No vote for Esky apartments plan

ESCANABA — A proposal to build an apartment and retail complex in downtown Escanaba was not approved Monday by the city’s planning commission — even though the project met zoning requirements.

Bay de Noc Limited Dividend Housing Association was proposing to construct a $9.5 million, four-story, 50,768-square-foot multi-family housing structure on the 1400 block of Ludington Street on the former Northern Motors property.

The Bay de Noc Apartments proposal for low- to moderate-income housing was reviewed by commissioners during their regular monthly meeting on Feb. 8. Following a public hearing, a split vote failed to approve the site plan.

The developer was asked to improve the aesthetics of the building, make adjustments to meet parking requirements, and add more green space to the design.

During Monday’s special meeting, Bay de Noc Limited Dividend Housing Association representative Craig Patterson presented a revised site plan that met the commissioners’ concerns that were expressed earlier in the month.

Patterson said the architect reworked the exterior design of the apartment complex by creating variations in elevations and color to make the structure look like a cluster of separate buildings compared to the structure’s previous appearance, which some described as “institutional-looking.”

Patterson said the number of apartments was reduced from 44 units to 41 units so the 52 available parking spaces meet the 50 required spaces.

“We listened. We made changes,” said Patterson, adding, “We can still make the deal work.”

Escanaba Code Compliance Inspector Director Blaine DeGrave noted, due to the reduced number of apartments in the revised site plan, the number of parking spaces now meets or exceeds the city’s parking requirements for residential and commercial space.

DeGrave also noted, according to the city’s zoning requirements, a site plan on that portion of Ludington Street does not demand a project meet all green space requirements.

DeGrave also advised the planning commission the site plan can be approved with the condition the proposal will meet all the city’s water, wastewater and electrical connection requirements, which city staff would review.

Prior to discussion and a vote by the commission, two individuals made statements during the public comment period.

Escanaba resident, local business owner and landlord Matt Sviland said he was concerned about the parking requirements which he said the developer did address. He also said he was concerned about the project’s plan for snow removal because he uses extra parking spaces to store snow at his Lofts on Ludington apartments.

Sviland also said he thinks the area currently has more affordable apartments than what’s needed, adding this project puts landlords in jeopardy to compete to rent to low-income tenants.

Escanaba resident and landlord Jason Neumeier agreed there is enough low-income housing in the area. He expressed concerns about the parking, snow removal, and the extra demand on the city’s water and wastewater plants. He said the current building should be redeveloped. He also said he is concerned the subsidized housing would attract parolees from the Michigan Department of Corrections.

During discussion by the commission, Vice Chairperson Christine Williams asked about snow storage and green space.

Patterson noted the revised plan increased the green space and the developer can work with the city to determine where to place the snow.

Commissioner Brian Black requested Degrave go over the planning commission’s duties in reviewing a site plan.

DeGrave said commissioners make sure a site plan meets all requirements such as parking and green space and the city’s other zoning ordinances. He noted the plan can be approved with a condition the final design will meet utility needs.

Commissioner Craig Gierke questioned, if the project satisfies zoning requirements, then what grounds does the commission have to say “no” besides “political grounds.”

Commissioner Paul Caswell commented he plans to vote no because the plan does not meet “the spirit” of the city’s master plan.

Commissioner Dominic Benetti agreed the plan “doesn’t fit” the master plan.

Black said, in his interpretation of the master plan, the project follows the city’s goal to improve the quality of housing downtown by clustering housing within walking distance to downtown businesses.

Commissioners Kel Smyth, James Hellerman, and Richard Clark were absent from Monday’s special meeting.

When Black motioned for the site plan to be approved with the conditions to meet snow removal and utility requirements, no one supported the motion. Benetti later seconded the motion to allow it to go to a vote.

Black was the only commissioner who voted in favor of approving the site plan while Benetti, Caswell, Gierke and Williams voted against the motion.

Williams said her biggest concern was the plan was not “fully developed” and was not an actual “historical plan” for the downtown district. She said the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) should have been more involved in the plan.

DeGrave explained, though all of main street is registered under the National Register of Historic Places, SHPO was not involved in this project because SHPO cannot say how a property owner develops downtown buildings unless they are located in an “historic district” like the Lofts on Ludington.

Following the failed motion to approve the site plan — which is the first step a developer faces with a project proposal in Escanaba — Patterson was advised he could file an appeal with the zoning board of appeals.

“I am highly disappointed for obvious reasons,” Patterson told the commissioners, noting he had answered their site plan concerns from the Feb. 8 meeting.

He also said conversations took place with SHPO to ensure the building’s design would not interrupt the downtown’s historical character. If the building were in an historic district, nothing could be done without meeting SHPO’s strict historic requirements, he said.

“We thought we were on the right site,” Patterson said, explaining other properties in the city were considered to build affordable housing for working people.

“We like Escanaba, but we don’t know what our next step will be,” Patterson said, also noting the city’s master plan can be interpreted in many ways.

“We appreciate the opportunity here. Thank you for being frank,” he added.

Following the meeting, DeGrave told the Daily Press he believed the project met site plan requirements, but the planning commission makes the determination.

“The planning commission has a tough job,” he added.

Black said after the meeting there was “no legitimate reason to turn down” the site plan, which complied with the city ordinances.

“To throw up a hurdle at this point, does not make sense,” he added, saying fear and doubt are negatively impacting opportunities for downtown.

“I think the development is consistent with our goals and would have created lots of opportunities for downtown,” said Black, adding the apartment complex could have gone a long way in developing quality housing that would have also been energy efficient.

He also noted that 85 percent of the city’s population is at the lower economic end and includes working people who want quality affordable housing.

Patterson was seeking approval of the site plan prior to an April 1 application deadline to file for low-income housing tax credits that would help fund the project through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

The project also sought approval from the city for a payment in lieu of taxes and a municipal services agreement. Both items were included on council’s agenda for its regular meeting this coming Thursday.