Meeting Watch: Pre-Council Caucus (5 Oct 2008)

Developer chops 601 S. Forest down to size?

Councilmembers listened to concerns from citizens related to the 601 S. Forest project, an alley off Fourth Avenue downtown, odd easement conditions put forth by the University of Michigan, the city’s long-term financial health, and ballot language limiting sale of park land.

601 S. Forest

Councilmember Stephen Rapundalo first gave residents an update on discussions that he and Councilmember Joan Lowenstein had been having with the project developers, which dated back to August of this year. As of late Friday (Oct. 3) evening, Rapundalo’s understanding is that the developer intends to alter significantly the proposal and will be afforded time at the beginning of Monday’s (Oct. 6) public hearing during the city council meeting to present the revised proposal. Some key features of the revised proposal:

  • The parcel will be sliced in half, with a phased development, the first phase of which would have a footprint identical to the current proposal – an L-shaped building.
  • Though having the same footprint, the height of the building would be 12 stories above a 2-story base for a total of 14 stories. The number of beds would be in the 500-600 range, though this number has not been fully modeled.
  • Parking spaces would remain, with something around 90 spots and two levels underground.
  • The project would remain a “by right” development.
  • The second phase of the development on the second parcel (if any) would start “from scratch” with the planning commission and be subject to full site plan review.

The plan for the current phase is to continue the public hearing to the Oct. 20 council meeting, at which time city council could decide whether to approve the site plan. Rapundalo cited the city’s charter as granting authority to city council to approve site plan revisions and said that a preliminary communication from the city attorney’s office indicated that it is not necessary to put the revisions before the planning commission. However, Rapundalo said, all the revisions would require sign-off from the relevant planning staff.

Councilmember Sabra Briere got clarification from Councilmember Marcia Higgins on the question of whether the zoning board of appeals would need to be re-engaged, given that a variance had been granted for the project. Higgins explained that a variance was associated with land, not a project, and therefore whatever variance had been granted would still apply.

Citizens expressed their appreciation for the work of Rapundalo and Lowenstein in carrying forward the discussions (Rapundalo stressed that these were not “negotiations” because they were in no position to offer any kind of quid pro quo – they had nothing to offer). But citizens had many remaining concerns. Among them:

  • Given that planning staff had recently rejected a request for administrative review of revisions to the Metro 202 project, thus requiring full review by planning commission, why was the planning commission being skipped here? Response: Metro 202 is not necessarily a good standard of comparison, because it had already been approved, and was a planned project (not a “by right” development). In any case, the initial communication from the city attorney’s office was not the final verdict.
  • What opportunities beyond the public hearing on Oct. 6, to be continued on Oct. 20, would be afforded the public to engage the developer in discussion about the revisions to the project? Response: Councilmember Leigh Greden is setting up a meeting with interested neighbors and the developer has expressed a willingness to be present and available to answer questions.
  • What is the status of the brownfield request, and was this used in the discussions as leverage? Response: The brownfield committee will be meeting on Oct. 13 to consider whatever request the developer makes, but at this time it’s unknown what that specific request will be. The brownfield request will be considered independently of the site plan.
  • If the developer were to pursue a second project on the second parcel that is a “mirror image” to the current phase, it would be even worse than a 25-story building. So, what is the potential for development on the second parcel? Response: It’s impossible to say except that it will be subject to whatever zoning is in place at the time.

The developer’s presentation at council should provide more detail on the revised site plan. And more clarity on the procedural sequence should also be available.

Fourth Avenue Alley

A resident of a six-condo downtown building (with residential units having their sole entrances off a walkway/alley with an opening onto Fourth Avenue) weighed in on two issues. The first was the new installation by the future Blue Tractor restaurant of an HVAC unit on a raised platform in the alley. It had degraded quality of life on account of its noise as well as its visual impact. Second, there is an intent to provide dancing at the venue, which the resident feels will exacerbate the public sanitation issue associated with vomiting, urinating and defecating already attested in the alley on a regular basis. The lack of a water faucet in the alley limits clean-up efforts to throwing a bucket full hot sudsy water on the problem.

Councilmember Rapundalo noted that the Blue Tractor’s application for a liquor permit is coming before the liquor commitee, on which he serves, and asked the resident to state their concerns in writing and send them to the city clerk with attention to the liquor committee.


Left are residential entrances. Right are the newly installed HVAC units. According to the speaker, the DDA had made the "alley" more like a "walkway" by installing cobbled strips into the pavement (one of which is visible just before the blurred out vehicle).

The Courtyards Easement

Jim Mogensen, a regular commenter at public meetings who often notices the connections between apparently separate issues, called council’s attention to a recent communication from the University of Michigan to the owner of a local development – a communication which has now been filed with the city clerk. The Courtyards is a residential development at Plymouth and Broadway, which required an easement through university property for access. The condition the university placed on the granting of the easement was that 70% of the residents must at all times be UM students. Mogensen pointed out that if the percentage of students fell below 70%, the Courtyards could not legally discriminate against non-students in order to meet the 70% threshold. But if the Courtyards did not discriminate against non-students in order to meet the 70% threshold, they risked losing the easement. Without the easement, there was not the necessary access into and out of the site to ensure public safety. Said Mogensen, the university is effectively using its considerable economic and political clout to have other parties violate our city’s non-discrimination ordinances on its behalf.

What’s the connection to anything else? The connection is to 42 North, 133 Hill, 601 S. Forest, among other developments targeting a student rental market. Mogensen contends that planning must necessarily include a provision for the maximum occupancy and the associated infrastructure demands, not just the hoped-for demands associated with student occupancy – because we cannot legally require that only students live in a project.

Parks Ballot Language and Fiscal Concerns

Stew Nelson asked council to confirm that the ballot language printed on the ballots matched the resolution passed by council, which is intended to place restrictions on the sale of city park land. Nelson also called on council to start examining every expense in light of the current economic climate. He noted that municipal bond sales had dramatically slowed and that it’s not going to be business as usual with respect to large capital expenditures.

Present: Mike Anglin, Sabra Briere, John Hieftje, Marcia Higgins, Joan Lowenstein, Stephen Rapundalo, Ron Suarez.

Next caucus: Sunday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave