Neighbors to hear expanded hilltop event center plan

       Four years ago, City Land Use approved a plan for a roughly 15,000-square-foot wedding event center atop the Bijou Hill on the Near Westside.
       Upgraded from a former restaurant building on the site, it was to be called the Pinery at the Hilltop, mirroring the “one-stop” concept of the now five-year-old Pinery at Black Forest, which offers weddings and receptions - along with such related niceties as meals, cakes, flowers, sound system and staff - all in one place.

The proximity of the Pinery site and 122 Hill St. is shown in this map edited from the development plan submitted to City Land Use.
Courtesy of City Land Use and Art C. Klein Construction; edited for publication

       But four years ago was also when the economy tanked, and this forced the Yellen family, owners of both Pinery locations, to put the Hilltop plan on hold.
       Now it's back, with a new name (the Pinery at the Hill) and a larger scope. The revised plans, calling for a 21,000-square-foot facility and the demolition of a nearby house to allow more parking, will be presented at a neighborhood meeting Thursday, Aug. 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The meeting location will in the south part of the downtown, at the Carter Payne Event Center, 320 S. Weber St.
       The meeting is part of the process accompanying the submittal of the Pinery's revised plans to the city. Unlike 2008, when the use could be approved administratively, the new submittal includes a zone change request (for the property with the house to be demolished) and as a result must ultimately be approved by City Council.
       Eric Allen, the Pinery's chief operating officer, said that at the neighborhood meeting he expects to present renderings of what the new building and site will look like. “We're excited to share our plans with people,” he said, pledging that the end result will be “magnificent” and lasting.
       The official address for the business is 775 W. Bijou St. The neighboring house property, on a slightly lower hill just to the south, is at 122 Hill St. Both have grand views to the south, east and west. Ironically, until about 1980, the Bijou site was undeveloped, zoned residential and part of the Hill Street property, Westside Pioneer research has found. But by 1980 that had changed, and that year City Council approved a zoning change to allow a restaurant there (even though the Westside Plan recommended that it stay residential). Hill Street owners were able to access their property via an easement across the restaurant parking lot.
       Several restaurants followed (the “Fish Market” sign is still visible from I-25), but the building has sat vacant for about eight years, during which time it has been heavily vandalized and robbed of all its copper wiring.
       Meggan Herington of City Land Use said this week that she has not completed her plan review. “It is still very early in the review process,” she said. “However, at this point I think that we need to try and work with these folks to improve that property. It is a serious eyesore as it sits, and it would be great to turn that property into an asset.”
       The expanded building size does not mean a larger footprint than what was approved in 2008. The new square footage will be added on the second floor, Allen said. The extra space will allow greater flexibility in what the business can offer, including the capability to handle event conferences and business meetings.
       According to a Pinery press release, the locale “will include a gourmet kitchen, a floral retail store, state of the art entertainment, sound and LED lighting. They [Pinery owners] are working with the city to add an additional level with a second ballroom, an elevator and a second lobby with private entrance. There will be seven conference rooms available, complete with the newest audio and visual technology; these rooms can be used privately for various events.”
       But the larger size also requires more parking than what's available in the original restaurant lot, which led the Yellens to 122 Hill St. The Pinery at the Hill LLC purchased the property for $515,000 in June, according to County Assessor's Office records.
       The city has been looking into ways to avoid the demolition. The original house (since added onto) was built in 1890.
       “Unfortunately because it is not in a historical preservation overlay, my understanding is that there is nothing the city can do to prevent the property owner from demolishing the home,” Harington said in an e-mail. “This research is ongoing and I expect to have additional details on the historical significance of the home at the meeting on Thursday.”
       The idea to expand the event center's scope evolved during the four years that the project was on hold. During that time, “a lot of people came to us and talked about a lack of meeting space in the downtown,” Allen said. With the support of a new team of investors, the Yellens and Allen decided to scrap the approved plan and seek a larger scope. “Now's the time to do it,” Allen said. “In the long run, it's worth it. It would cost us quadruple to go back and do it later.”
       Regarding the Hill Street house, he said it is not in good shape, has asbestos and would require a significant investment to renovate. Moving it from its hillside perch would also pose major difficulties, he said.
       The technical zoning request to the city is to change the R-2 (Two-Family Residential) zoning at 122 Hill St. to PBC/CR (Planned Business Center with Condition of Record). PBC is what 775 W. Bijou St. has now.
       The Pinery ownership is also asking for approval of a development plan (reflecting a larger building and more parking), a retaining wall over 6 feet high and combining 775 W. Bijou and 122 Hill into one building site.
       As in 2008, the Pinery submittal is being handled by Bruce Barr of Art C. Klein Construction. In a statement to the city about the project, Barr writes that even with the larger project size, the business' hours would be “much shorter than the previously approved restaurants and bars had.”

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