides, and amongst the citizens, and that's fine. But our hope was to do exactly this, which is to have time to negotiate in good will."

Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin said he wants to work with Bridger, but that whatever they build must abide by city code. During the council's public hearing on the item, he took issue with the height of the building.

"I think talk is cheap," Tumlin said after the meeting. "I want to see a plan that's in compliance with our code."

The 1.25-acre site of the proposed building, 25 Polk Street, is just west of the pedestrian bridge which spans the railroad tracks, and north of the Marietta Square Market food hall.

Bridger's plan calls for a seven-story building — five stories of residences above two stories of parking. The building would have 135 units and replace a surface parking lot.

Bridger, an Atlanta-based developer which owns more than four acres of downtown real estate, does not need a rezoning to move forward with the project. But it does need a certificate of approval from the council for new construction, due to the property being within the downtown historic district.

The council, then, was tasked Wednesday with considering whether Bridger's design was in line with city guidelines on new construction in the historic district.

At a Monday work session, the council openly discussed the possibility of litigation, and questioned city staff about the legal footing of denying the design.

Tumlin told the MDJ it's still possible that this ends up in court. But he maintained that the city would have a strong case if that happens.

"When you don't have things on your side, you sue," Tumlin told the MDJ. "... But I think they've got our attention by (being) willing to talk, and I think the city got their attention."

The mayor added, "I don't know if they're going to sue us or not," but if so, "bring it on."

Clay, meanwhile, was optimistic after the council encouraged Bridger to go back to the drawing board.

"We'd love to come back with a recommendation that is satisfactory to all," Clay said. "... It is dadgum certainly worth it to be negotiating, not talking about litigating. So, we're happy."

How low can you go?

For members of the historic board and Tumlin, height is a sticking point.

The city's historic guidelines state new buildings downtown should be "two stories in height or within 15% of the height of adjacent buildings."

At one point, the council debated the meaning of "adjacent."

The new building would tower over the historic Root House next door. (Bridger's Merritt Lancaster has pointed out the house was not originally located there.)

"The other consideration is, you know, adjacent structure might also be the elevator tower," Lancaster said, referring to the 50-foot-tall tower which bookends the pedestrian bridge.

Tumlin later said, "I believe adjacent means adjacent."

Tumlin asked Lancaster how low they'd be willing to go, height-wise. Lancaster said Bridger isn't married to any one detail of the building, but the project needs to work for them financially.

Councilman Johnny Walker said he came into the meeting prepared to reject the design, but found Clay's appeal for negotiation compelling.

"One of the things you said," Walker told him, "was you're willing to meet us halfway, 50-50. That's a start, because that's a lot of height right there. And I think that the building needs to have much more historical architectural features."

Tensions thaw

Bridger's proposed building has been divisive for months. In addition to concerns about density and historic character, the council for years has been skeptical of apartment developments.

While some residents have disparaged apartments as causing blight, transiency and traffic. Others have pointed to a need for more housing in the city.

In March, when Bridger's plans were only rumors, Tumlin proposed a new overlay zone to prevent residential development within 50 feet of the railroad downtown. The proposal did not advance out of committee.

The mayor earlier this year compared Bridger to Gen. William Sherman, who set fire to the Square during the Civil War, over the company's treatment of its retail tenants. Bridger in turn said city leadership had engaged in a witch hunt.

"We didn't exactly land gracefully in the first crack of starting to pitch what we wanted to do, but I think we have made some progress," Lancaster said at Wednesday's meeting. "... We are here to ask that you all give us time to work with you — the city, City Council, neighbors, community, whomever it is, to come up with a plan that everyone can live with."

Tumlin agreed the situation needs to be "less dramatic," but added the building would represent "a paradigm shift" for downtown.

Ahead of the meeting, the council, expecting a large crowd, allocated extra time for supporters and opponents to speak about the proposal. But only three residents elected to speak.

Tumlin said after the meeting he thought the crowd would be more zealous.

"There wasn't much passion," he said. "They weren't yelling at us and people weren't yelling at them."

While the council was only considering the building's compatibility with the historic guidelines, the debate over housing crept in. Councilman M. Carlyle Kent said he was "pro-housing," and spoke favorably of other suburban cities which have added density to their downtowns.

Dr. Rachel Johnson, a physician at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, said she has colleagues who struggle to find housing near the hospital that they can afford.

"I'm someone who struggled to purchase property here despite being a physician and a two-income household. ... There's nothing wrong with growth. There's nothing wrong with change. And in fact, it can be a beautiful thing. I hate to see the city of Marietta fall behind," Johnson said.

JoAnn Wood spoke on behalf of historic preservation group Cobb Landmarks, which operates the Root House.

Cobb Landmarks has suggested that Bridger break up the proposal into multiple buildings, with shorter structures closer to the Root House and taller structures up against the railroad tracks.

"Although Bridger wants to construct something large, there is an opportunity to design something that has the feel of a historic building and complements the surrounding area," Wood said. My thought is that they want the people in Marietta to accept a massive structure like this, but it had better blend in."

For the council to accept Bridger's request for more time, it needed assurances that changes would be made.

"Doing the same thing isn't going to get us anywhere if you just present the same project," Councilman Grif Chalfant said.

Clay assured him that would not happen.

"We're not gonna come back with the same thing," he said.