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Downtown apartment project caught in waiting game

Contributing Writer

Lugging plans under their arms and pencils in their pockets to city planning commission meetings have become the force of habit for developer Marvin Helder and architect Jeff Haywood.

The pair needed neither in Hastings Monday evening during the latest round of their quest for site plan approval of a rental rehabilitation project at 118 Court St.

Helder, who has completed several residential conversions of second-story units in downtown Hastings, is presently engaged in converting a large portion of a housing structure zoned for commercial space into a multiple-family dwelling composed of five separate apartments. Complying with city zoning requirements, which have undergone changes, is his current challenge.

“The proposal for converting an existing building from commercial to residential falls under the new zoning ordinance, making multi-family dwellings a special land use,” Rebecca Harvey, a planning consultant with Kalamazoo-based McKenna Associates, told planning commissioners at their monthly meeting.

Harvey explained that, because Helder's property at 118 Court St. is now part of the downtown district, different zoning requirements must apply.

“You amended the ordinance to allow for changes in downtown projects, but that's not an option for you here. Because this project falls under a special land use, a public hearing must be held and you have not held one.”

In addition to the procedural oversights, Helder also is facing compliance issues regarding the size of the five individual apartments he hopes to create and with lot setback requirements for a proposed covered porch and raised wooden walkway he hopes to add around the building.

“One of the apartments is small by about 60 square feet, but that's because of the configuration of the building,” Helder said in regard to adhering to the 600-square-foot minimum space requirement. “Had we known about the [minimum space requirement], we would have been here a long time ago asking for relief.”

Helder explained that, when the city eased minimum space requirements for second-story downtown apartments, he assumed the same requirements would apply to his project at 118 Court St. He was also unaware of the special land use designation in effect.

“The building has to be six feet from the back lot, but porches have to be 20 feet from the back lot line,” Helder said of the difficulty under those conditions to construct a wraparound porch. “So, we're just kind of playing a game at this point.”

Though the procedural parlay is extending his hoped-for completion date, Helder is confident of a successful outcome.

“I know, I know, the state's waiting for you and I'm waiting for the state,” Helder said with a smile as he stood before commissioners. “It's called hurry up and wait.”

“This city and these people are great,” Helder said following the meeting. “They listen, they discuss, and they respond.”

Planning Commission Chair David Hatfield indicated that the feeling is mutual and has helped commissioners, with Helder's vision, to anticipate critical future planning issues.

“We appreciate your patience and your cooperation,” Hatfield told Helder. “We can make this work with some small alterations.”

Hatfield also mentioned to commissioners that additional discussion triggered by Helder and complemented by Harvey's observations on population density and character is something the commission is going to want to consider.

“I'd strongly look at your minimum square foot requirements,” Helder said, referring to the current 600-square-foot figure. “In Grand Rapids, they've just built 300-square-foot units in a 15-story building and they're getting $1,500 per month with parking fees, besides.

“Younger people are not looking for a place to entertain. All they want is a place to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a Pop Tart for breakfast. They don't bring anybody over. If they want to see their friends, they go down to the Waldorff to see them.

“New York City just this week passed an ordinance allowing 200-square-foot studio apartments. That's like small business,” he said.

In comments made after his presentation, Helder added to his belief that compact living in downtown areas is the key to reviving communities, pointing out that a recent renovation of an 1,800-square-foot space in downtown Hastings – under the current 600-square-foot minimum – could bring three new residents downtown. Several planning commission members voiced support Monday.

“Maybe we could look at changing some things, make it easier for someone to want to do this,” observed Commissioner John Resseguie. “There are people who have apartments that could be renovated but they don't want to go through the complications. It's easier to put an apartment back in use than it is to build a new one.”

Harvey confirmed that communities all over the country are dealing with the same issue, many of which encounter the concerns of existing residents about how increasing population density will affect property values and the character of their communities.

“Allowing for smaller homes does increase density,” Harvey reminded commissioners, “but it also allows homes to be more affordable for people, too.”

The Hastings Planning Commission meets for its next regular meeting Monday, Aug. 5, at which time the public hearing for Helder's project will be conducted.




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