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
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
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
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.