City Council Recap: Development Plan for Unity High School Site Unveiled

The Lowell City Council held two meetings last night. Councilmember Greg Canfield was absent for both, but all other members were present.

The first meeting was a Committee of the Whole held at 5:30pm. That session was devoted to discussing a development project for the former Unity High School building.

That was followed by a regular council meeting at 7pm in which local leaders discussed three pieces of business. Those were the ballot proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan, an update to a trails agreement and a resolution opposing state requirements related to lead pipes in municipalities.

Mixed Use Development Proposed for Unity High School Site

Developers would like to obtain the yellow strip of park land in front of the building in exchange for the blue square of land.

Developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal were on-hand for the Committee of the Whole to present their plans for the former Unity High School property. City Manager Mike Burns noted he had been working with the developers on the project for at least a year. “We thought it was time to approach the council,” he explained.

Dubbed Riverview Flats, the first phase of the project would entail converting the former bus garage building into ten condos – five on the ground floor and five on a second floor. Meanwhile, the Unity High School building would be renovated to include two condos as well as a mix of office and retail space.

One wrinkle in the plan is that the property is adjacent to a city park. The old bus garage sits next to Riverwalk Park near the boat and kayak launch. The property has a five foot strip of land in front the garage building, and Zandstra and Schaal would like to obtain another seven feet. That would allow for a 12 foot patio space in front of the ground floor condominiums. “That 12 feet vs. five feet is a pretty big deal for us,” Zandstra said.

However, the seven foot strip in question is designated as park land and, by City Charter, can’t be sold without a vote of the people. Zandstra and Schaal have proposed swapping the seven foot strip – approximately 1800 square feet total – for a square of land adjacent to the bus garage. The adjacent square would be much larger, approximately 3,300 square feet, and could be designated by the city as park land. To do so, the Parks and Recreation Master Plan will need to be revised.

Planned Unit Development Sought

Looking south from the old bus garage to the Showboat. Developers hope to turn this building into condominiums.

The former Unity High School property is currently zoned for mixed use. That zoning district apparently does not allow for parking to go in front of the building. Rather than seek a variance, Zandstra and Schaal are pursuing a rezoning of the property to allow for a Planned Unit Development, known as a PUD.

The city’s current PUD ordinance has only been used once, for the development of housing in Highland Hills, and was written to apply only to projects of at least five acres in size. A PUD is intended to provide zoning flexibility and allows the opportunity to cluster buildings and bypass traditional setback and lot requirements.

“I don’t think people understand what it is yet,” Burns said, noting that PUDs were frequently used during his time as assistant city manager in the City of Fenton. “It is very important to a project like this.”

Schaal said he met with the Planning Commission at their last meeting. However, commissioners were not formally introduced to him at that time and were not provided any project details. Instead, they were asked to approve amendments to the PUD ordinance that include removing the five acre minimum. A public hearing on the amendments will be held during the commission’s November 12 meeting.

As part of the property development, Zandstra and Schaal would also like to see High Street vacated and remove asphalt to create more green space. They say an easement would be provided to allow access to the boat launch and keep some parking spaces near it.

Depending on the housing market, the project may have a second phase which would include constructing new condominiums on the land adjacent to the library property and to the north of the Unity High School building.

Despite the steps needed to make the project a reality, Zandstra is optimistic. “We would like to begin construction pre-Christmas,” he said.

Those interested in learning more about the project can view the Riverview Flats website.

Short Regular Meeting Followed

After the Committee of the Whole, the Lowell City Council took about a 30 minute break before reconvening for their regular meeting at 7pm. That meeting had three pieces of business on the agenda: one old and two new.

The old business was in follow-up to a presentation given by Burns about Proposal One. If passed in November, this ballot proposal will allow the recreational use of marijuana in Michigan. Should the proposal pass, municipalities have 10 days from the date the results are certified to opt out of having dispensaries within their limits. Councilmembers agreed by consensus to keep this item on the agenda until after the election so they could take action then, if needed.

Under new business, the council approved a change to an existing maintenance agreement for the LARA Trailway. The city is applying for a DNR grant for an extension of the trail and was informed that having an end date on the agreement would help in the grant process. The city attorney, who had not reviewed the document prior to its initial approval, also suggested a revision to better define the duties of various parties. The revised agreement passed unanimously.

The second piece of new business was a resolution expressing support for legal action taken by communities in Southeast Michigan to block new MDEQ water rules. The City Council heard a presentation about the rules during an August Committee of the Whole meeting.

Burns said the rules, drafted in response to the water crisis in Flint, have several problems. They are incomplete, excessively expensive and represent an unfunded mandate from the state. “I personally have issues with these rules,” he said, “[and] I’m not the only one.”

The council voted unanimously in support of the resolution.

Citizens Asked to Help With Cemetery Project

During citizen comments, Perry Beachum provided an updated on a fencing project for Oakwood Cemetery. Beachum noticed some unsightly piles of dirt and building materials in the cemetery and would like to conceal them with a privacy fence.

“It’s to beautify the cemetery,” he said. The project is expected to cost $4,000-$6,000 in total. “So far, I’m up to $1,500,” he told the council. Donations have been made both by residents and those who live outside the community.

If you would like to donate to the cause, checks can be made out to the City of Lowell with Cemetery Fence written in the memo area. Mail your contribution to:

Perry Beachum
924 Riverside Dr.
Lowell, MI 49331

Beachum is collecting the money to track donations and will deliver checks to the city. He would like to get the fence up this fall or before next Memorial Day at the latest.

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