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Hotel near Bern's passes rezoning hurdle

Developers cleared a major hurdle when the City Council voted unanimously to rezone a parking lot Thursday night for an 86-room boutique hotel that would expand the legacy of famed Bern's Steak House.

David Laxer, son of Bern's founder Bern Laxer, wants to build a restaurant, townhouses, a wine shop, spa and parking garage along S Howard Avenue. The project would sit across the street from Bern's, on a triangular piece of land _ roughly 500 feet long and 400 feet deep _ currently used as a parking lot.

During a Jan. 8 City Council meeting that stretched past 2 a.m., council members and the Architectural Review Commission asked Bern's developers to consider several changes to their plan, and they have agreed to several revisions, including: extending a security fence to block the view of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway from the Moody and Southview avenues intersection; eliminating parking along Southview; increasing a northern portion of the proposed building to 70 feet to allow for a five-foot setback on Howard; narrowing the main entrance into the building on Howard from 60 feet to 48 feet; and landscaping the side of the garage that would face the Crosstown.

Developers said they could not commit to dead-ending Moody Avenue until they met with city transportation officials, and other changes to surrounding streets would also be up to the city.

After less than two hours of discussion, council members approved the rezoning, which had met with some resistance among longtime residents of Historic Hyde Park.

David Tirella said he moved into nearby New Suburb Beautiful neighborhood five years ago, and urged the council to force developers to explain more specifics before taking a vote.

"The devil's usually in the details, and what I hear tonight is not the details," Tirella said. "We don't know what's the rush. I respectfully ask all of you to take a deep breath. We'll all come back another day."

Developers have yet to create a rendering for the project to show details, such as where height variations along the building will be built. During a Jan. 8 City Council meeting, Del Acosta, the city's historic preservation manager, asked that the building's height be varied. He had suggested developers increase a portion of the northern part of the structure to 70 feet. A list of changes to the site plan showed Thursday night that developers had complied.

"If there's a 70-foot tower, will I see someone's roof?" Tirella asked. "Will I see valet running limousines on top of the roof deck? At this point today, we really don't have any answers."

"We haven't designed that part of the building yet," Bern's attorney James Shimberg Jr. later said.

Under the developers' plans, a four-story garage would sit on the back of the hotel lot.

Council member John Dingfelder was concerned about a nearby gas station built in 1933. Developers had suggested salvaging part of the gas station's awning. Dingfelder urged them to look further into saving more of the structure. Acosta said it somehow got overlooked as a contributing structure and is not classified as part of the Historic District.

Throughout the meeting, fears of traffic congestion remained a key objection. Earlier this month, Shimberg estimated that 164 more cars would drive the area along S Howard Avenue during peak hours.

Despite some dissent, many who spoke at Thursday's meeting supported Laxer's proposal and thanked him for spending so much time talking with residents about it.

The next step is for developers to submit a proposal to the ARC, which will govern specific details about the project, such as the type of windows in the building.

After the meeting, Laxer said the victory in Thursday night's vote came from spending so much time with residents.

"This was just the first step in many," Laxer said. "It's really hard to step out of your father's shadow, especially when your father is Bern Laxer. I think this will be that first step."

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