Lowell City Council met in open session for two hours last night, and the lion’s share of that time – more than 90 minutes – was spent discussing a multi-story residential building proposed for the site of a former Lowell Light & Power line shack building. All councilmembers were present.
Changes Made to Proposed Development
At issue was a purchase agreement to sell the former line shack building, located at 115 Riverside Drive, to CopperRock Construction. The firm submitted one of five proposals for the purchase of the property. Councilmembers held a special meeting on July 25 to meet with applicants and then choose CopperRock’s proposal at the end of that session.
During the last city council meeting, on August 1, there were extensive public comments from residents and business owners who were concerned about the appearance of the proposed 6-story residential building as well as how to accommodate parking for up to 17 residential units.
At last night’s meeting, representatives of CopperRock said they had taken resident comments to heart and scaled back their plans to include only four floors with 12 one-bedroom units. The ground floor would include commercial space that could be used for retail or a restaurant. The company also planned a deck on the rooftop. The exterior was redesigned to appear more historic and blend in with the surrounding buildings.
“We certainly heard the comments from last time,” said Dean Rosendall, president of CopperRock Construction. “I want everyone to know we’re working hard. We’re listening.”
City Manager Mike Burns said there were 147 parking spaces currently available within 400 feet of the property, and there was the potential to add eight more on-street parking spots along Chatham. Existing parking spots include the municipal lot behind the storefronts on Main Street – between Riverside and Broadway Streets – as well as on-street parking along area roadways and behind the buildings on the south side of Main Street.
Public Comments on Proposal
While several residents and local business owners said they appreciated the changes made by CopperRock, they still did not believe the multi-family residential building was appropriate in that location.
“I’m relieved to see it’s four stories and not six stories, but it’s still missing the mark,” said resident Sharon Ellison. She cited the city’s Master Plan which found the majority of residents surveyed felt that Lowell’s small-town character was its most important attribute and thought the city should carefully control its rate and location of growth. The plan also included a stated goal that the city improve access to the river, including the “demolition of view blocking buildings.”
Of the 17 people who spoke or wrote letters regarding the matter, only one was explicitly in favor of the development.
“As a business owner in the downtown area, I really appreciate CopperRock’s proposal,” said Nicole Lintemuth. “Affordable housing is something we desperately need more of.” She felt that having more one-bedroom apartments in Lowell would make the city more accessible to young professionals.
Others disagreed. “I don’t think, mathematically, that one-bedroom apartments in a building like that on the river are going to be affordable,” said Denice Barker. She was also concerned about businesses “overstepping the size” of their properties and then expecting to use municipal lots rather than creating their own parking.
For many speakers, parking was the number one issue. In particular, there was a concern about the winter months when vehicles cannot be on the street overnight. If residents in the apartment building move their vehicles to the nearby municipal lot, it could eliminate parking for business customers as well as make plowing the lot difficult. Snow is also often piled in the corner of the lot, eliminating spaces for part of the season.
Beryl Bartkus – whose husband Eric had also submitted a proposal to purchase the line shack – lives in an apartment above her business, Ability Weavers. The store is located on Main Street and in front of the municipal parking lot between Riverside and Broadway. She said that there are often only 4-6 open spaces during the afternoon and evening hours. She added that the truck that collects trash from the dumpsters in the lot needs to drive over multiple parking spots to access the dumpsters.
She also noted that five spots in the lot behind her building are privately owned. She hoped they weren’t counted by the city when it was calculating the available parking. A separate speaker who lives in a building on the south side of Main Street likewise said that the spaces behind her building are mostly privately owned and shouldn’t be counted for public use.
Other questions and concerns raised by speakers included the following:
- Whether the fire department would need to purchase a ladder truck because of the building height. (A CopperRock representative said the building would be fully fire suppressed.)
- Where construction materials would be stored and whether Riverside Drive would need to be shut down while the building is being constructed.
- Why a $100,000 offer for the property was accepted when higher bids were submitted.
- Concern that there was not more communication with residents about the plan.
- Concern that tax abatements and/or government grants would be needed to complete the project.
- Concern that there was no clear benefit for existing residents and business owners.
Councilmembers’ Responses and Vote
Some councilmembers appeared frustrated by the public comments and pushed back on assertions made by speakers.
In particular, they disputed the idea that the development was kept secret from residents. While the agenda for the special meeting on July 25 was posted to the City of Lowell website, a few people have noted that no packet was included online so the proposals were not easily available for review.
However, councilmembers argued they have been transparent throughout the process. “I take some offense to saying it was hush hush and behind closed doors.” said Mayor Mike DeVore. “It was not behind closed doors.”
Councilmember Cliff Yankovich added that everything was done by the letter of the law with proper notice of meetings made in the local paper and deliberations recorded and posted to YouTube. He also mentioned that he had previously posted an explanation of his vote in favor of CopperRock’s proposal on his city councilmember Facebook page.
“The reason I voted the way I voted was I was looking at the long-term benefit financially to the city,” Yankovich said. He believed a multi-family residential building would bring in more revenue than the other proposed uses for the property.
Councilmember Marty Chambers seemed upset that people had waited until the City Council meeting to share their concerns. “Everybody in this room knows exactly where you can find me and yet you come in here,” he said. Chambers added that he had plans to convert the second story of his business, Red Barn Consignment & Antiques, to apartments and wondered if he would encounter similar opposition.
“We are all thoughtful people,” Councilmember Leah Groves said. She noted that she was a new resident and moved to Lowell in 2019 because the city has a vision. “We move, we transform, we build, we work together to create a community.” She felt comfortable that CopperRock would be able to transform the line shack property into something that would not change Lowell’s character.
In his comments, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel said he appreciated hearing everyone’s thoughts and that he was always available to discuss issues and his votes.
At the end of the comments, there was some brief discussion regarding whether the issue should be tabled until next meeting. However, the council ultimately voted on the purchase agreement, and it failed on a 3-2 vote. The votes broke down as follows:
- DeVore – No
- Salzwedel – No
- Yankovich – No
- Chambers – Yes
- Groves – Yes
Yankovich said he would have liked to vote yes but felt that he needed to vote no after listening to public comments. “The people have spoken in my ears, and I’m suppose to represent them,” he said.
Other Meeting Activity
After the vote on the line shack purchase agreement, council took a five-minute break before reconvening at 8:40pm. It then moved through the other action items in quick succession. Those included:
- Unanimous approval of changes to the city’s social district to include Sabor Mexicano and the parking lot off from Riverside Drive.
- Unanimous approval of a budgeted $15,169 expense for new chlorinators and a chlorine gas leak detector for the water plant.
- Unanimous approval of Dan Czarnecki as at the city’s officer delegate to the Municipal Employees’ Retirement (MERS) Annual Meeting.
- Unanimous approval of a resolution proclaiming September 1, 2022 as Pink Arrow Pride Day – Arrow Force XV.
- Unanimous approval of rezoning three properties on W. Main Street from the C-3 to the C-1 district, as recommended by the Lowell Planning Commission.
In their final comments of the night, DeVore invited residents to attend more city council meetings. Yankovich noted that Betsy Davidson has entered hospice care, and he thanked her for all her work with the city.
At 9:03pm, Lowell City Council went into closed session “to discuss pending litigation regarding the City of Lowell and Jason Diaz v W.B by and through his Next Friend Shmeka Craig Miles.” This is presumably related to an officer-involved shooting. Former Lowell police officer Jason Diaz was cleared of criminal charges related to the incident, but a civil case regarding the matter has been ongoing.
The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Tuesday, September 6, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.