Council chambers were filled on Monday night with residents and business owners who were upset about plans to construct an apartment building on Riverside Drive. The proposed project calls for as many as six stories containing 17 residential units. A dozen people spoke on the issue, which took up the bulk of the meeting.
All councilmembers were present, except Councilmember Cliff Yankovich, whose absence was excused.
Enforcement to Begin on New Union Parking Lot Noncompliance
Since 2016, New Union Brewery has received four site plan approvals from the Lowell Planning Commission for changes to the property at the southwest corner of Hudson and Main Streets. A site plan is required, by ordinance, before changes can be made to commercial properties in the city.
In 2016, the Planning Commission stipulated that if the zoning enforcement officer or other agent of the city deemed parking on the paved lot to be insufficient, additional parking must be constructed. By 2021, the year of the most recent site plan, the Planning Commission adjusted their requirements to insist that the lot be paved by May 30, 2022.
That hasn’t happened yet, and during Monday’s meeting, City Manager Mike Burns provided an overview of his actions to bring the site into compliance.
“I try to contact them every two weeks,” Burns said. “We’ve really had no movement from them.”
A sticking point seems to be the requirement for scaled drawings of the parking lot. In a series of emails provided in the council packet, property owner Joel Eerdmans provided a sketch of the proposed area but said he did not understand why he needed to spend $1,500-$2,000 on scaled drawings. Burns replied that the drawings are required by the ordinance and ensure that the parking area meets requirements for the drive aisle width, parking space dimensions and stormwater drainage.
Tyler Velting, owner of New Union Brewery, apparently called Burns on Monday to say that he was only a tenant, and his landlord was refusing to pave the lot. Burns replied that if the lot wasn’t paved, it couldn’t be used.
Burns told councilmembers that he has wide latitude in how to approach enforcement, and options included cited the business $500 for each vehicle parked on the lot or even citing the owners of vehicles who were deemed to be illegally parking on the unpaved lot. However, Burns said the second option would not be his preferred choice.
City Attorney Jessica Wood added that it was possible that the Planning Commission could revoke its approval for the site plan as well.
Mayor Mike DeVore said he had asked for the item to be placed on the agenda so there was a clear public timeline of activity that had taken place on the city’s end. “They have been non-compliant for more than six years now,” he said.
Proposal for Six-Floor Building Selected at Special Meeting
The second item on the agenda was an update on 115 Riverside Drive. This is city property that was previously used as a line shack by Lowell Light & Power. Since the utility no longer uses the building, it requested that the city sell it.
Six proposals were received by the city with plans to develop the property. Five of those met the minimum bid requirement of $100,000, and those applicants were all invited to make presentations to Lowell City Council during a special meeting on July 25, 2022. They were as follows:
- CopperRock Construction — $100,000 bid with plans to construct a multi-family residential building of up to six stories and 17 units on the site.
- The Edge Co — $110,000 bid with plans to construct a three-story, mixed-use building that would include retail space and up to four residential units.
- Todd Schaal — $130,000 bid with plans to construct a multi-family residential building of three stories.
- Eric Bartkus — $105,000 bid with plans to renovate the current line shack building into a two-unit retail space.
- Greg Canfield — $150,000 bid with plans to expand the Main Street Inn with an additional 5-10 rooms.
During deliberations on July 25, all councilmembers listed the CopperRock proposal among their top three choices and all except Councilmember Leah Groves also listed the Canfield proposal as a top choice. Groves had concerns about Canfield’s ability to fund the project and noted his comment that he is a “seat-of-the-pants kind of guy” as reasons for not listing his project in her top three.
Councilmembers agreed that there seemed little doubt that CopperRock could pull off a development of the size they were proposing although DeVore worried that if a variance wasn’t approved and the height of the building needed to be reduced, the Lowell project could be placed on the backburner. The company recently built the new Arrow Veterinary Clinic and is in the process of design work for a project at the former RollAway Fun Center – although details of that project were not mentioned during the meeting.
There was some discussion about the height of the building and whether it would fit with the surrounding area. Parking was also discussed briefly during the company’s presentation with a representative apparently believing that the details of parking could be worked out later. “Let’s create the problem [then] create the solution,” he said.
“Personally, my first thought was way cool,” Yankovich said during the CopperRock presentation. Later, during deliberations, he added: “I know it would create parking problems.”
At the end of the discussion during the July 25th meeting, Councilmember Marty Chambers made a motion to draft a resolution for the sale of 115 Riverside Drive to CopperRock Construction. Groves supported. Chambers, Groves and Yankovich voted yes. DeVore and Councilmember Jim Salzwedel voted no.
By ordinance, the council must wait 20 days before voting on the resolution and finalizing the sale. Four councilmembers must vote yes for the sale to be approved.
Citizen Comments on Monday Night
Word of the project circulated through the community, and a number of people showed up on Monday during the regular city council meeting to express their displeasure with the decision.
“Lowell is not Grand Rapids,” wrote Tonia North, owner of North Star Antiques, in a letter read into the record. “Are dollar signs blinding you?”
Bartkus, who owns Ability Weavers in the historic downtown and lives above his storefront, also wrote a letter which outlined his concerns that the parking lot near the site was already full on many weekends. He did not see how parking for 17 new residences could be accommodated.
Once the floor was opened for comments, Bartkus attempted to speak at the podium but was told by DeVore that he had already had his public comment time with the letter. Bartkus said he sent the letter as back-up in case he couldn’t attend the meeting, and the council has never said those who send letters can’t speak. He handed his notes to his wife Beryl who shared them during her comments.
Perry Beachum, chair of the Lowell Light & Power Board and a resident of Riverside Drive, said he was concerned that the council accepted a $100,000 offer for a plan that would require economic incentives such as grants and tax abatements when Canfield had offered $150,000 cash and could self-fund his project up to $1 million. He noted that council had terminated the last purchase agreement for the site because the previous developer needed state grants. He didn’t see why councilmembers were now pursuing another project that also required government incentives.
Beyond that, Beachum was concerned with parking and wondered how traffic would get through Riverside during the construction period.
Other residents didn’t mince words on their thoughts about the project. Bill Wheeler said the building would “probably be grotesque,” but parking was the main issue. Mark Ritzema ended his comments with, “I think it’s a stupid idea,” and Lisa Reed noted that she has heard residents ask for many things in Lowell but “no one has suggested a wall blocking their view.”
In total, 11 residents and business owners addressed city council. Charlie West, general manager of Lowell Light & Power, also stood to clarify that the only reason the utility had asked for the line shack to be sold was because it was no longer needed. “Lowell Light & Power is supportive of what is best for the community,” he said.
Three representatives of CopperRock also spoke about their desire to be good neighbors and build something positive for the community. “We want people to think it’s a real cool structure to look at while you’re eating at Flat River Grill,” said preconstruction manager Matthew Hall.
At the end of the comments, there was no response from councilmembers. DeVore thanked everyone and moved on to the next agenda item. The resolution for sale of the property will be on the agenda for a vote at the next meeting on August 15.
Other Meeting Items
Other items from Monday’s meeting included the following:
- Lowell City Council unanimously voted to pay $7,640 to Plummer’s Environmental Services to repair a sanitary sewer pipe that caused a sink hole near the King Milling property.
- Lowell City Council unanimously voted to pay $34,455 to AXON for new police body cameras to replace the existing cameras which are more than five years old. The new cameras will also have enhancements such as automatically turning on when an officer activates his or her patrol vehicle’s lights. The cost of the new cameras will be spread over five years.
- Groves said she had been contacted by some people who were concerned with the lack of diversity in a recent promotional video posted online by the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce about Lowell Showboat VI. She has been in contact with the chamber’s executive director to discuss the matter.
The meeting adjourned at 8:14pm, and the next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place at 7pm on Monday, August 15 in Lowell City Hall.