Council approves controversial seven-story Main Street hotel

Newark Post | by Josh Shannon

City council on Monday approved a controversial hotel project, paving the way for Lang Development Group to construct a seven-story structure that likely will be the tallest building on Main Street.

Council voted 5-2 in favor of the proposal, which includes 144 hotel rooms, a restaurant, 19,500 square feet of office space and a parking garage at 96 E. Main St., across from the Academy Street intersection.

Several of the council members who voted in favor of the plan said they understood the concerns of residents but noted that the project is allowed under the city’s zoning code and comprehensive plan with the exception that the hotel portion requires a special-use permit.

City Solicitor Paul Bilodeau reminded council members they needed to base their decision solely on whether the hotel would “affect adversely the health or safety” of Newark residents or “be detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to property or improvements.”

“If we don’t follow our code, the next stop is court. And if we don’t follow our code, we’re going to lose,” Councilman Stu Markham said. “Would I like this project to be two stories lower? Yes. Do I have the right to demand that? No.”

Under the approved plan, Lang will combine two properties, demolishing the former Abbott’s Shoe Repair building and incorporating the facade of the historic Green Mansion, which is protected under the city’s historic preservation law, into the new building.

The first three levels of the building will include the restaurant, hotel lobby and commercial office space in the front and parking in the back. Meanwhile, the top four floors will contain the hotel rooms. Part of the fourth floor will also include a deck with a pool and a patio.

Complicating the project is the hotel’s impact on the city’s pay-to-park Lot 3, which is made up of several privately owned parcels leased to the city for use as public parking.

Lang will end the city’s lease on the company’s portion of Lot 3 and use the land for the hotel project. That will split the city’s lot into two pieces and remove 73 spaces, more than a quarter of the lot.

The hotel project includes a 244-space parking garage, which will be privately managed and used for hotel guests and employees of the office tenants.

However, Lang pledged that excess parking will be made available to the public. There would be at least 36 spaces available to the public at all times, and possibly as many as 130 available, depending on the occupancy of the hotel.

Lang officials have indicated they plan to charge $2 an hour for parking and balked at council’s suggestion they match the city’s rate of $1 an hour.

Last month, the planning commission deadlocked on whether to recommend council approve the project.

Since then, Lang made minor changes to the plan, moving the building farther back from the street and reducing the height from 82 feet to 79 feet, eliminating the need for height and setback variances.

Chris Locke, senior vice president and general counsel for Lang Development, noted that he often hears council members and residents say they want something other than student housing downtown. The hotel project provides just that and also brings in an additional $375,000 to the city each year in property tax, lodging tax and utility sales, he said.

Presenting a petition signed by 50 Main Street business owners in favor of the project, Locke said the hotel will bring in additional customers to Main Street, which will benefit restaurants and retail shops. That will be a “shot in the arm” for a downtown that will soon suffer the effects of a lengthy Main Street construction project and increased competition from the STAR Campus, he said.

“I implore you for future of our city, for the survival of our downtown to approve our project,” Locke said.

Dozens of residents packed into city council chambers to weigh in on the project Monday night. Council’s debate over the project lasted three hours, starting at 10 p.m. and extending past 1 a.m. Tuesday.

“It’s obvious the residents do not want this building,” resident Robin Billy said “It’s oversized. We don’t need a hotel on Main Street.”

Sheila Anderson, too, said the building is too large.

“What is disconcerting to residents is it is going to be built in the heart of Newark surrounded by many historic buildings,” she said.

State Rep. John Kowalko drew applause for a passionate speech against the hotel proposal.

“The city is not a monopoly board. You shouldn’t have the right to buy up any available property expecting you can build monolithic structures wherever you chose,” Kowalko said. “It’s time for this council to take its responsibility to its residents seriously and oppose this project and oppose the special interests of a few over the rights and interests of the many.”

Michael McGrath, president of Preservation Delaware Inc., said council should focus on preserving the entirety of the Green Mansion, not just the front. The building, named for its green serpentine front, was constructed in 1882 and expanded multiple times over the years. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and was used as a dentist office and apartments before Lang bought it.

“We at PDI urge you be careful in preserving the features of your city that give it a sense of real place and real history,” McGrath said.

Resident Jean White also expressed concern over the effect on the historic building.

“It is compromising the Green Mansion and it is taking our soul away,” she said.

Other residents spoke out in favor of the project.

“I feel it would be beneficial to the restaurant and retail community,” Ed Burke said.

Dave Hanich said the hotel would provide a benefit to people visiting Newark for sports tournaments or other events at the University of Delaware.

“I’m here to throw my support behind this project,” he said.

Pat Fogg, a resident and retired city employee, also voiced her support.

“This hotel will have a significant positive impact on downtown,” she said.

Council’s two dissenting votes came from Councilwoman Jen Wallace and Councilman Mark Morehead.

Wallace said the project is “too out of balance” with the rest of Main Street.

“I don’t think a hotel is a good fit on Main Street,” she said. “What makes Main Street unique is the Green Mansion and the other historic buildings around it.”

Morehead said he is concerned about the effect on traffic and parking, particularly the fact that the hotel will bifurcate the city’s parking lot. Motorists leaving the west half of the lot will no longer be able to exit at a traffic light and instead will have to use a driveway between Dairy Queen and Pachamama, which is currently blocked off.

“You are forcing a situation on the future of this town we know we don’t care for,” he said.

Councilman Jerry Clifton said the project meets the legal standards but highlights the need for the city to revise its comprehensive development plan so council has more discretion on future projects.

“I am so wary of deviating from the standards. As much as I don’t like what the comp plan allows, that’s still what we have to deal with, like it or not,” Clifton said. “It’s a horrible plate, but it’s the plate we’ve been served.”

Meanwhile, a second proposal for a hotel on Main Street is working its way through the city’s development process. Danneman & Danneman LLC’s plan calls for demolishing the building at 132 E. Main St. – which houses Tasty Wok, Playa Bowls and the former Margherita’s Pizza – and building an 88-room hotel, 12 apartments, retail space and a parking garage. That plan is in the early stages, and a vote has not yet been scheduled.

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