Planning Commission Recap: Multi-Family Housing Approved for Main Street

More than six years after acquiring the properties at 504 and 512 E. Main Street, Flat River Outreach Ministries (FROM) believes they have a workable plan to create affordable housing on the site. That was one of three business items discussed during last night’s City of Lowell Planning Commission meeting.

Before getting to the business items on the agenda, commissioners unanimously elected Bruce Barker as chair for the upcoming year and Tony Ellis as vice chair. Commissioners Colin Plank and David Cadwallader were absent for the meeting.

Annual Report from Grand Rapids Gravel

Under old business, the Planning Commission reviewed a letter from Grand Rapids Gravel on the status of their operation at 2104 Bowes Road. As a condition of their special land use permit, the company is required to submit an annual report.

The company notes that it has removed fewer than 25,000 tons of material from the site so far. There was one noise complaint from a township resident south of the river, and the company has ordered quieter back-up alarms and installed a second muffler on their water pump in response.

“I think they’ve kept that area clean of debris,” Ellis noted.

“To me, it seems like it’s been an excellent operation,” Barker added.

Master Plan Quote Provided

Next, Andy Moore, a consultant to the Planning Commission from engineering firm Williams & Works, presented a quote for the update to the city’s master plan. The master plan was last revised in 2007, and both the Planning Commission and City Council agreed it was time for an update.

The process for updating the master plan will take about 12-18 months and is expected to include multiple opportunities for community input. The base price provided by Williams & Works for the update is $31,478.

Moore also reviewed optional tasks that could be added as part of the revision process:

  • Four visioning sessions with the Planning Commission, City Council, Downtown Development Authority and Parks and Recreation Commission: $5,640
  • Online community survey: $2,000
  • Two pop-up planning events at high-traffic activities such as a Showboat Concert or the Pink Arrow game: $3,770
  • One classroom collaboration event in a school: $2,880
  • Draft master plan open house: $2,828

If all optional items are included, the total price for the master plan revision will $48,596. The project is not being put out for bid because Williams & Works is a preferred vendor with the city.

By consensus, planning commissioners agreed to turn over the decision on the optional items to Lowell City Council for their review and approval.

Multi-Family Housing Approved for E. Main Street

In 2016, FROM purchased 504 and 512 E. Main Street with the hope of being able to use the properties to provide affordable housing. While 504 E. Main Street has been completely renovated, the home at 512 was torn down to make way for a new building.

At one time, FROM had prepared plans for a multi-story building that would include parking on the ground level, but that design ended up not being feasible. Now, working with the non-profit ICCF Community Homes, the organization believes it has a realistic plan for affordable housing on the site.

Jan van der Woerd, vice president of real estate development and management for ICCF, presented the plans which call for two multi-family buildings along Main Street. “The idea is that the two buildings aren’t obtrusive,” he said, noting that they are low-slung, single-story buildings. “It’s not dominating the area.”

The two buildings are slated to be constructed on the vacant lot opposite the block that contains Ball’s Softee Crème and Alpha Family Center, and each will hold eight units. However, in one building, a unit will contain laundry facilities instead of an apartment.

View of proposed duplex for along Kent Street

In addition to the two buildings along Main Street, a duplex is to be constructed on the same block but along Kent Street. In total, they will add 17 new units to the block.

The 8-unit buildings will have a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments while the duplex will have three bedrooms in each unit. A parking lot in the center of the block will serve all tenants.

“I think we all know that housing is an issue across the nation,” said Wendie Preiss, executive director of FROM. According to a feasibility study conducted by the non-profit, even if 36 units were built – more than double what has been proposed – those spaces would all fill within four months.

“We believe this could be a really great project for all of Lowell,” Preiss said. She noted that the 10 units in 504 E. Main Street are all filled, and eight of the ten people there have service-industry jobs in Lowell. “We’ll probably provide housing to people who are going to work here.”

Commissioner Amanda Schrauben asked if FROM anticipated residents would live in the units permanently or if it would serve as transitional housing. Preiss replied that she anticipated most residents would be permanent.

She added that applicants would need to have a job to be approved for housing, but that a part-time minimum wage job could qualify someone. FROM is also more lenient than other landlords when it comes to providing housing to those with poor credit or a non-violent crime on their record.

“A lot of times, it’s people who are recently divorced or single moms,” van der Woerd said of those who need affordable housing. He also mentioned that a previous eviction was often the biggest barrier for those looking for a rental.

While the buildings themselves are intended to blend in with the block, they will have to be elevated significantly to bring them out of the floodplain. Preiss, who says she is 5’4, pointed to the top of her head to indicate how high the property will need to be raised.

“Have you had a conversation with your neighbors to let the know that you’re bringing in five feet of fill?” asked Commissioner Marty Chambers

Apparently, the neighbor to the east has been contacted, but others have not yet, according to Preiss. There is also significant landscaping planned to screen that neighbor from the building, van der Woerd said.

Eric Bartkus, who owns Bartkus Engineering across the street, approached the podium. “I didn’t know this was in the agenda tonight,” he said, “but I think this is wonderful.” He mentioned that he thought the change in elevation might take some getting used to, but he thought the building plans and mission was fantastic.

View of entire development. Two large buildings near top of image will have 8-units each while building in lower right will be a 2-unit duplex. The existing building in the upper right is 504 E. Main Street, known to many as Denny’s Rooms.

Among commissioners, there was some discussion of parking. The proposed lot has 26 spaces and will serve both the new buildings as well as the residents of 504 E. Main Street. That is fewer than what would normally be required of a development this size, but the ordinance allows on-street parking to be counted toward minimum requirements. What’s more, Preiss noted only four of the ten residents at 504 E. Main Street have vehicles, and they anticipate not everyone in the new buildings will have cars.

“I don’t want parking to stand in the way of a really good project,” Moore said.

Commissioner Mike Gadula observed that the lot has two handicap spots but none of the units are accessible because of stairs. van der Woerd said the development wasn’t required to have an ADA-compliant unit, and the limitations of the site made it impractical to add a ramp.

Bartkus and his wife Beryl both spoke in support of creating an accessible unit. The couple own Ability Weavers and noted that many of their workers could use affordable, accessible housing close to downtown.

“I’m with you. I talked to a lot of people. I prayed about it,” Preiss said with emotion in her voice. “We did explore it, and it really hurts my heart not to be able to do it.”

By law, a ramp can’t exceed a certain incline. Because of the height of the buildings, any ramp that would be installed would have to wind back and forth across most of the available green space. Eric Bartkus suggested installing a wheelchair lift, but van der Woerd said those had certification and maintenance costs that could get expensive.

“Elevators destroy good plans on a daily basis,” according to van der Woerd.

However, Preiss did say FROM has plans for more housing in the future on another site that would be more accessible, and van der Woerd said they could also explore the possibility of adding an accessible unit to 504 E. Main Street.

At the end of the discussion, planning commissioners voted unanimously to approve the site plan. The next step for the project will be to get approval from the state for construction in the floodplain. Preiss was hopefully that the project might get underway by the end of the year.

The meeting adjourned at 8:20pm. The next regular meeting of the Lowell Planning Commission will be March 13 at 7pm.

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