Thursday, March 23, 2006

Orange Beach Official-Developer Meetings Established

Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- The City Council on Tuesday evening adopted new guidelines for elected officials to follow when they meet with developers or others bringing zoning-related matters to the body.

Among the requirements of the policy are that the meetings be held during normal business hours -- weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- either on the proposed project site or at municipal facilities, such as City Hall or the Community Development office. Also, the rules require elected officials to be accompanied by a peer or a city employee.

Any deviations from the guidelines are to be reported at the council's bi-weekly work sessions, according to the policy.

Previously there were no rules governing encounters between elected officials and developers that took place outside public hearings and other open forums.

In January, state prosecutors indicted then-Mayor Steve Russo, former Councilman Joe McCarron, local builder Jim Brown and longtime City Attorney Larry Sutley, alleging a host of public corruption charges related to development deals. Federal prosecutors have also charged Russo, who resigned soon after the indictments were announced.

All four men have pleaded innocent to the various charges, but current Orange Beach officials said they proposed the meeting policy earlier this month to shake perceptions that City Hall operates through secret, prearranged deals with development interests.

"I think it's important to because it lets the citizenry know that this council wants to do things in the correct manner, that we don't any of these backroom deals or anything like that," Councilman Larry Alexander said on Tuesday.

Councilwoman Tracy Holiday said that she and her colleagues have to occasionally meet with developers in order to do their jobs, but the policy "takes a lot of pressure off of all of us."

Even before the unanimous vote to approve the policy, council members discussed broadening it to include phone conversations.

"We're going to get phone calls, but the only thing to do there is to address the time, set up a meeting if they want to do that," said Councilman Jeff Silvers. "Nothing changes, but lengthy phone calls and discussions about development, I think, need to be addressed in this policy, too."

City Administrator Jeff Moon said that he would have an amendment to the policy regarding phone calls for the council to review at its work session next week and vote on in early April.

Luxury Condo Planned for Orange Beach

Carlton Proctor

Innisfree Hotels announced plans Monday to begin construction of a luxury condominium in Orange Beach, Ala., that features the latest anti-mold technology and wind-tunnel testing to reduce storm damage.

The proposed 22-story Watermark Condominium will include four floors of covered parking, 69 Gulf-front units and a rooftop swimming pool, said Roger Wiegner, broker and president of Surf and Sand Realty, exclusive agents for the project.

Julian MacQueen, CEO of Innisfree Hotels in Gulf Breeze, said the project "is a testimony to our belief in Orange Beach and its resilience to return as a major destination on the Gulf Coast providing a world-class experience."

Watermark's construction is set to begin in the next few weeks, and should take between 18 and 20 months to complete. A grand opening is scheduled for fall 2007.

In addition to the Watermark project, Wiegner said Innisfree has two major projects under way.

Seawind, another Orange Beach condominium project, is nearing completion and is expected to receive its certificate of occupancy in July, he said.

Innisfree's Hilton Garden Inn property on Pensacola Beach also is undergoing expansion, Wiegner said.

The state-of-the-art building, on Innisfree's former Days Inn site in Orange Beach, will be constructed with "100 percent Make-Up Air," a forced-air system designed to prevent humid air from invading individual units when balcony or entrance doors and windows are opened.

In addition, a detailed, scale mock-up of the building is being wind-tunnel tested by a Canadian firm that specializes in identifying vulnerable parts of a building's design features, Wiegner said.

"The actual model of the building, along with models of other buildings in the area, will be wind-tunnel tested for 140 mile-per-hour winds to give us an idea of where the weak points are," Wiegner said.

The two- and three-bedroom units will be available in the $600,000 to $1 million range, he said.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Two Canal Road Proposals in Orange Beach Receive OK

Mike's comment - More developments off the beach are getting the go ahead. All developments do not have to be on the beach to be a success. When The Wharf opens all of this will be taken to the next level.

Thursday, March 16, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- The Planning Commission, at its Tuesday evening meeting, added a member, appointed a new chairman and gave favorable reviews to two Canal Road developments that would add 380 single-family homes.

Al Bradley, an accountant and attorney and former Texas apartment developer, was named to fill the vacancy left by Chairman Larry Alexander, who had to resign his seat when he was appointed to the City Council last month. With the open seat filled, the board selected a new chairman, voting unanimously to appoint Robert Stuart to that position.

All Planning Commission positions are unpaid.

Once the appointments were settled, the board held public hearings regarding two large, single-family planned unit development proposals and voted unanimously to recommend that the City Council approve both.

Designs for one, called The Retreat at Orange Beach, call for 112 single-family home lots and a marina on about 70 acres along Canal Road. The property, west of Sampson Avenue, is owned by the family of Bay Minette lawyer Dan Blackburn and is bound on the north by Bay La Launch and encompasses the 4.76-acre Lake Baldwin.

The Retreat plans are the third set of designs, each carrying a different name, that Blackburn has brought before the Planning Commission since May.

Named Harbortown, the original $500 million proposal called for 830 residential units, condo towers up to 18 stories tall, about 500 boat slips, a hotel and retail space. At the time, planners also proposed cutting a channel to link the lake to Bay La Launch to create a boat basin.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously against those plans after a public hearing in which about 40 residents spoke out against the dense designs.

In October, new, scaled-back plans, with the new name of Bay La Launch Village, were brought to the board. That proposal did not include any retail space, abandoned plans to open up the lake, decreased the maximum height of condo towers to 12 stories, decreased the number of residential units to about 500 and made a greater proportion of that total single-family homes.

Again, after a long public hearing in which about 30 residents opposed the plans, the Planning Commission voted against the project.
On Tuesday, the tenor changed as the latest designs, which include only single-family home sites, acres of green space and wetlands, recreational facilities, boardwalks and a much smaller private marina in a gated community, were lauded by city officials and residents.

"This is the type of development that we would like to have on Canal Road," said Community Development Director Jim Lawson.

Bob Burton, who lives near the site and opposed the earlier plans, said he hopes The Retreat will set a precedent, "a message to other developers that we want to preserve our neighborhoods."

At the other end of the city, developers have proposed turning 62.6 acres into a 268-home subdivision called The Homestead at Orange Beach. The property is owned by Deck Investments LLC, a company registered to a Louisiana investor, who, according to Probate Court records, bought the land in December 2003 for $1.495 million.

The site was once proposed as the home of a water park, but nearby residents turned up so much opposition to that idea that then-Mayor Steve Russo asked the developers to look elsewhere for a place to build their attraction. Later, after Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004, the property was used by the city as a place to pile debris before it could be hauled to a landfill or mulched.

The clear-cutting that preceded the property's use as a debris staging site combined with a high water table there has caused stormwater to run off the property and flood nearby neighborhoods, said City Engineer Kit Alexander. Developers of The Homestead proposed solving the flooding problems as the "public benefit" if they are granted planned unit development status.

Guidelines for such developments allow the city to approve projects that may not meet certain zoning criteria but are deemed the best use of property.

In this case, developers of The Homestead ask that they be allowed to subdivide the tract into lots that are generally 45 feet wide by 75 feet deep. At 3,835 square feet, these would be far smaller than the 9,000-square-foot single-family lots typically allowed under Orange Beach zoning rules.

The size, developer Robert Lowe Jr. said, will allow for the construction of smaller, more affordable homes geared toward local workers, which Orange Beach officials have stated a need for.

Lowe said that the average cost of the homes will be $250,000. Some, he said, will be as small as 1,300 square feet, while others, likely priced at around $350,000 will be in the 2,300- to 2,400-square-foot range.
Though the homes will be far less expensive than many existing residences in Orange Beach, Planning Commission member Joni Blalock, who is also a city councilwoman and the city's representative to a county task force studying work force housing, said that mortgage payments for a $250,000 home is more than the average resort or restaurant worker could afford.

"I don't know many in the work force in the city of Orange Beach that could afford $2,200 a month," Blalock said.

Other commission members expressed concerns about the density of the planned neighborhood.

"I think it's very good that we're doing affordable housing, we really need that," commission member Jil Walker said. "Can you reduce the density at all and make the numbers work on this affordable housing project?"

Lowe said he'd rather not and even hoped to get permission from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to fill some wetlands and add more homes.

"The overall site itself is going to be 50 percent green space with all the wetlands that we have," Lowe said. "We are talking about a cottage environment where the homes are close to each other from a proximity, but if done correctly it has a wonderful community feel."

Though several residents of adjacent neighborhoods spoke about the proposal, most indicated that they just wanted to make sure that any development would solve rather than exacerbate the area's flooding problems. Some residents of the Captain's Cove subdivision, which sits to the east, predicted that with so many households in such close quarters, residents of The Homestead would encroach on their property.

"Folks are going to be tight, they're going to be cramped and they're going to be looking to spread out," said Andrew Lowe, one such Captain's Cove resident.

The developer Robert Lowe, responding to worries about the density, said, "Housing in this dense of an environment is new to this area, it's not necessarily new on a national scale."

Before voting in favor of the plans, the Planning Commission placed a condition on the developers that they build a six-foot fence between The Homestead and properties on the north and east.

With the Planning Commission's approval, both proposals move on to the City Council, where they will likely be considered within the next month.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

MLS Stats for February 2006 for Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Perdido Key

MLS Stats for February 2006 confirm that we are still in a Buyer's market.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Orange Beach - The Wharf

Giant residential-retail-entertainment development on track to be first of canal mega projects to open; Hank Williams Jr. gets the party started Memorial Day weekend with project amphitheater's first concert

Sunday, March 12, 2006
Real Estate Editor

The Wharf's 11-story ferris wheel is ready to roll, and Hank Williams Jr. will get the party started with the first concert in the 10,200-seat outdoor amphitheater on May 27, the Memorial Day weekend in Orange Beach.

When it opens, The Wharf will be one of the first mega condominium, retail and entertainment developments on the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway next to the Foley Beach Express toll bridge. More than 500 workers at the 200-acre site are working to have many of the amenities ready to debut the last week of May.

"We've known from the get-go that once we were going vertical, that the lifestyle center would be the heart of Orange Beach," said Beason Wilkes, director of development for Birmingham-based AIG Baker. "It's a neighborhood and resort area. Sure, our business slowed down after Katrina. But in the last four weeks, it's been robust."

In fact, some of the buyers who were considering presale units in other projects at the Gulf are now interested in units at The Wharf, he said. Construction is well under way on The Wharf's first two condo buildings, where all of the 190 units were sold before Hurricane Katrina hit last fall. Prices averaged $400,000 in the first building a year ago, and recent sales in the second building averaged $550,000.

A combination of factors -- last year's active hurricane season, sluggish sales and more than 2,500 existing units for sale -- has caused many of the developers on the Waterway and the beachfront to step back and wait for the market to improve.

In February, developer Jim Mattei, a Mobile native, pulled the plug on Waterdance Resort, a 700-unit project on the north shore of the Waterway, citing poor presales.

Developers of the 507-unit Portage Crossing project on 16 acres on the north shore of the Waterway in Orange Beach had to find a new contractor after Hurricane Katrina hit last August, but the project is still on go, said Patrick Daily, owner of REMAX of Orange Beach.

All of the 507 units were reserved in one day last spring, but about 200 or so buyers backed out before the sales closed, according to Daily. Those units will be released again, but at a higher price, he said. The first units sold for prices between $400,000 and $800,000.

Riverwalk work to resume

Work on Riverwalk Orange Beach, next door to the Portage Crossing site, should resume within 30 days, according to spokesman Rebecca Wilson. That development includes Gulf World Marine Park, which is now set to open in spring 2007.
"We've added to our amenities and attractions and our project has gone from $85 million to over $300 million," Wilson said. "These improvements required complete architectural and engineering changes," which delayed construction.

There will be 1,100 condo units instead of 300, and the size of the convention center was increased to 68,000 square feet, she said.

"We're two-thirds sold in the first phase of condos, and as soon as we get to a comfort level with sales, we'll start construction," said Paul Wesch of The Mitchell Company, a partner in Riverwalk.

"In the near future, it's going to be The Wharf on the south, Riverwalk on the north and then slowly, a beautiful development at Bon Secour Village," Wesch said. "As those three projects mature and the market cycles up, we'll see other projects get going on the Waterway."

Work is under way on Bon Secour Village, a marina and mixed-use development on 1,000 acres off Baldwin County 4, with about one mile of frontage on the Waterway in Gulf Shores.

The slowdown in resort sales is not all due to last year's hurricanes, according to Daily, of REMAX. Condo developments are popping up across the country, from Las Vegas to Naples, Fla., he said.

"Investors and users have a tremendous amount of choices," Daily said. "And I don't think all these (projects) are going to get built. I think less than 50 percent will. The key for buyers is to pick the projects that are going to get done."

"Part of The Wharf's appeal is being in the middle of all the activity," Wilkes said. We see a mix of people coming in. One group of buyers has been on the beach and now they want off the beach, but still want to be on the water. We're seeing buyers from as far away as Guam, Europe and California."

The 741 condo units at The Wharf will be built over two to three years, and most of the 1 million square feet of retail space should be leased within two years, according to Wharf developers. Future plans include a 239-room condo hotel, The Inn at the Wharf, and the units will be sold for $400,000 each, Wilkes said.

The project's 210-slip marina with floating docks will open in April, he said.

Kicking off public use

Memorial Day weekend and concert will kick off public use of some of The Wharf's major amenities. The site's icon, a 142-foot tall ferris wheel, was custom-made in northern Italy, according to Wilkes. A 70,000-square-foot Rave theater will also open that weekend, along with four or five restaurants and several retail stores.

On July 4th, all of the entertainment, stores and restaurants on the site's Main Street will be open, he said.

The Wharf's "big box area" on the west side of the Foley Beach Express toll bridge will include large stores such as a grocery or electronic store, Wilkes said.

So far, 200,000 square feet of retail space has been leased, according to Jeff Rouzie, leasing representative for AIG Baker. "The focus now is on unique boutiques and entertainment," he said, "and the big boxes will come later."

The tenants so far include Monsters of the Deep, a 5,000-square-foot interactive museum featuring shark exhibits; Starbucks Coffee; hamburger eatery Johnny Rockets; Sand Dollar Shoes; H.L. Hood; Tootie Green's Yellow Broom, a gift shop; Galati Yacht Sales; Private Gallery; Go Fish, a clothing and jewelry shop; Twin Palms, a gift shop; Shades; Bungalows; Just Off The Beach, a gift shop; Michelle's Beach House, a home furnishings store; Ooh La La; Tickled Pink, a retro gift shop; Unique Jewelry N' Things; Pensacola Blues, a jeans and denim store; Regards from the Beach, a gift shop based in Tuscaloosa; Diamond Jewelers; Little Things, a children's clothing store; Top Nails and Tan; Live Bait Food & Spirits restaurant; and Frontier Grill, a Mexican restaurant.

"When you go through two hurricanes in a row, it can knock you back," Rouzie said. "But this is more than a condo project. The multiplicity of this complex on the water is unique. Within 24 months you'll see a totally different mix of retailers."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Orange Beach - The Wharf update

Mike's Comments - The Wharf is doing an outstanding job both in their construction and in promotion. This will become a cornerstone in our market.There are still a few condos left in Boggey Point.

February Update - The Wharf

Ferris Wheel Arrives

The various components of The Wharf’s Ferris wheel arrived stateside at the Port of New Orleans and began the journey last week to Orange Beach. At fifty feet tall, the base of the Ferris wheel has been erected and already stands high above the Rave Motion Picture Theater. We have been filming the various stages of this project, including its arrival, and will continue with the filming of the erection of the wheel. Plans are to produce a short documentary covering this exciting project. It’s not often that a community welcomes such a unique attraction – the Ferris wheel is the southeast’s largest and will become an icon for the Alabama Gulf Coast for generations to come.

Wharf Donates Police Boat
The Wharf is pleased to announce the donation of a 26 foot Silvership AM800 patrol boat to the City of Orange Beach’s police department. With a permanent home at The Marina at The Wharf, the police boat will patrol the Waterway and surrounding waters. "We want to thank the Wharf for their recent donation of the patrol boat. This, in my opinion, shows their commitment to the Orange Beach community for a safer city.” says Chief of Police Billy Wilkins. The dedication ceremony took place Tuesday, February 21 at the Orange Beach City Hall.

Main Street Begins to Take Shape

Progress continues on both Wharf Parkway and Main Street’s retail shops and parking decks. Crews are now working on the interiors of the Rave Motion Picture Theater, and the exterior is nearing completion. Visitors to the site can now get a true sense of our town center as they drive through the area. Click here to see the most recent photos.

Construction crews are now working on the fifth floor of the Levin’s Bend condominium. With six more floors to go, Levin’s Bend will be the first condominium tower to be completed, and we anticipate that the east tower will be completed this fall.

The Marina at The Wharf

Phase I of the The Marina at The Wharf is complete, and the remaining phases are nearing completion. We will soon be able to pump fuel and accept transient boaters. Boat slips are still available for lease and we encourage anyone interested in a slip to contact us now, as we expect these slips to lease quickly. Click here for updated pictures of our progress at the Marina.

Grand Opening – Entertainment Complex

We have decided to celebrate our grand opening in phases, with the entertainment complex opening over the Memorial Day weekend. This will include the highly anticipated opening of our open-air amphitheater, featuring Hank Williams Jr. on Saturday, May 27! Tickets will go on sale soon. Our homeowners will have the first opportunity to purchase tickets, and then the rest will go on sale to the public a week following. Be sure to watch your e-mail or to check our website for ticket information.

Also opening over the Memorial Day Weekend will be the 15 screen Rave Motion Picture Theater, the Ferris wheel and several other shops and attractions, like Monsters From the Deep, located in the entertainment complex near the Rave.

Grand Opening – Town Center and Marina

Several weeks later, we will celebrate the opening of many of our shops and restaurants located along Main Street and sections of Wharf Parkway. Many different exciting activities and events are planned for the weekend of June 30-July 2 to mark the grand opening of our town center and the marina.

Fourth at The Wharf!

The Wharf will introduce a new way to celebrate Independence Day by hosting one of the most spectacular fireworks displays and concerts to be found anywhere in the southeast! The Mobile Symphony will perform live in the amphitheater the night of Tuesday, July 4th, with a 20 minute synchronized fireworks display planned. Make plans now to spend your Fourth at The Wharf!

Orange Beach - New Meeting Rules

Mike's Comment - This is putting the right foot forward to regain credibility.

Monday, March 06, 2006
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- Following public corruption indictments against former Mayor Steve Russo, the city's longtime attorney, a former councilman and a local builder, municipal leaders have proposed new ground rules for elected officials meeting with developers.

Among prosecutors' allegations are that the indicted Orange Beach officials used their positions -- through votes or influence -- to curry favor at City Hall for developers who bribed them.

A draft of the policy states that when an elected official meets with a developer or any other person bringing a zoning related matter to the council, the encounters must:

Be held during normal business hours -- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- Monday through Friday.

Occur only at City Hall, the Community Development Department's building, a city office that relates to an issue with the proposal or the project site.

Be attended by at least one other elected official or city staff member.

According to the draft, any deviations from the policy are to be reported during the city's bi-weekly work sessions.

The proposal will be a topic of the council's March 13 work session and could be voted on as soon as its March 21 meeting. City Administrator Jeff Moon said that once the council approves a policy, he would likely bring a similar proposal to the Planning Commission for that panel to consider.

"The reason for the meeting policy, honestly, is there's always been talk about these backroom deals and this and that," said Mayor Pete Blalock, who replaced Russo after the latter's post-indictment resignation.

During the buildup to August 2004's municipal elections, the incumbent administration was painted by opponents as backroom dealmakers who met in secret with development interests, prearranging project approvals. There was not much to those claims, Blalock said in a recent interview, but they created what he described as a stigma.

Since the elections, however, state prosecutors have alleged in the indictments, unsealed Jan. 19, that Russo and City Attorney Larry Sutley, who was granted leave last month, were in cahoots with developer Jim Brown, trading support in City Hall for cash and interest in a lucrative real estate deal. Another 18-count state indictment alleged that Joe McCarron, who served on the council from 1998 to 2004 and also spent time as a member of the Planning Commission, traded votes for promises of future business with his insurance firm.

Russo was also accused by federal prosecutors of hiding $33,000 in campaign funds, then spending it on vacations, clothes and a computer as well as illegally billing the city for about $2,000 worth of personal expenses he rang up on an official trip to New York. Those charges were levied in two federal indictments unsealed the same day as the state's charges, which restated the allegations of campaign finance and municipal billing violations.

All four men have pleaded innocent to all charges.

Meeting with developers to discuss their plans is crucial, city officials have said, but under the proposed guidelines, the current administration would have protection from the type of accusations that swirled two summers ago, Blalock said.

"It's a message to everyone," he said, "that we want to be absolutely aboveboard, without question."

Councilman Jeff Silvers said that taking along a city employee, particularly a planner, also could help prevent issues that may thwart or delay a proposal from going unnoticed in early design stages.

"A second set of ears, a second set of eyes will do everyone good," Silvers said.

Both developers and city officials would be better protected under the meeting policy because there would be a witness to verify claims one way or another, Blalock said. At times the unofficial encounters between developers and elected officials have resulted in confusion when the discussed projects arrive for official review in public meetings, he said.

Blalock recalled a recent instance in which he and Russo, then the mayor, met with developers who wanted to build a high-rise condominium project. What he and Russo saw were two condo towers on the Gulf-front of Perdido Key, Blalock said.

"I told them, 'I like the design of this, looks good.'" Blalock said. "Well, when they came to the Planning Commission, they had these plans of these condos that looked good, that we saw, and then all of a sudden they had another big old tower on the other side of the road that we never knew anything about ... They said, 'Well Pete (Blalock) and Steve (Russo) said it looked good.'"

City Administrator Moon, who also serves on the Planning Commission, said he called Blalock and Russo the day after the board voted against giving the proposal a positive review.

"I talked to (them) the next day and said, 'On the north side? What were you thinking?' and both of them had the exact same comment: 'What are you talking about on the north side?" Moon remembered. "They had no idea; they hadn't been told or shown that."