City wants more study time before approving downtown development
An investment group headed by a Hudsonville plumbing and mechanical contractor proposes 42 to 45 housing units in downtown Hastings. The proposal would offer 20 percent of its units at market rental rates and the other 80 percent priced at affordable leasing rates based on 60 percent of Barry County’s average median income. Parking space would not be provided by the company.
Heeding the advice of one developer that a decision delay “will cool the rockets,” Hastings City Council scheduled an orderly countdown before the vote on a proposed project on the old Moose Lodge property on North Michigan Street.
That countdown will continue Monday, Aug. 26, with a special 6 p.m. workshop meeting before the regular council meeting at 7 p.m. Construction firms making presentations this past Monday were told the council would be ready after the workshop to make a decision on the two competing proposals.
“More than likely, this decision will be a matter of preference, but it will also be a part of your vision for the city,” Kevin Moore of Grand Rapids-based Moore & Co. told council members Monday. “I would encourage a discussion of an 18- or a 42-unit building and convenient parking or do something there that will populate the community.”
Moore’s plan for a 42- to 45-unit apartment building on the now-vacant property at 128 Michigan St., which was presented for an informal site review at last week’s planning commission meeting, jumped to city council level following Moore’s Aug. 5 letter of intent to Hastings City Manager Jerry Czarnecki. The city’s community development office also then received a letter of interest for the same property from the Grand Rapids general contracting firm of A.J. Veneklasen Inc.
The Veneklasen proposal, as presented to the council Monday by company president Chris Veneklasen, calls for a possible $5.8 million, four-story building with retail space on the ground floor and 18 to 27 residential units on the top three floors that could be completed by the spring of 2021. Both proposals would require a special-use permit to override the city’s current ordinance restricting downtown buildings to no more than eight units in the central business district.
“Where’s the plan?” Council Member Al Jarvis asked in regard to Moore’s hope for a final decision Monday. “We need a lot more information here. I am not ready to make a decision.”
Fellow council member John Resseguie echoed the same sentiment about Moore’s urgency. “I’ve got to see all the plans and proposals before I can say yes or no.”
Moore, who revealed Monday that he is representing an investment group led by Nathan Heyboer, owner of DHE Plumbing and Mechanical of Hudsonville, explained that the accelerated request for council approval is centered on an October deadline for project funding assistance through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. A MSHDA grant would provide tax incentives allowing the developer to offer 80 percent of its units as affordable housing to residents making an average of 60 percent of Barry County’s average median income. The remaining 20 percent of units would be offered at market rates.
“If we miss the October round of [MSHDA] funding, the next one won’t be until April and that will cool the rockets,” Moore said. “We need a decision to meet the October submission date. If we receive the funding in October, we’ll be able to hire the best people and submit a construction plan. If [funding] doesn’t get approved, it will just be a different building.”
Asked if his company’s proposal would demand an immediate council decision and possible delays in organizing a funding package, Veneklasen responded that, “our funding package is not dependent on a six-month review, so we’re not concerned about a funding package or the timing. We’re happy with whatever timetable is put in place.”
The Veneklasen proposal package presented Monday concedes “complex economics” involved with the project but that, “our team has done extensive research on local apartment and retail rents, which are difficult to combine with a newly constructed building.”
Among the funding tools cited for possible project funding assistance are Brownfield Tax Increment Financing, Downtown Development Authority grants, the Michigan Community Revitalization Program, and property tax abatements. Because its proposed 18 apartment units would be priced at market rates, the Veneklasen proposal would not have to seek state affordable housing assistance from departments like MSHDA and could sidestep the cumbersome and lengthy process of grant approvals.
Size and funding packages are not the only differences in the two proposals. Another, which lit up some spirited discussion, is parking. The 42- to 45-unit outline provided by Moore would require a similar number of parking spaces, accommodations that Moore suggested at last week’s planning commission meeting could be assigned to nearby city-owned public parking lots.
The Veneklasen proposal would locate all of its needed 18 to 27 parking spaces onsite, underground.
“We really want at least one parking spot per unit on the premises because we don’t want our tenants having to park four or five blocks away,” Veneklasen said.
Pointing to a similar project in South Haven with underground parking, Veneklasen told the council “this is something we’ve done a number of times. “
Council members, as did their planning commission colleagues one week ago, struggled what the ramifications of adding an additional 42-45 cars each day in public parking areas intended to accommodate local merchants.
“What would happen,” Council Member Brenda McNabb-Stange asked Moore, “if you have a parking agreement with the City of Hastings and at any point in the future a lot will not be available? My concern is that we have plans for a new fire barn close to the parking there.”
After Mayor Dave Tossava pointed out that the Baltimore Irving Rutland Carlton Hastings Fire Department recently completed a remodel and renovation study that could mean only fire and ambulance personnel – and no police department – would constitute a smaller-than-planned future occupancy, Moore sought to assure McNabb-Stange that he did not wish to “fight how you make decisions.”
“But what’s more important,” Moore continued, “new people coming into Hastings or a new fire barn?”
That may be part of the larger dilemma with which council members will now have to deal, a dilemma that came into focus but could not be solved as Moore had hoped Monday.
“Keep in mind, we have two considerations,” Council Member Bill Redman summarized. “We have the Veneklasen package of 27 units with parking underneath and onsite. The other proposal is for 45 units but then we have to worry about parking. What we want is to get people downtown, so I think we have to look at the 45 [unit proposal].
“We can spend a lot of time throwing ideas back and forth, but I think it would be good for [city] staff to get with these gentlemen, negotiate a package, and bring it back to the council,” Redman said. “If we can see something in our packets the weekend before, we could come back and make a decision two weeks from tonight.”
“Two weeks is a long time [to wait],” Council Member Don Bowers told Moore, “but, being we don’t have all the information, we’re rushing, too.”
Before seconding Redman’s motion for a two-week preparation and study period as well as a 6 p.m. workshop to precede the Aug. 26 council meeting, McNabb-Stange also suggested that the planning commission be included in the workshop.
The motions passed on an 8-0 vote with Council Member Don Smith not in attendance.
Attracting people to downtown Hastings has been no problem for Julie Fox, proprietor of the U-Rent-Em Canoe Livery on the Thornapple River at 805 W. Apple St. Handling the crowds to the city’s satisfaction is the problem with which she approached the council Monday.
Following a comprehensive presentation highlighting her company’s role as a vibrant member of the business and philanthropic community, Fox transitioned to a contention that city leaders and police enforcement of overflow visitor parking has led to an “adversarial relationship.”
Of particular concern was a recent Saturday during which more than 1,300 patrons of the livery were ticketed for illegal parking and the absence of a plan to accommodate similar situations in the future especially on an adjacent “green space” and a berm that acts as a protection from flooding from the Thornapple River.
“An emergency meeting with [City Manager] Jerry [Czarnecki] was called a couple of weeks ago on a Friday,” Fox said, “and I was told that the city would no longer renew green space parking for overflow visitors even though the lease application allows it but does not allow parking on the berm. On Saturday, there was a police presence, and all my visitors were ticketed.
“Learning something on a Friday, I can’t make it work on a Saturday ... That was a decision that should have been made before council ... I want to know how the council feels about our business.”
“Julie, how do you feel about being a good neighbor?” Tossava asked, beginning a discussion of clarifications, corrections and suggestions. “There is no way I want to see you leave.”
Czarnecki was among the first to provide some revisions to the record.
“We did meet on a Friday, but it was not the same weekend [as the overflow parking situation],” Czarnecki pointed out to Fox. “The police had been requested not to follow through on parking tickets so that you had a chance to work on the situation. When tickets were issued outside the parking area on Apple Street it was after complaints from the dog park that handicapped parking spaces there were being blocked.”
Hastings Police Chief Jeff Pratt concurred, saying, “We only responded after we received complaints.”
“The agreement we had with you covered years ago,” Tossava said, focusing on the green space parking issue. “One of the issues we have now is an ordinance stating you can’t park on the grass anywhere in the city of Hastings. Maybe you can pay to put gravel down so people can park – I want to be a good neighbor.”
After lengthy council discussion which included observations that, at other businesses in the city, parking on the grass occurs and that the original ordinance was written to discourage residents from parking their cars on their lawns, council members sought some common ground. Since the river canoe season is about to wind down and since Fox is transitioning her business upriver to property at 1400 and 1402 E. Center St., a suggestion was made that green space parking should be allowed until the end of the season, conditional on no parking being allowed on the berm.
That motion passed on a 5-3 count with Redman, Resseguie, McNabb-Stange, Jim Cary and Therese Maupin-Moore approving and Jarvis, Bowers, and Tossava voting against.
In other business, the council:
-Proclaimed the coming weekend as American Legion Centennial Weekend, following a presentation by post historian Brian Shumway on the upcoming 100th anniversary of Lawrence J. Bauer American Legion Post 45 in Hastings.
-Approved Youth Advisory Council Director Jilian Foster’s request to hold the annual YAC Rood Sit Oct. 12 from 9 a.m. to noon.
-Named Tossava as its representative to the Michigan Municipal League Convention in Detroit Sept. 25-27.
-Approved the purchases of a Hot Patch Trailer ($29,090) and a wood chipper ($37,164) as recommended by department of public works staff.
-Received a report on the repair to Water Well No. 4 from Bob Masters, hydrologist with Peerless Inc.