The controversial digital billboard on Gervais Street in the Vista can stay, and the proposed Hyatt Place can be built a story taller than competing hotels, city boards have decided.
The two are big decisions in shaping the skyline of one of Columbia’s entertainment, retail and historic corridors.
Talk of lawsuits from opponents has loomed over both the hotel and the billboard.
Votes cast Tuesday by the Zoning Board of Appeals allow the billboard and grant the Hyatt a parking exemption. Those votes require no further action by City Council and can be appealed only to state court, city officials said.
On Monday, the Columbia Planning Commission’s overwhelmingly approved a change in the zoning for the proposed six-story, 130-room Hyatt along the 800 block of Gervais. Surrounding hotels in the Vista are five stories tall and have tried to block construction of the Hyatt, which has won each time the issue has come to a vote.
Vista resident Steve Hinson, an outspoken critic of a six-story Hyatt, told the Planning Commission that height matters.
“If we .... put a bunch of 75 foot buildings down there, the entire character will be completely destroyed,” he said.
City Council still must sign off on the zoning change and could consider it as early as next month. Council’s decision would have to be appealed in circuit court.
Noble Investment Group of Atlanta is seeking to build the Hyatt, a hotel that some Vista businesses and the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center have been pushing.
In August, Noble withdrew its application for a planned unit development zoning designation, just as City Council was poised to give the application a final OK.
Noble then asked the city for an M-1 zoning designation, which still allows for construction of a six-story hotel. The hotel must be built so that its top floor is set back from Gervais Street, and it must have at least 71 parking spaces, said Krista Hampton, Columbia’s director of planning and development.
To meet the parking requirement, Noble asked the zoning board to approve an exemption so that it could lease spaces in the nearby, city-owned garage that abuts the back of the hotel property. The Hyatt would have 62 spaces on its own property. Employees most likely would use the garage spaces, Noble’s John Cooper told the board.
The board, in a 3-2 vote, approved letting Noble lease the spaces.
Members Calhoun McMeekin III and Patricia Durkin cast the “no” votes. McMeekin said the Hyatt, as proposed, would have a “huge adverse effect” on the Vista. Durkin said that a six-story hotel is just “too high.”
Board chairman Ernest Cromartie III, Preston Young and Patrick Hubbard voted “yes.” Member Chuck Salley did not vote because he works for an engineering firm that is involved in the hotel project.
In the billboard case, Windy Hills LLC won a fight to leave its digital billboard in the brick-warehouse entertainment district. Critics have complained that the sign is too close to the street and that, with its lighted, scrolling ads, is too distracting.
The digital version is almost half the size of the billboard it replaced, measuring 360 square feet compared with the static-sign billboard’s 672 square feet, Columbia zoning administrator Brian Cook said. Both are 48 feet high.
Lamar Outdoor Advertising, the city’s largest sign company, challenged the zoning office’s approval this summer of the digital variety on a site at 1012 Gervais St. Lamar’s objection was not based on the fact that the sign is digital.
Lamar’s attorney, Toby Ward, said landowners could not sign new leases without the permission of sign companies. In this case, the landowner switched billboard companies after a long-term lease expired.
“We believe the zoning administrator made a mistake,” Ward said. “What we’re asking you to do is ... revoke the permit that was issued.”
Jay Bender, lawyer for Windy Hills, said the billboard cannot be blocked just because it poses competition. “What Lamar wants is to hold landowners hostage,” he said. Bender, who specializes in media law, has represented The State Media Co., which owns The State newspaper.
Ward would not say immediately after the vote if Lamar plans to go to court to continue its fight. Any appeal to circuit court must be filed within 30 days, Hampton said.
The static billboard originally was erected in the early 1980s, said Hal Stevenson, owner of Grace Outdoor Advertising, which manages the billboard for Windy Hills. Stevenson said he believes Lamar moved to block the city’s approval as a means of protecting its business interests.
Ward could not be reached after the meeting for a response to Stevenson.
People who have been upset about the digital aspect of the bilboard will have to continue to be frustrated.
When City Council updated its zoning law in 2009, it said that static signs can be torn down and replaced on the same site as long as the new sign is no closer than 300 feet from residential property or property zoned residential in planned use development districts, Cook said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.