“This will destroy the entire neighborhood!”
So warns one of sixty or so pissed-off neighbors who packed Grace Bible Church’s meeting hall on a cold Thursday night in January. Four years before, nearby residents fought 42 North, a student housing project planned for the fifteen-acre site next to the church on South Maple across from Pauline, but lost when city council approved it seven to four. The crashing economy halted 42 North–but now a new developer has stepped in with an even bigger project.
The Grove would have 224 units and 600 tenants–and, like 42 North, it’s targeting U-M students. “I don’t see with all the high-rises closer to campus who in their right mind would live all the way out here,” protests one woman. “What happens when you can’t get anyone to live here and it goes into foreclosure?”
Campus Crest, a publicly traded company out of North Carolina, already has thirty-three nearly identical Groves across the country–it’s even trademarked the name. Development vice president Chris Russ tells the crowd that some of its existing complexes are as far or further from campus, and all are at 90 percent occupancy or above.
Other neighbors voice concerns about the city storm water system’s ability to handle the added runoff, object to the destruction of the property’s wetlands, and predict that traffic on South Maple would get worse. Russ points to planned retention pools and to the preservation of the wetlands nearest I-94 and to a previous study that showed no appreciable increase in traffic.
Nothing assuages the audience’s concerns. “You’re steamrolling over our neighborhood,” complains another woman. “Out of sheer greed on the church’s part, this will destroy the entire neighborhood!”
In a later interview, Grace pastor Tyson Lemke defends the church’s motives. “We see the opportunity to sell the property as a great way to expand our ministry and spread the message of Christ’s love,” he says. That includes reaching out to the college students who may soon live next door.
Interviewed later, Russ also seems unworried by the hostile reception: “The meeting went better than it could have gone,” he says. “It’s fairly typical when you’re talking about developing a virgin lot. The people who live closest would like to see a different use for it or no use at all.”
Despite its being 2.7 miles from central campus, Russ also isn’t worried about the project’s chances for success. “We’ve been watching this market for some time, and we saw that there was a gap opening up,” he says. In addition to the private bathrooms students now expect, the Grove will match the luxury fittings of the high-rises while adding such suburban amenities as a “resort-style swimming pool” and “ample parking.”
But the big reason Russ isn’t worried about the neighbors is that he believes they can’t stop the Grove. “We already have the financing in place, and we’re planning to meet the zoning code, so we’re confident we’ll get it approved by council.”
That’s what worries Jack Eaton, a lawyer who handles communications for the neighborhood association, the South Maple Group. Eaton writes in an email that “the current Council operates under the misconception that it cannot reject a project that meets technical zoning requirements.
“The site plan provisions require the Council to consider much more,” continues Eaton, pointing to clauses in the zoning code stating that a new development must “limit the disturbance of natural features to the minimum necessary,” and “not cause a public or private nuisance and … not have a detrimental effect on the public health, safety or welfare.”
Eaton believes council should reject the Grove on those grounds–and should have done the same with 42 North. Planning director Wendy Rampson responds in an email that the planning commission and council did consider those larger issues last time around–for instance, she writes, “There was active discussion about whether [the proposal] was the most appropriate way to address the wetland disturbance and still allow the property owner to make a reasonable use of the land.” The Grove’s wetland plan is similar to 42 North’s.
Rampson acknowledges that determining if a project could be a nuisance or will have a detrimental effect on the public is “a judgment call, but it would have to be a very unusual issue to deny a site plan that meets all codes. The term ‘nuisance’ in this case refers to the legal meaning, not the common meaning of bothersome or irritating. In the case of 42 North, the proposal [was] consistent with the zoning and the City’s master plan. There was nothing unusual about this project that would have caused Planning Commission or City Council to deny it.”
Councilmember Carsten Hohnke, who represents the Fifth Ward neighborhood, says he’d vote to approve the Grove “if there are no variances from the zoning. That’s our legal responsibility.” Otherwise, Hohnke says, “We’d wind up getting sued and losing in court, so it’d get built anyway and cost the taxpayers a whole lot of money.”
“We could sue, but we think that’s an extremely unlikely outcome,” Russ says. The developer predicts that “it’ll take into the summer and even late summer to get everything buttoned up, then we’ll start construction in the fall and open the following fall.”