Planning Commission Recap: Mixed-Use Development Tabled

At its Monday meeting, the Lowell Planning Commission met for more than 2.5 hours to discuss a proposed mixed-use development at the site of the former RollAway Fun Center. All commissioners were present for the meeting, which was also attended by representatives of the development and about 20 residents.

Mixed-Use Project: 44 Units Plus Restaurant

The development is being proposed by CopperRock Construction. The company set up two LLCs that purchased the former RollAway Fun Center property at 805 and 825 E. Main Street as well as the lot at 112 Horatio Street.

As proposed, the development seeks to:

  • Vacate Horatio Street, allowing the roadway land to be used for the development.
  • Build a three-story, 44-unit apartment building that would include a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
  • Attach a 3,800 square foot commercial space that is currently expected to house a restaurant.

As a mixed-use development, the property is not subject to the same setback requirements as other properties. As proposed, the building would be built along the sidewalks on Main Street with parking, exits and entrances in the rear on Avery Street.

In order to facilitate the development, the properties needed to be rezoned to the mixed-use district, and after a lengthy public hearing, the planning commission recommended the rezoning at its July meeting. Lowell City Council then approved the rezoning a week later.

During the July Planning Commission meeting, residents raised concerns about the size and proximity of the development, parking and traffic, pedestrian safety and the integrity of the water system. Planning Commission Chair Bruce Barker suggested that representatives of CopperRock might want to adjust their plans based on resident concerns, and a site plan review of the project was tabled until September.

Project Update from CopperRock

During the Monday meeting, after a short review of the project by the city’s planning consultant Andy Moore, Greg Taylor of CopperRock addressed the commission for approximately 20 minutes to discuss activities that had transpired since the July meeting.

“We think we have a quality project that will read well when you come in from that side of town,” Taylor said.

He noted that, according to MDOT data, approximately 5,800-5,900 cars travel along E. Main Street each day, and that number has been relatively steady for the past three years. Taylor indicated that CopperRock would be supportive of having conversations with MDOT about lowering the speed or other changes that could be implemented to improve safety on the roadway.

Taylor also shared that the company had hosted an open house-style meeting that was attended by about 30 neighbors, and changes had been made to the plan after that meeting.

Those included adding a sidewalk on Avery and Grove Streets, widening the entrance on Avery Street, changing the sidewalk configuration to allow snow to be plowed onto greenspace in the winter and removal of some parking spaces on the south side of E. Main Street. Taylor also said the company would install professional blinds in all windows to avoid a “broken tooth look” to the building.

Public Comments from Neighbors

After Taylor finished speaking, Barker opened the floor for public comments, and 17 people spoke in opposition to the plan. (Note: The author of this article owns property in the 700 block of E. Main Street and spoke in opposition to the development.)

Barker noted that people would have only three minutes to speak, and he asked that those speaking not repeat the same information shared by others. Typically, residents are provided five minutes to speak at public meetings, and the change frustrated some residents.

“I was told by city hall that I could have five minutes to speak and now I’m down to three minutes,” said John Sterly, an Avery Street resident. In another departure from the norm, Commissioner Marty Chambers began timing Sterly and then notified him when he had 30 seconds left. “You know how much time I put into this and then I get three minutes?” Sterly said as he returned to his seat once his time was up.

Chambers and Commissioner Tony Ellis timed all other speakers, notifying them when a minute remained and leading many to speed-read through their prepared comments.

Justin and Shelbey Phillips, whose Main Street property borders 112 Horatio Street, expressed concern about a loss of privacy, on-street parking and falling property values. As proposed, the restaurant parking lot runs along the lot line of their yard while the restaurant building would be set back 15 feet from the lot line near their house.

Other concerns raised by residents include noise, lighting, lack of greenspace, insufficient parking, pedestrian safety, traffic safety, inadequate water and sewer lines, the ability of emergency vehicles to access the site and the proximity of the building to Main Street.

Eric Bartkus, who lives on W. Main Street on the second floor of a downtown building, worried that the amount of road noise would be a problem for residents in apartments that close to the street. He reconfigured his home because of this issue. “It was incredibly loud,” Bartkus said. “I had to remodel my home and move my bedroom back from the road as far as I could so I could sleep.”

Kelly Bishop, who lives on a corner of Avery Street, said the street was too small for the amount of traffic proposed, and sometimes two cars have difficulty passing one another if another vehicle is parked. He noted the lack of sidewalks and added that kids often ride their bikes in the road there. “We don’t need 44 units. That’s crazy,” he said.

There was also one letter read into the record in support of CopperRock Construction. It came from Arrow Veterinary Clinic, which shared that CopperRock had built the clinic’s new building and the experience had been positive.

Commission Discussion

After residents spoke, Taylor returned to the podium to address some concerns raised. He said that there would be an elevator in the building and all units would have washers and dryers, but he did not have any details about lighting. He also did not directly respond to a question about whether dumpster space was adequate. The plan currently calls for one dumpster to serve both the apartment complex and restaurant.

City Manager Mike Burns said that the city would conduct work on Avery Street and install a water main should the project be approved. In his comments, Sterly questioned whether the current 8-inch sewer main would be adequate for the project, but that was not addressed.

Moore said the site plan met the mixed-use zoning requirements although the project was deficient on parking. According to his memo about the project, the plan was 17 parking spots short for the apartments and 16 short for the restaurant.

“They are pushing it, to be honest,” Moore said, although he also noted the Planning Commission has flexibility to adjust parking requirements if they see fit. The ordinance allows on-street parking spaces to be counted as well.

However, several commissioners pointed out that people could not park on the street overnight in the winter, making the inclusion of those spots questionable. One representative of CopperRock later suggested that residents could move into the restaurant parking lot after the business closed to address that concern.

Commissioner Amanda Schrauben asked what would happen if residents had guests. Taylor felt that any guests would most likely be there for the day and not stay overnight. “I’m not opposed to developing the area, but it’s the traffic,” Schrauben said.

“The major problem I have is putting that many cars on Avery,” Barker added. He would prefer to see access points on Main Street or Grove Street.

After some additional conversation, Barker suggested tabling the proposal and having CopperRock return with changes that would relieve the traffic on Avery Street. Chambers disagreed and wanted to vote on the site plan standards. If those standards were met, the project must be approval.

“If we were going to vote tonight, we would vote no,” said Commissioner Colin Plank, later noting, “(The site plan) is pushing this little triangle of property to its absolute bursting point.” He suggested removing the restaurant to solve many of the issues raised.

Vote on Site Plan Review Standards

At the urging of City Attorney Jessica Wood, commissioners ran through the site plan review standards and voted on whether they were met. All standards must be met for the plan to be approved:

  • Standard A: This standard says that the “uses proposed will not adversely affect the public health, safety and welfare” and that the uses and structures “shall be planned to take into account topography, size of the property, the uses on adjoining property and the relationship and size of buildings to the site.” On a 4-3 vote, the commission decided this standard had been met. Commissioners Chambers, Ellis, Mike Gadula and Dave Cadwallader voted that the standard had been met while Commissioners Plank, Schrauben and Barker said it had not.
  • Standard B: This standard states: “Safe, convenient, uncongested and well-defined vehicular and pedestrian circulation shall be provided for ingress/egress points and within the site.” On a 5-2 vote, commissioners voted that this standard had not been met. Commissioners Cadwallader, Gadula, Plank, Schrauben and Barker voted it had not been met while Chambers and Ellis thought it had.
  • Standard C: This standard refers to the safe and efficient “arrangement of public or private vehicular and pedestrian connections to existing or planned streets in the area.” By unanimous vote, commissioners found this standard had not been met.
  • Standard D: This standard stipulates that removal or alteration of natural features will be restricted unless reasonably necessary, and commissioners voted unanimously that this standard was met.
  • Standard E: This standard calls for all city ordinances and other requirements to be met, and commissioners voted unanimously that this standard was met.
  • Standard F: This standard says that the “general purposes and spirit…of the Comprehensive Plan of the City of Lowell shall be maintained.” Commissioners voted unanimously that this standard was met.

After voting on the standards, Planning Commissioners voted unanimously to table the site plan until their next meeting to give CopperRock a chance to make adjustments in response to the concerns raised.

No other action was taken, and the meeting adjourned at 9:38pm. The next regular meeting of the Lowell Planning Commission is on Monday, October 9, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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