September 25, 2001 Neighborhood versus multi-millionaire
A proposed change in zoning from “single-family” to “office and institutional” for the Morrow House, which lies across the street from Rhodes Park on Highland Avenue, draws a large contingent of Highland residents to this morning’s meeting. The large, historic home belongs to Stephen Chazen, who has an investment organization and charitable foundation that employs five people operating out of the basement. One of the employees lives on the top floor of the house, while Chazen reportedly resides in Mountain Brook. R-3 single family zoning forbids use of a home as an office.
Alison Glascock, president of Highland Park Neighborhood Association, leads the charge against the proposed zoning change. Addressing the “special quality” of the area, Glascock says the neighborhood has “down-zoned” 31 properties back to single-family zoning, and notes that Council President William Bell has praised the neighborhood’s “cutting-edge initiative.” Pointing out increases in property values, Glascock boasts, “We are one of the few neighborhoods where we do not have a flight from the city. We have a flight into the city.” Granting the rezoning request would potentially affect all neighborhoods in Birmingham, says Glascock. “Everybody understands that spot zoning could come to them next. It could potentially devastate the neighborhoods in this city.” [Spot zoning occurs when a property is rezoned to a status different than that of surrounding properties.] “We are David fighting Goliath here. But unlike David, we are not armed with a slingshot,” explains Glascock. “You [council] are gonna have to be our slingshot. We are fighting a Goliath who has lots of money — millions of it.” The neighborhood president notes that Chazen has hired one of the top law firms in the city, while Highland Park residents have resorted to going door to door to collect money to hire an attorney to fight him. Glascock is appalled that neither Chazen nor his attorney is present for today’s public hearing, which has been advertised for six weeks. In February, the neighborhood voted 93 to 0 to fight the zoning change.
Council President Bell says he does not favor spot zoning, but wants to delay the council vote for one week so that Stephen Chazen could present his side. Neighborhood residents protest loudly in unison. Councilor Jimmy Blake joins their outcry, pointing out that Highland Park residents have worked diligently, and that the issue should therefore not be delayed.
Noting that there are few uses under R-3 single-family zoning that would allow the applicant to remain in the house while operating his business there, Glascock says that the neighborhood did agree to allow the property owner to possibly pursue a publicly-owned art museum and gallery. However, the city refused to allow the gallery proposal to go through because it would be a satellite of the Birmingham Museum of Art, and not a publicly owned facility. Rejection was also based on the accessory uses of the house in conjunction with Chazen’s business.
Charlie Beavers, the attorney representing Stephen Chazen, suddenly appears in the council chambers after receiving a call from someone in the city attorney’s office that the issue was being discussed, according to Beavers. The attorney says he was not present earlier because it was his understanding that the case would be postponed to allow a compromise with the neighborhood, as Beavers has been trying to resolve the issue without rezoning. He says he is not fully prepared to present his case, but will if necessary. The attorney explains the Birmingham Museum of Art satellite proposal, which he explains is “a use of the house that would be agreeable to our client, yet not require a zoning change.” Beavers says that the neighborhood voted 47 to 42 to support the art museum approach, which would be funded by the homeowner, who would continue to operate in a “very minimal part of the building in the basement,” according to Beavers. The art exhibits would be “neighborhood-focused art” with special showings to a limited number of people. Beavers draws the ire of residents present when he reveals that threats were delivered to the Birmingham Museum of Art from Highland Park residents. “About 15 people from that neighborhood contacted the Birmingham Museum of Art very direct, very aggressively, and said to them, ‘We don’t want you doing this. If you do, we’re gonna picket you. We’re gonna make your life miserable, and we’re gonna cause problems for the Birmingham Museum of Art if you go forward with this,’” details Beavers. According to the attorney, the Birmingham Museum of Art backed out of the deal, citing inability to cope with “that kind of heat and that kind of negative publicity that has been threatened here.”
The Morrow House was built in 1901, and remained in the Morrow family until the early 1990s. Stephen Chazen purchased the home last year. Beavers says that his client paid over $900,000 for the house, invested $200,000 for roof renovations, and currently maintains a budget of $100,000 for property upkeep. “It’s a very low-key kind of occupancy that is not detrimental to the neighborhood,” insists Beavers, who calls the home a “landmark” and his client a “responsible caretaker.” Beavers adds that the home is very expensive to maintain and not set up for modern day living. [Neighborhood residents moan in objection to the attorney’s assessment.] Beavers notes the number of mansions lost over the years because they were not appropriate for residential use due to the high cost of maintenance, referring to a pair of mansions across Rhodes Park in terrible states of disrepair. He also points out that a law office and Planned Parenthood office operate across the park on either side of the poorly kept mansions. He says his client bought the property with the understanding that he could use it as he pleased as long he did not try to change it to office and institutional zoning. Councilor Blake disagrees, arguing that spot zoning is what tears down historic homes. Blake emphasizes that Stephen Chazen purchased the house from a resident that had lived there.
Beaver continues to insist that the council be allowed to hear from his “experts and planners.” Council President Bell moves for a one-week delay so that the council will be protected from potential denial of due process allegations. The issue is delayed for one week.
Polling place changes
Councilor Sandra Little addresses concerns about changes in voting places, including complaints from residents who have no idea where they will vote. Little asks if notices will be sent out directing voters to proper voting places. Mayor Kincaid responds that a list of polling places has been sent to the Justice Department for pre-clearance, with one change from what was previously advertised: The armory on Oporto-Madrid is on alert due to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and cannot be used as a polling place. New Rising Star Baptist Church will be used instead. Councilor Aldrich Gunn objects to New Rising Star being used as a District Two polling place since the church is in District Four. [The Sunday School and day-care center are across the street from the main sanctuary, thereby placing them in District Two, while the actual church is in District Four.] The Mayor argues, but Councilor Bill Johnson says that Gunn is correct by about 50 feet. Gunn insists that all voting locations should be in the district being voted upon. Gunn then suddenly announces that he just received notice that he would be allowed on the October 9 ballot following his official filing of candidacy after the presumed 5 p.m. deadline on September 18. Kincaid quickly notes that Gunn was required to post a $6,400 bond, to which Gunn replies, “I sure did, that’s how much I believe in my democracy.”
October 2, 2001There goes the neighborhood
Highland Park residents once again fill the council chambers for today’s vote over proposed rezoning of the Morrow House, located across from Rhodes Park in the Highland Avenue area, to “office and institutional.” Armed with traffic engineers, land-use experts, zoning maps, and photos of the surrounding neighborhood, attorney Charlie Beavers, representing Morrow House owner Stephen Chazen, attempts to change the minds of councilors who made commitments last week to turn down the zoning request. Beavers emphasizes that the residential appearance of the house will be maintained as he underscores the “low intensity” use of the home and the “mixed-use ” [residential and commercial] designation of the surrounding neighborhood.Beaver’s presentation includes a “land-planning expert” who has brought a number of slides that are projected onto a large screen in the council chambers. Many of the photographs suggest an untidy neighborhood. “Those around it [Morrow House] don’t seem to care as much for it [the neighborhood] as the Morrow House owner does,” says the expert as he flashes colorful slides of apartment complexes with over-flowing garbage cans, torn screens, and windows boarded shut. He repeatedly observes that “maintenance is lacking.” Highland Park residents in the council chambers voice loud objections to the glum depiction of their neighborhood. One photo features a quaint, old-style house with a sign in the yard that reads Chasin’ Chazen home. [Stephen Chazen reportedly lives in Mountain Brook, with his Highland Park house occupied by an employee of his investment business, UNUS Properties, LLS, which operates out of the Morrow House.] When Highland Park residents shout down this photo, the expert insists that he snapped the picture simply because he liked the house, not because of the sign designating Chazen as unwelcome.
Highland Park Neighborhood president Alison Glascock tells the council that neighborhood residents remain as adamantly opposed to rezoning as they did one week ago. Glascock admits that no one is claiming the Highland neighborhood to be exclusively an R-3 single-family district, but she insists that it is overwhelmingly a residential neighborhood. Glascock brags that the neighborhood is bringing people back from Vestavia and Mountain Brook, establishing Birmingham with a sound tax base. She again states that lack of financial resources puts the neighborhood in an underdog position in its battle with the wealthy owner of the Morrow House. “We can’t afford a fancy photographer and these other experts,” Glascock sighs with resignation. Councilor Blake, who acknowledges that he upset close friends in the neighborhood when he sought a compromise to allow Chazen to maintain his current status in the home, says that poor foresight put the neighborhood in a mixed-use status. But he acknowledges admiration for Highland residents seeking to reestablish the residential character of the area. The council denies the rezoning unanimously as residents thunderously applaud.
District Two council candidate Frank Matthews addresses concerns that he is using the $25,000 contract for antigang initiatives to finance his campaign for City Council in the upcoming October 9 election. “The integrity of Frank Matthews has been questioned by hired word assassins to assassinate my character on the radio!” Matthews says in disgust. Calling the allegation an “absolute lie,” Matthews says he has the money “in its entirety” for anyone to examine. He also denounces the recent listing of voters and respective polling places in the daily newspapers in print so tiny that “it takes a gigantic thing like they use to look at stars to know where to vote.” Sample ballots are also too small, says Matthews. &