Last October, developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal unveiled plans to redevelop the site of the former Unity High School into riverfront condos and a mixed use building. At that time, the duo said they hoped to break ground on the project, dubbed Riverview Flats, before Christmas. Indeed, the website for the expected condos still shows spring 2019 availability.
However, gaining the necessary approvals for the project has not been simple or easy. Zandstra and Schaal have proposed a land swap to give them an extra seven feet for patio space, but the process to consider and accept that proposal has been mired in confusion. What’s more, not everyone is sure that the proposed swap is the best the city can do.
The issue is on the city council agenda for tonight, but before then, here’s a look at what’s delayed the project so far.
PUD Expected for Project
The normal process for approving a development is relatively straightforward. A developer presents a site plan to the planning commission for its review and approval. In some cases, there may be a request to rezone property or ask for a variance to be exempt from a specific provision of the zoning code.
The Riverview Flats project is taking a different approach. Zandstra and Schaal have indicated their intent to request a planned unit development. Also known as a PUD, these developments bypass zoning requirements for existing districts. Traditionally, PUDs have been used to allow mixed uses on a single site as well as preserve open space by clustering houses. Lowell currently has one PUD, the Highland Hills development.
By pursuing a PUD rather than a traditional site plan review, the Riverview Flats project will need to be reviewed by both the planning commission and the city council which will lengthen its approval time. However, as of yet, Zandstra and Schaal have not started that process because of issues surrounding their land swap proposal.
Swap Process Source of Confusion
At the center of the project delays is a request by developers to obtain a seven-foot wide strip of city land in front of the former bus garage. Having this land will allow them to create a larger patio space for their residents. However, this seven foot strip is currently part of Riverside Park, which was developed using grant money from the Department of Natural Resources. As a result, there are two challenges to selling this land to the developers.
The first is that the city could be required to pay back the DNR’s grant money if the land is simply sold. However, the state will allow the city to sell the land so long as it is exchanged for a comparable or larger piece of property that can be added to the park. To achieve this, the developers have offered to swap the seven-foot strip for a square parcel adjacent to the bus garage.
“We also agreed to pay for the landscaping that would make the new park area consistent with the existing park area and significantly enhance the park,” Zandrsta said when contacted via email about progress on the project.
However, Lowell City Council cannot simply accept the developers’ offer. The City Charter states, “…Council shall not have the power to sell any park, except where such park or part thereof is not required under an official master plan of the City…”
For months, the council has worked under the impression that this meant the strip of land needed to be removed from the Lowell Parks & Recreation Master Plan. When the Parks & Recreation Board declined to recommend its removal because of what it deemed to be inadequate information, the city council appeared ready to remove the land without their blessing.
Then, as the council prepared to consider the matter at its last meeting, it was announced the planning commission must hold a public hearing to remove the land. However, at the planning commission meeting last week, commissioners were told that they were not, in fact, required to weigh in on the matter.
Even now, it seems unclear how the city is to proceed. Lowell’s First Look reached out to City Manager Mike Burns last week for more information about the process and was told he is still trying to get clarification from the DNR on the park plan amendment.
Boat Launch, Loss of Green Space by Library a Concern
In the midst of the issues involving the process for approving the land swap, there are also questions about the wisdom of the swap itself. Central to these are concerns about access to the boat launch on the Flat River and the loss of community space along the Riverwalk.
Despite all members indicating general support for the condominium project, the Parks & Recreation Board declined to recommend removal of the requested seven feet of land from the parks master plan. Perry Beachum, board chair, has noted that there is a concern the city is making a decision without all applicable information.
In particular, some board members are concerned about the possibility that vehicles with trailers may have to back down High Street from Monroe to access the boat launch. The City of Lowell paid engineering firm Williams&Works to create a rendering of how the swapped square of land next to the bus garage could be landscaped to match Riverside Park, but board members wonder whether the swapped parcel will need to be used as a trailer turnaround instead.
Zandstra isn’t sure that will be necessary. “The city has parking easements near the boat launch that will allow for parking and provide for turnaround for vehicles with trailers,” he said.
Beachum has indicated he thinks the city should consider negotiating for the green space next to the library. This area has long been maintained by the city and has been used for the Pink Arrow Community Day, Riverwalk Festival and other downtown events. However, it is not city property and belongs to Zandstra and Schaal.
After the 2013 flooding, Lowell Light & Power moved its utility lines underground on that parcel. The school, which owned the property at the time, allowed the placement of the lines but no formal easement was created. Removing the lines will come at considerable expense.
“The presence of these utility lines on our property does not allow us to develop it, which was part of our original plan,” Zandstra said. “We are hoping that the city will bring a reasonable proposal to us quickly so that we can move forward.”
The green space by the library would not meet the DNR requirements for the land swap since it is not contiguous with Riverside Park. That may be, but Beachum notes the city’s best opportunity to negotiate for the green space by the library is now before the land swap is completed.
Burns noted at a Downtown Development Authority meeting that developers would perhaps want a parcel on the north side of the park, where the high school crew team currently stores its boats. In that case, that land may be used to bargain for the property near the library. However, Schaal told the Parks & Recreation Board that they were not particularly interested in that parcel.
Some Want to See Entire Site Plan
Underlying all these issues is a concern that no overall site plan for the Unity High School property has been presented although Zandstra told Lowell’s First Look there is a site plan for the PUD.
Beachum and other members of the Parks & Recreation Board balked at recommending the removal of the strip of land from the parks master plan because they felt as though they were being asked to make a decision with incomplete information. Meanwhile, the developers and Burns argue that the first phase of the project shouldn’t be held up because people have concerns with the third phase.
While the community members and local leaders we’ve spoken to have been universally supportive of the concept, some tell Lowell’s First Look that they’d like to see more details before permanently swapping a portion of park land. The failed biodigester seems to be at the back of some people’s minds as a cautionary tale of a promising development gone bad.
It has been noted that while the developers’ offer of landscaping is generous, it also ultimately benefits the development since it will enhance the Riverview Flats property. Zandstra and Schaal have also requested not to release a list of their investors for the city attorney’s review because they say it is unnecessary for them to do so.
For now, the Riverview Flats project seems to be in limbo as city leaders determine if and how to proceed with the land swap. While the issue is on the council agenda for an update tonight, Burns says he does not anticipate any council action.