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Future of Hotel Aiken to be discussed Tuesday

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the procedure called "Demolition by Neglect" and that it is a seldom-used procedure meant to protect significant architecture and prevent a drastic move like demolition.

Following a letter of concern from a fed-up business owner, a group tasked with preserving historic portions within the City of Aiken will discuss the status and future of the long-vacant Hotel Aiken.

The Aiken Design Review Board will discuss Tuesday the Hotel Aiken at 235 Richland Ave. W. during its work session at 5:30 p.m. The board's regular meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be live-streamed via the City of Aiken's YouTube channel.

In late 2017, the owner of the historic downtown hotel announced dramatic renovation plans including labeling the Hotel Aiken under the Courtyard by Marriott brand. Some demolition work was noticeable in 2018, but progress has slowed since then.

To address the future of the building, the board will review a procedure called the "Demolition by Neglect" provision, which allows the board to recommend demolishing a historic building if it has not been maintained or is abandoned by the owner.

Demolition by Neglect is a seldom-used provision meant to encourage property owners to address blight and, in a broader context, protect significant architecture. A finding of demolition by neglect is meant to preempt and prevent a drastic move like demolition, said Ryan Bland, the city’s planning director.

Razing Hotel Aiken, at the prominent corner of Laurens Street and Richland Avenue, is not on the table; fines could be.

The work session will act as a "preliminary review" as to whether this provision is suitable for Hotel Aiken and how to move forward with further discussion of the hotel's development for a future meeting, said McDonald Law, Aiken Design Review Board chairman.

Hotel Aiken's owner, Neel Shah, may not be present at the meeting due to it being short notice, Law said, though the board will try to communicate with him.

The "Demolition by Neglect" provision was suggested by Malia Koelker, owner of Malia's Restaurant at 120 Laurens St. S.W., who sent a letter to Aiken Planning Director Ryan Bland on July 20 expressing concerns that the deteriorating Hotel Aiken could be affecting the stability of her business.

"…The lack of any progress nearly three years after their announcing renovation plans and the continuing deterioration and misuse of these properties is troublesome for my business and a problem for the value of my property," Koelker wrote.

Koelker requested the board move forward with issuing a demolition inquiry.

The provision is usually suggested in the cases of historic residential buildings, said Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh, but this is the first time in recent years that the provision has been suggested on a non-residential building.  

Due to this, the provision may not be the suitable form of action to take for Hotel Aiken, Law said. 

The provision from the Aiken Zoning Ordinance reads as such: "No owner or person with an interest in real property which is designated a Historic Site (Ord. 04142003A) in any part of the City or any property in a Historic District, whether that property is occupied or not, shall permit the structure or property to fall into a serious state of disrepair or to remain in a serious state of disrepair so as to result in the deterioration of any exterior architectural feature which would, in the judgment of the Board, produce a detrimental effect upon the character of the structure or property, or, if the structure or property is in a Historic District, upon the district."

In late 2017, Shah announced the historic downtown hotel would be renovated and would be labeled under the Courtyard by Marriott moniker. At the time, Shah pitched $11 million in construction, updates, renovations, redecorating and repairs.

The old hotel would be gutted and redone, and a new-build portion would be added along Bee Lane. A total of 76 rooms – double the previous capacity – were planned.

As of June 2019, the hotel was pulled into a Marriott franchise license, though the hotel will keep its name and Shah will have complete control of the hotel's development with exception of corporate quality and room-sizing standards.

Overall progress has remained slow, as Shah previously said the renovations of the project would begin in January 2018, to no avail. 

In May 2018, demolition work was noticeable as crews worked to remove the tiki bar behind the hotel, an area that is now empty. Dumpsters near the Hotel Aiken entrances were piled full of interior debris and detritus.

Shah told Aiken City Council in late 2019 that construction plans were still underway, though he could not commit to a solid start date.

Mike Jordan, an official with the City of Aiken Building Inspection Division, said he last communicated with Shah earlier this year, and even ran into him at a restaurant in Aiken.

"To my knowledge, they're still moving forward, working on drawings and working with the motel chain, doing what they have to do with that," Jordan said. 

Jordan added that Shah mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress with the design aspect. 

The water and gas are cut off in the building, Jordan said, and interior demolition is slated inside. 

The building is monitored by city and Aiken Department of Public Safety officials for fire and vandalism, though Jordan noted that it is still a "large fire load in the middle of downtown."

Bedenbaugh confirmed that the building is closely watched.

"[The city] inspects it regularly," Bedenbaugh said. "There is a smoke and temperature alert system that is tested regularly and [alerts] if smoke or [fire] were detected. It has been in its current condition for quite a while."

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