Developers Optimistic RiverView Flats Will Proceed as Planned

An artistic rendering of the interior of one of the proposed condos. Design work on the project is being provided by Mary Witte of r.o.i. Design.

Everyone seems to agree redeveloping the site of the former Unity High School into condominiums and retail or office space is a good idea. However, the property owners and city have struggled to iron out the details.

The saga has included an aborted attempt to swap for city park land and a $1.53 million rental invoice for utility lines buried underground. While some of these issues are still outstanding, developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal say they are ready to commence the first phase of their project.

Chamber Event Provides Peek at Building, Floor Plans

Jerry Zandstra (l) and Todd Schaal (r) address people at a Business After Hours event.

Last week, members of the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce were invited to the former bus garage on the Unity property for a Business After Hours event. Participants enjoyed a meal catered by Main Street BBQ while viewing floorplans of the expected condos. Zandstra and Schaal were also on-hand to chat about their plans.

During the event, the developers briefly spoke to the crowd as a whole to share their vision for the property. Zandstra noted that he and Schaal were responsible for the redevelopment of the former antiques mall on Main Street and both now live in the upper levels of that building. He added that he regularly strolls along the Riverwalk and found himself “thinking this should be something other than it is” when passing the former Unity High School property.

While several different uses for the former bus garage have been considered – including the possibility of turning it into a restaurant – it was decided that condos would be the best use. Plans call for the building facing the Flat River to be converted into 14 condos, with seven on the ground floor and seven on a second floor that will be added to the building. The building will also be extended to the north to accommodate all the planned units.

Originally, Zandstra and Schaal were seeking an additional seven feet of land in front of the building to create 12-foot patio spaces for the lower units. When initially presenting their redevelopment plans to the city council, Zandstra framed obtaining the additional seven feet as “a pretty big deal for us.” However, that land is park property, and Lowell City Council eventually decided it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the community to part with it.

Next Step: Rezoning to Create a PUD

The developers appear to be forging ahead without the expanded patio space and expect to be before the Planning Commission later this month with an application to create a Planned Unit Development. Commonly called a PUD, this type of zoning allows for the city to approve unique setback, parking and other requirements for a specific piece of property.

“Current zoning doesn’t allow us to use these buildings,” Schaal told those in attendance at the Chamber event. The property is currently zoned for Mixed Use. Previously, Zandstra and Schaal told Lowell’s First Look they were pursuing a PUD because of restrictions on parking in the Mixed Use district. According to the ordinance, all parking in this district must be behind the building and the maximum setback for the building from the road is 25 feet.

At the Chamber event, Zandstra explained every unit will have a large garage suitable not only for vehicles but also for storing equipment such as kayaks. Another key feature of the condos will be floor to ceiling windows facing the river in every unit.

Developers say more than 30 people have expressed an interest in the condos and are on a waiting list. “We think a whole bunch of people will live here and pay taxes,” Zandstra says.

Secrecy Overshadows Development

A look inside the former bus garage on the former Unity High School property.

Despite the warm reception many have given to the redevelopment plans, both the developers and city officials have appeared hesitant to share information. City Manager Mike Burns apparently met with Zandstra and Schaal for a year before Lowell City Council was informed of the project.

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission was asked to approve changes to the PUD ordinance to help pave the way for RiverView Flats. These amendments included eliminating the 5-acre minimum lot size, changing the allowed uses and deleting a requirement that no more than 30% of the total dwellings in a development be multi-family units.

These items were all highlighted in an August 2018 memo from engineering firm Williams & Works, which serves as a consultant to the Planning Commission, as potential barriers to rezoning the Unity property as a PUD. That memo was addressed to Burns and City Clerk Sue Ullery and obtained by Lowell’s First Look as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. There is no record of it being shared with Planning Commission members.

Schaal attended the October 2018 Planning Commission meeting and suggested further changes, including the elimination of a required public hearing before the commission for PUD applications. Neither Burns nor Andy Moore of Williams & Works introduced Schaal to the commissioners, and it does not appear the Planning Commission was ever informed that the PUD ordinance amendments were being sought because of a specific project.

Zandstra and Schaal have also been tight-lipped about who is involved in the project. The developers declined to provide the names of investors when requested. They also have yet to provide a complete site plan for the property.

However, at the Chamber event, Zandstra mentioned that the plan would be to turn both the bus garage and high school building into condos. Then, a third building may be constructed on the northeast corner of the lot. Its use will be determined at a later date.

Those plans are similar to a concept sent by a developer to the city in 2014. The developer is not named, but the Unity property was purchased by Driscon LLC later that year. Timothy Driscoll, owner of that firm, mentioned in a June 2018 email to Burns that after selling the property to Zandstra and Schaal, he would “remain involved as the designer and building for the School rehab.”

Legal Issues Now Loom

A legal battle appears to be gearing up over electrical lines buried on the property.

While phase one of the project appears ready to proceed, a battle is looming over another part of the property. Lowell Light & Power buried lines under a section of the property by the library. The lines were placed there after a 2013 flood threatened an aboveground substation that powered the east side of town. Lowell Area Schools, which owned the property at the time, gave permission for the lines to be buried, but a formal easement was never completed.

Zandstra and Schaal apparently knew about the lines prior to purchasing the property. On October 15, 2018, Schaal sent Burns an email asking who he should talk to about the power lines. On November 6, 2018, the sale of the property was completed.

The utility lines didn’t appear to be a pressing matter until the requested land swap fell through. In a February 26, 2019 email to Burns, Zandstra suggested a “global solution” that included:

  • Completion of the land swap giving the development an additional 7 feet for patio space
  • Immediate vacation of High Street
  • Property for flood plain mitigation, to be provided by the city at no cost to the developers

Negotiations appeared to hit an impasse on February 28, 2019. The next day, March 1, Schaal sent a $1.53 million “rent invoice” for the underground lines. That breaks down to $30,000 per month, dating back to 2014. On that same date, Police Chief Steve Bukala sent an email to Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker asking whether such a request could amount to extortion.

A week later, Councilmember Marty Chambers apparently called Schaal to discuss the development. In an email, Schaal noted “we appreciate and respect him reaching out to me” while Zandstra later noted, “Todd and I both appreciate Marty reaching out to Todd by phone.” After that initial call, Schaal asked Burns that Chambers be a part of any future meetings or conversations.

Burns and Chambers met with Zandstra and Schaal the next day. Burns suggested they gather “anywhere but in the City of Lowell” so the group met in Zandstra’s Grand Rapids office. Burns told Lowell’s First Look that the meeting wasn’t held at the recommendation of City Attorney Dick Wendt but Wendt provided some guidance regarding what should be discussed.

In an emailed recap of the meeting, Zandrsta wrote “that rent invoice would go away” if the city purchased the so-called Oklahoma property by the library for $225,000. The land has a value of $64,428 per city tax records.

On May 10, 2019, the city made a $60,000 offer to purchase the parcel. It has not been accepted, and Burns says the city is now preparing to take legal action to seek condemnation by way of eminent domain for the portion of the property containing the underground utility lines.

A final issue that still appears unresolved, and perhaps unnoticed, is the encroachment of the former Unity High School building on High Street. Based on current staking at the property, it appears the building extends into the road. It is unclear whether this is something that will be addressed in the PUD application process.

While many in the community are eager to see the condos completed, it appears unlikely that some issues surrounding the project will be resolved anytime soon.

Aerial image of former Unity High School Property, via Google Maps.


  1. Here is a letter read to the Lowell Planning Commission at tonight’s meeting. Cliff should read this carefully:

    June 10, 2019

    Members of the Lowell Planning Commission,

    My name is Steve Bratschie and I am the attorney for Unity School Investors LLC who are doing the Riverview Flats condo project located at 219 High Street. Unity School Investors LLC has two members, Todd Schaal and Jerry Zandstra, both local residents. There are no other investors.

    My clients have applied for and made the required deposits for a PUD. They planned to be before your Commission tonight. Last week, my clients were informed that they would not be allowed to be on the agenda tonight. The primary reason, according to the letter, is as follows: “The city’s position is that the PUD does not meet the qualifying conditions for rezoning to PUD as not all affected property owners have signed on to the application.”

    The city is referring to 6’ of the existing school building that encroaches on High Street. The city is not willing to allow the condo project to go forward because of this 6’ which is a condition that has existed since the building was originally constructed in the 1930s. At the same time, the city and Lowell Light & Power have powerlines that trespass on the 219 High Street property as the city has no easements for these powerlines.

    My clients have sent a letter to the city’s attorneys offering an easement for the powerlines in exchange for the right to move forward on the project without tearing off a section of the historic and iconic Unity School building. No response has been received. My clients have created a contingency plan to remove the 6’ of encroachment and that will be part of the application we hope you will be allowed to review next month. The PUD application will be resubmitted in the next few days.

    Two other points need to be clarified:

    1. A local media outlet and at least one member of the City Council have claimed that my clients seek the vacation of High Street that leads to the boat ramp as part of the PUD application. This is not the case. The PUD application does not request road vacation. At the suggestion of Richard Wendt, Lowell City Attorney, City Manager, Mike Burns, originally drew up plans to vacate High Street and then take back an easement that would better align with the boat launch but then the city pulled back from this plan. At no point was there discussion to impair the boat launch as it is important to my clients and to the city.

    2. In the letter from the city received last week, the property at 238 High Street is referenced. It is the property located just north of the Library. The city asked for my client’s plans for that property. That property is not contiguous to the Unity School property and is not part of the PUD application or site plan. It has a separate permanent parcel number, receives a separate tax bill, has a different address, and is separated by High Street. My clients also own other non-contiguous properties in Lowell that are also not part of the PUD application or site plan.

    Thank you for the opportunity to clarify these important matters. We look forward to being on the agenda for your consideration at your July meeting.


    Steve Bratschie, Attorney

  2. Is the “Oklahoma property by the Library” the green space between the Library and High St? It was my understanding that the City already owned that. Then you also mention the encroachment of the Unity Building onto High St. That would make me think that the entire paved area north of the building is High St.

    • Yes, the Oklahoma property is the green space by the library, but it also extends into the paved area. I added an aerial image from Google Maps to the end of the article to help show the dimensions of High Street compared to the paved section by the old school. High Street continues in a straight line across Monroe and to the Flat River. The additional pavement to the south is private property. I hope that makes sense!

    • High Street is owned by the City of Lowell. However, most of the parking spaces there are off the street and on the property owned by the developers. As of last week, there were what look like survey poles near the Riverwalk indicating the boundaries of High Street. They show where the private property begins.

  3. The MAIN reason those of us on the City Council did a 180 degree in our support of this project is the demand that we vacate High Street – which leads to the boat/kayak launch. We have taken a lot of heat about this development, but I cannot imagine how pissed Lowell folks would be if we had given away access to the Flat River. We have since found out that even if we wanted to, we probably could not have done so because of a grant from the DNR.
    Funny thing, about the same time you folks published this story, I was putting this perspective up on my blog:

    • Cliff – at no time have we asked for or sought to close the boat ramp. We, along with all residents of Lowell, should have access to the Flat River. Your attorney, Dick Wendt, suggested the road vacation along with an easement that would keep the boat ramp open. Your city manager, Mike Burns, drew up the plans for road vacation and the easement. I am happy to provide these emails to you in case you have been misinformed.

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