Planned ‘HoneyBee’s Social Club’ creates buzz in historic Vineville neighborhood

Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning commissioners will consider whether to rezone the Bennett Estate parcel at the corner of Hines Terrace for a private club


Liz Fabian

Elliott Dunwody VII bought the Bennett Estate at 2545 Vineville Ave. after Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning rezoned it to allow for HoneyBee’s Guesthouse and Social Club.

Elliott Dunwody VII is all about creating memorable entertainment experiences for people across the world.

The 42-year-old, who grew up in Macon but now works as an executive producer out of Los Angeles, wants to design a unique social club in the historic Bennett Estate at the corner of Vineville Avenue and Hines Terrace.

Monday, when he went before the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission at City Hall, some of the very people he hopes to entice as clients opposed the endeavor. Dunwody’s purchase of 2545 Vineville Ave. is contingent on rezoning that parcel.

Commissioners debated the proposal in their administrative meeting before the hearing, which moved to City Hall due to the anticipated crowd.

Chairwoman Jeane Easom said she was surprised there was so much opposition considering that the Allman Brothers Big House Museum was just down the street.

“This is a historically significant property and it needs to be preserved and enjoyed and used,” Easom told the commissioners. “We have a buyer here who wants to sink a good bit of money into that property.”

Easom said there is very little chance someone would come along with enough money who would keep it as a single-family dwelling on the busy highway.

Commissioner Josh Rogers also doesn’t feel the estate can remain single-family residential, although he would prefer Vineville to be a quieter, residential street instead of a U.S. highway.

“I feel that ship sailed 50 years ago when that became a four-lane road,” Rogers said.

The Vineville Neighborhood Association opposed rezoning the property from Historic Residential to Historic Planned District.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation also wrote a letter opposing rezoning, which Commissioner Gary Bechtel said didn’t sway his opinion.

“Anybody can get anybody to say anything in a letter,” Bechtel said as he stated he believed the proposal was the highest and best use for the property.

Commissioner Tim Jones said he had a “big concern about the peace and solitude of surrounding neighbors.”

The commissioners raised concerns about parking that still need to be addressed in a future hearing, but approved the zoning change with only Jones opposed.

Eventhough HPD zoning would require further P&Z scrutiny on design and use, neighbor Shannon Fickling fears the precedent it would set. Opening up the possibility of other commercial uses would defeat a present initiative to keep the area single-family residential. Preservationists across the state are now working to save the last residential stretch of Vineville what was a separate village reluctantly annexed into Macon in the early 1900s.

Last month, Fickling, a preservation architect at Historic Macon Foundation, appeared before P&Z to inform commissioners of the dedicated effort placing that section of Vineville Avenue on Georgia’s “Places in Peril” list due to commercial encroachment.

“Vineville neighborhood is a great neighborhood,” Fickling told commissioners. “There’s so much pressure right now on Vineville that we wanted attention drawn to that area.”

The Coddington House, directly across from the Bennett Estate, also is poised to come off Historic Macon’s 2021 Fading Five list with a sale pending after years of lying vacant.

Fickling wants to recruit stakeholders and churches to join the effort to create a more pedestrian friendly five-block area from Pio Nono to Vineville Academy. Earlier this year, she also pressed for a P&Z-approved landscape design when granting attorney Lars Anderson permission to tear down one of the old commercial buildings near his office on the corner of Oak Haven.

Jan Beeland, who lives on that corner, on the opposite side from the Bennett Estate, celebrates the return of young families with children in her neighborhood.

“I love that Elliott wants to come back to Macon and do something significant… this is just not the right place to do it,” Beeland said.

Smithsonian built pergola replica

The Bennett Estate includes the oldest residential pool in Middle Georgia. (Robin Gatti)
The Smithsonian created a replica of the pergola in the late 80s when it was only one of two left with its original furnishings. (Robin Gatti)

Dunwody sees the 1917 estate as the ideal spot to fill a void in the neighborhood and attract more newcomers desiring amenities.

When first considering buying the Charles M. Choate-designed 7-bedroom home, he looked up the parcel on Google Earth. He zoomed out and noticed the dearth of swimming pools at homes nearby.

The Bennett property holds the first residential swimming pool in Middle Georgia. The exquisite pergola behind it was such a rare time capsule of the era that The Smithsonian built a replica of it in the late ‘80s.

Intricate carvings, custom moulding and high ceilings add to the splendor of the turn of the 20th Century home. (Robin Gatti)

The home is considered one of the finest examples of American Craftsman Architecture in the eastern United States.

Its Georgia hardwood floors, tall ceilings, intricate wainscoting, custom crown moulding, carved beams and bannisters are exceptional. The stone columns were fashioned from rocks gathered in North Carolina streams more than 100 years ago.

“Man, this place has always been a social club,” Dunwody thought as he pondered the gatherings and parties of decades past when the residence included tennis and badminton courts.

“It was known for events but not as a business… but as a big center of the neighborhood,” he said.

Commissioners considered that the house has been on the market for about three years. Rogers also noted that the club will not likely be a success without the neighborhood’s support.

“My belief is that maintaining single-family zoning is a mistake,” Rogers said. “I’d be willing to give Mr. Dunwody a shot at doing better on a conditional use permit to see if he can win over some of his neighbors.”

HoneyBee’s Social Club honors Black DJ

Dunwody not only wants to explore the home’s recreational potential for neighbors and visiting guests, but capitalize on its history in a novel and inclusive way.

The late Palmira “HoneyBee” Braswell, Macon’s first Black radio announcer, grew up in the guest house where her grandmother lived as a cook.

Dunwody sees “HoneyBee’s Social Club” as a way to bring new life to the house and honor Braswell’s memory and legacy.

He uses the Hay House and the 1842 Inn as other examples of historic homesteads thriving in the 21stCentury.

“You can do that with places so it continues to have life in it,” he said. “I really want to have life that talks about the history told through the lens of Palmira’s experience.”

Growing up in the 30s, Palmira shared the property with two affluent white children.

Dunwody, whose career has taken him to the intersection of music, theater and entertainment, wants to use the house as a living museum that can be a historical haven for locals and visitors in a somewhat revolutionary concept. He sees it as an evolution of the Airbnb craze.

“Curation is actually the phase we’re in,” he said, wanting to capitalize on the home’s historical significance and Braswell’s love of music.

“Not quite a hotel, not quite a bed and breakfast. I do want people to stay there and I’m committed to keeping the house a home,” he said. I’m not trying to turn it into a party space. I want there to be bedrooms, a beautiful kitchen… restore the house and keep it a beautiful home.”

He has plans to keep his whole family busy with the project and has Braswell’s grandniece Kristen Grissom as one of his advisors.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave him a longing to be closer to his family.

Dunwody and his agent, childhood friend Ryan Griffin, have a scheduled approach to the development – if they can clear the hurdle of neighborhood opposition.

Now that commissioners approved the rezoning, Dunwody must still get “Conditional Use” approval for the club.

Griffin told commissioners that on top of the more than $500,000 purchase price, the home needs $250,000 in deferred maintenance before renovations.

Only a revenue-generating business plan could sustain the upkeep, he believes.

“There’s a lot of risk in passing up an opportunity,” Griffin told commissioners. “This could be an asset to the neighborhood to help preserve other houses – Help sell and save a lot of other houses.”

Griffin and Dunwody have tried to allay some of the concerns by securing off street parking through an agreement with Vineville Baptist Church. Commissioners want to see something beyond the current contract that would allow either party to terminate with 30 days notice.

Vineville Neighborhood Association president Brad Coman told commissioners rezoning is a step backward for the Georgia Trust and preservation efforts.

Coman believes the increased traffic with a 200-plus capacity level would be detrimental to the neighborhood.

But Dunwody said he doesn’t plan to have that many people on a regular basis. He’s no longer into throwing wild parties, but conceives calmer gatherings that could include immersive theater where actors are playing out scenes in different rooms, or folks playing yard games on the lawn.

Fickling fears that with a guest house for rent and café planned later on, that it’s too much for the 0.7-acre lot.

“It’s not Elliott’s project that I’m opposed to,” Fickling said Friday. “I hope he’ll continue to look for an appropriate venue for this. I think what he’s trying to put there is not a good mix for a quiet, single-family residential area.”

P&Z expects crowd for zoning hearings

The HoneyBee’s project and another controversial mixed-use residential and commercial development on the west side necessitated moving the meeting to Macon-Bibb County Commission Chambers to allow for social distancing.

With Planning & Zoning approval, a phased residential development will be built on Fulton Mill Road off U.S. 80 in west Macon. (Liz Fabian)

At 4031 Fulton Mill Road, Upward Construction LLC wishes to rezone 182.6 acres from agricultural to Planned Development Extraordinary to build a mixed-use development in phases.

The plan calls for 95 residential houses in the first wave of construction. Developers expect to follow with three-story, multi-family apartments, senior living, single-family townhomes.

Eventually the neighborhood would include retail shops, a hotel and event space, according to the proposal.

The concept allows for “various uses in harmonious living, shopping and working area to share services plus being in close proximity to each other,” the application states.

Neighbors and County Commissioner Raymond Wilder said Fulton Mill Road would not support the increased traffic. Others raised concerns about the swampy nature of the property.

Commissioners voted 3 to 1 against the rezoning with Bechtel being the only one in favor of the development.

Another proposed senior housing development was approved for west Macon.

At 2918 Bloomfield Drive behind the CVS and next to the old Wings Cafe, River Edge Foundation secured rezoning and conditional use approval to build 26 single-family houses for those 62 years or older.

The nearly 8.5-acre-property off Bloomfield Parkway went from Planned Development Commercial zoning to Planned Development Residential for the “Serenity Courtyard of Macon.”

The design of the development includes a greenspace with a meandering path running through the center of the oblong patch of property.

River Edge is applying for HUD Section 202 funding  for the $5.6 million dollar project that includes a community center with a wraparound covered porch.

Thursday, Chief Facilities Development Officer Cass Hatcher told the River Edge Board the cottages are designed for aging-in-place with open floor plans, courtyards and front porches which could still allow for socializing in socially-distanced times.

“I think it’s going to be a nice little place to sit on the porch or walk around,” Hatcher said.

Commissioners also approved a new fence at 869 Walnut St.

IRG Investments & Holdings owns the small white office building with dark glass windows.

Applicant Christopher Berry said the privacy fence is necessary to protect vehicles and staff.

“We can’t help but take note that we have homeless people who decide to use our back area as a place to wash themselves,” Berry told the Design Review Board last week. “So, not a pretty look for a company that does high-tech consulting.”

Commissioners did not hear a request for landscape modifications at 535 College St. to allow for a semi-circle driveway at the home. Last week, the Design Review Board denied the application to keep cars from being parked directly in front of the house. The staff review of the proposal said the current brick walkway was more than 50 years old and has its own historical significance.

Applicant Laurie Fickling asked that the matter be deferred for a second time to allow for a second redesign to be submitted in the future.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]