"It's probably one of the nicest parking lots in the city," says attorney Dusty Kirk, about a contested lot on the corner of Baum and Aiken in Friendship. Kirk represents Don Allen Associates, the lot's developers and owners of the automobile dealer across the street.
And she's right about the lot. Compared to two others in the area -- both surrounded by 10-foot chain-link fencing and graffiti-ed signs -- the faux-brick wall and deciduous and evergreen trees make this a near-oasis in the middle of a busy intersection.
But the lot's design violates a legal agreement with the Friendship Preservation Group, and so FPG filed suit in August.
When Sierra Liberty Associates and Don Allen Associates, developers of the new Courtyard by Marriott Hotel on Liberty Avenue, first sat down with neighboring building owners and FPG to detail their development proposal, they planned to build an underground parking lot for hotel guests. When underground parking proved economically infeasible, they proposed tearing down a trapezoid-shaped house owned by Don Allen and turning it into a two-tiered, valet-parked lot for the Marriott. The house at 463 South Aiken Ave. had been empty for years, according to Kirk, a partner in the law firm of Pepper Hamilton.
FPG, with its focus on preservation, hesitated.
"One of our principal concerns is commercial encroachment into residential properties," explains Dutch MacDonald, FPG's president and a 10-year neighborhood resident. But Don Allen Associates made it clear they planned to raze the building no matter what, MacDonald says -- it had been re-zoned commercial years ago. "It was a hard thing to swallow, that we'd lose a house, but we figured we'd work to do the best thing for the neighborhood," he adds.
In a March 2002 agreement, both sides spelled out exactly how the lot would look: the color and texture of the lot's retaining walls, the height and thickness of trees, evergreens and shrubs, even the type of evergreen -- Thuja occidentalis "Nigra," a type of white cedar with dark green foliage that can grow to 20 feet and can withstand both drought and pollution. It was to be planted in double rows between the lot and the residence on South Aiken. And, perhaps most important in the eyes of the FPG, the agreement gave the neighborhood group access to the house for architectural salvage.
"I don't know how communication broke down," says MacDonald, "but at the end of the day [Don Allen Associates] took all of the valuable architectural salvage out and then called and said, 'OK, come get what you want.'"
Other parts of the agreement were also apparently ignored. Because an existing retaining wall collapsed during demolition, the developers built the lot on one level, instead of two. The walls around the lot, which according to the agreement were to be faced with a stone veneer resembling the church across Baum Boulevard, were instead built with red concrete block. And at the time the FPG sued, the landscaping was nonexistent.
Throughout the design changes, no one at FPG heard from Don Allen Associates.
"Hundreds of volunteer hours were spent negotiating this with them," says MacDonald. "It was done in good faith. At the end of the day they're all making money and the decisions were all made for economic reasons."
FPG's suit had asked for all construction to cease. But by mid-September all the parties sat down to talk, and the FPG called off its injunction. Sod and plantings went in that week. "I think it's fair to say that the parties are working amicably to find a resolution," says Pat Nightingale, FPG's attorney.
Dusty Kirk agrees: "We're ready to have another meeting at any time."
FPG is working to determine the value of the architectural salvage and will request that the stone veneer be installed. But the dispute is not over. On Labor Day weekend, Don Allen Associates held a tent sale in the parking lot -- a zoning violation, in the eyes of FPG. The group recently filed an appeal to the zoning board.
FPG isn't against development, MacDonald emphasizes. "We're willing to sit down at the table," he explains. "But if you don't follow through, we're going to take action."