The following represents the opinion of the Lowell’s First Look editorial board.
On Tuesday, September 3, Lowell City Council will hold a public hearing and potentially take a vote on whether to rezone the site of the former Unity High School into a planned unit development (PUD). The hearing will take place during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting at 7pm on the second floor of City Hall.
No one disputes that the vacant property is ripe for development, but the current proposal leaves many questions unanswered. It is the opinion of Lowell’s First Look that councilmembers should not approve the PUD request until issues related to parking, sidewalks, boat ramp access and density are addressed.
The Short Version
For those who haven’t been following the issue closely, developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal have proposed turning the site of the former Unity High School into 44 upscale condominium units. They have requested that 219 High Street, which contains the former high school building and bus garage, be rezoned from a Mixed Use property to a PUD.
The 44 units require 88 parking spots to meet the city zoning requirements. The developers propose meeting that requirement by placing 49 spots on 219 High Street, creating 18 spots on 238 High Street which is also owned by Zandstra and Schaal and filling the final 21 spots with spaces from nearby public parking lots.
While the Lowell Planning Commission had a discussion on the appropriateness of this parking plan and other concerns, it largely punted its questions to the City Council. Now that the council will be reviewing the PUD request, we think it needs firm answers to the following questions before making an approval:
- Is a density of 44 residential units on a 2.1 acre lot appropriate in that location? For comparison, Pebble Beach Apartments has 48 units on 3.2 acres.
- If that density is appropriate, is a PUD the best zoning or would R-3 be more appropriate?
- If spaces on 238 High Street will meet the PUD parking requirements, should that parcel be included in the PUD zone?
- Will a curb and sidewalks need to be installed on High Street to ensure safe access for pedestrians to the public park and boat launch?
- If curbs are to be installed, will cars be allowed to park along High Street? On-street parking is allowed elsewhere in the city but could potentially impede access to the boat launch if allowed here.
- If curbs and sidewalk are installed along High Street, will there still be room for 18 parking spots on 238 High Street?
- The 21 spaces being allocated from public parking lots represent approximately 20% of the spots in the lots within 400 feet of the development. Will developers be responsible for a portion of the maintenance costs or will that expense be absorbed by taxpayers?
- Developers say 88 parking spots may be excessive for their 44 units since many of those interested in the condos are young professionals and empty nesters. Do councilmembers believe young professionals and empty nesters in Lowell are typically single vehicle households?
Council Should Tread Carefully
There seems to be an inclination within the current city council to let city staff iron out the details of various matters. However, we think this is too big a project to leave things to chance. We’ve already seen once, with the biodigester, how promising projects can devolve.
While Zandstra and Schaal would likely argue that they have only the city’s best interests at heart, we’ve heard that before too. Yes, these developers have successfully transformed the former Lowell Antique Mall into a nice space, but Greg Northrup, the developer entrusted with the city’s biodigester, also had a strong track record of successful projects.
What Northrup didn’t have were some of the red flags that concern us about the major players of the RiverView Flats development. These are all things that we have learned in the course of our research, in our review of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and through our attendance at public meetings in which the development was discussed.
Plenty has been written about Zandstra’s attempt to purchase the Steelcase Pyramid building. When that fell through, he took Steelcase to court to try to force them to sell the property for less than half the originally agreed upon price. He argued an email from a Steelcase employee constituted a legal agreement.
Less has been said about Schaal who, as an appraiser, has been called out by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit and the Michigan Tax Tribunal for his appraisal practices. This is relevant because the Unity investors were at one point insisting 238 High Street was worth $225,000 even though its market value, per the county, is $64,400. In a March 9, 2019 email, Zandstra told City Manager Mike Burns that by purchasing the parcel for $225,000, a rent invoice demanding $1.53 million from the city would “go away.” More on that in a minute.
Then there is Oetman Excavating, which provided the financing for Zandstra and Schaal to purchase the property. It is unclear what, if any, role they will play in its redevelopment, but the company was cited in 2017 for a violation of the National Emission Standard for Asbestos. That’s concerning since the former Unity High School building reportedly has asbestos in it.
Concerns about Transparency
Perhaps we are being too hard on Unity School Investors LLC, but after following this story for nearly a year, it doesn’t feel as though the owners are being entirely forthright with the city and its residents.
First, there was the resistance by Zandstra and Schaal to share their entire site plan for the property. Despite repeated requests by members of the Lowell Parks & Recreation Commission for details, it was only just made publicly available in July. Prior to that, the only information provided was a rendering of what the former bus garage would look like once it was converted into condos.
Then, there is the implication that the developers were somehow blindsided by the revelation that underground wires owned by Lowell Light & Power are present on 238 High Street. These lines were buried with consent of Lowell Area Schools, which owned the property at the time, but no formal easement was drawn up. However, the developers must have known the lines were there prior to the November 6, 2018 sale date since Schaal sent an email to Burns in October asking who at Lowell Light & Power he needed to contact about them.
When their demand that the city vacate High Street was not met, Zandstra and Schaal sent a $1.53 million invoice to the city for rental of 238 High Street for the Lowell Light & Power lines. This invoice dated back to the 2015 even though Zandstra and Schaal had only owned the property for approximately six months.
Finally, Schaal came to a recent Parks & Recreation Commission meeting to ask when the wildflower area of Riverwalk Park would be cut. This is a natural area of the park and clearly signed as such. The fact that the developers are making demands about how the public park adjoining their property should be maintained leaves us wondering whether they will next be demanding limits on the public use of that space.
Missteps by City Officials
We would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the city’s handling of this proposed development leaves much to be desired. We don’t understand why the city manager would meet with developers for nearly a year without bringing the decision-makers into the discussion. We don’t know what was discussed in these meetings, but it seems unfair to developers if it gave them the impression that they were on a path to quick approval of their project. We also question how much taxpayer money was used to cover the time Burns spent doing everything from working to facilitate changes to the PUD ordinance for the project to investigating whether the property would be eligible for a tax abatement.
It was disingenuous at best and deceitful at worst that the Planning Commission was presented with amendments to the PUD ordinance but never informed that they were being proposed at the developers’ request. Schaal attended a Planning Commission meeting to provide his feedback but never identified himself as someone with a vested interest in the proposed changes. Burns, who was in attendance for that meeting as well, had been talking with Schaal for months but never mentioned this fact to commissioners.
For that matter, it is concerning that PUDs are being promoted by city staff as a way to spot zone for developments. PUDs have long been associated with clustering development to preserve open space or to create mixed use projects. The Unity redevelopment plan does neither of these things, and so it seems as though maybe a traditional zoning district would be more appropriate.
Once negotiations between the developers and city fell apart, Councilmember Marty Chambers decided to call Schaal directly to discuss the project. Later, he and Burns met with Zandstra and Schaal in Grand Rapids. Given Zandstra’s previous attempt to use a Steelcase employee’s email as justification for a lawsuit, it seems as though Chambers and Burns were treading into dangerous territory and opening the door to having something they said be used as legal fodder against the city.
Develop, But Do It Right
Given this property is in such close proximity to the Riverwalk – the heart of so many community events – it’s essential that great care be taken to avoid any negative impact to the area.
At a Planning Commission meeting, Chambers said he thought it was a good thing if a city has problems with parking availability since that means the community is vibrant and attracting people. We can see his point, but it’s no longer a good thing when people decide they don’t want to go to the Riverwalk Festival or the Christmas Parade because parking is inconvenient or non-existent.
We are not opposed to the RiverView Flats project in concept. We think it would be a benefit to the city to have that property rehabilitated into homes, shops or office space. However, we also think any development needs to be done right. Most importantly, the owner needs to be a good neighbor and as of right now, we have our doubts.