Planning Commission 9-0 for Pinery; City Council next

       With 9-0 Planning Commission votes Oct. 18 on all three requests regarding a wedding/banquet center atop Bijou Hill, these will go to City Council as “consent” items at its Nov. 13 meeting.

An easterly view through the existing building was possible this week, as a result of preparation work for the new Pinery at the Hill wedding/banquet center at 775 W. Bijou St., which is awaiting final city approvals.
Westside Pioneer photo

       That means there will be no public hearing unless an appeal is filed or a council member pulls an item from the consent calendar, explained Meggan Herington of City Land Use Review.
       The applicant is the Pinery LLC, which plans to build a two-story wedding venue (including chapel and banquet facilities) with space for weekday business meetings on the site of the former one-story Fish Market restaurant, 775 W. Bijou St. It closed in 2001, and the former building has been a target for burglars, vandals and vagrants ever since.
       The hilltop site is surrounded by homes, and although no resident has spoken up for keeping the site as is, several have raised issues related to the size of the proposed center, which would be about twice that of the restaurant. These issues were previously discussed at an August neighborhood meeting, at a private meeting with the developer and Herington and in e-mails to the city.
       However, at Planning Commission, only one neighbor spoke against the project, while another spoke in favor.
       The Planning Commis-sion vote actually gave the Pinery owners more flexibility than Herington had recommended. In suggesting project approval, she had included several conditions (worked out in part with the neighborhood), and one of these had been a daily opening time of 8 a.m. - except for 7 a.m. once a month to allow breakfast meetings. After Commission Chair Janet Suthers questioned whether such a condition was enforceable or needed - noting that attracting breakfast meetings would help the business succeed and such gatherings would be “innocuous” in terms of noise and neighborhood impact - the group voted to change the time to 7 a.m. universally.
       Other conditions call on the business to shut down by midnight, with limits on activities outside the building, so as to reduce neighborhood impacts. Overall, Herington said she believes the project will actually have less impact than the restaurant did, in terms of noise, traffic and customer behavior.
       The only other critical comments at the meeting came from two members of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), who were displeased that the Pinery owners had demolished an older house on a neighboring, residentially zoned property they had bought and are now seeking to rezone the site for a parking lot. OWN is the city-recognized advocacy group for the older Westside.
       “I don't want that to be a precedent,” OWN President Welling Clark said. “I encourage Planning Commission to help ensure that we don't have homes that are the fabric of neighborhoods destroyed for commercial operations.”
       He also wanted the rezone changed to a variance request. This would let the property keep its residential zone so that at some point in the future a house conceivably could be built there again. He said that variances instead of rezones have helped retain homes in mixed-use areas elsewhere on the Westside.
       But no Planning Commission member championed the idea. One member, Robert Shonkwiler, noted that if that approach had been used for the Hill Street property, “a parking lot would be almost the last thing you could do.” Suthers agreed that Clark made “a valid point about businesses buying up residential properties,” but added that rather than have government step in, “the best way is to make those owners aware of their options.”
       According to comments from project architect Bruce Barr, the demolished home (originally built in 1889 at 122 Hill St.) “was in pretty rough shape,” with “five cobbled-together additions” and problems with mold and asbestos. The owners “had moved out five years ago, and less-than-desirable tenants were in there,” he said. “It was just a nightmare, and the most beneficial use was to level it.”
       Several commission members praised the Pinery as a quality operation with a proven business record - the Pinery in Black Forest has operated since 2007 - that will improve the value of the properties around it.
       Windsor Yellen, co-owner of the Pinery LLC with her husband Mitchell, responded to a neighborhood concern that the business might fail, leaving another empty building. She noted that she and Mitchell own three other local businesses, giving them “a track record of success in Colorado Springs. It's not our intention to fail.” In addition, Mitchell has found investors for the estimated $10 million Pinery project chiefly from local business and medical professionals. “They know where we live, they know our kids,” she said. “The onus on us to succeed is enormous.”
       But if things went bad, Windsor pointed out that half of the downstairs is a chapel and the other half is a ballroom. “I think it would be purchased by a church.”
       Along with the rezoning, the Pinery LLC is requesting an amendment to the Pinery at the Hill development plan (previously approved in 2008) and a non-use variance for the retaining wall across Hill Street that will both shore up the new parking lot and help guide the drainage to an on-property detention pond.

Westside Pioneer article