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Houghton Planning Commission delays downtown ordinance

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Part of a proposed Central Business Overlay District in Houghton is seen. The Planning Commission did not act on a proposed ordinance creating the district after residents said the proposed height restrictions would still allow buildings out of character with the downtown.

HOUGHTON — A Houghton Planning Commission did not send a proposed ordinance on a downtown business district to the City Council after numerous residents said the proposed height restrictions were too generous. 

The ordinance would create a Central Business Overlay District between Bridge and Franklin streets bounded by the south side of Montezuma Avenue and the Portage Waterway. 

A motion to send the ordinance on to the City Council died for lack of a second. 

City Manager Eric Waara said creating such a district is a requirement for Redevelopment Ready Communities, a voluntary state certification program that makes the city eligible for state community development incentives. 

The first draft of the ordinance made no mention of height, Waara said. Committee members saw the ordinance as an opportunity to address the issue, as the city currently has no limits on the height of downtown buildings. 

The heights are based on the tallest existing building on each street and by practical limitations of fire and rescue equipment, the Planning Commission said. Those are 72 feet for Montezuma Avenue, 80 feet for Shelden Avenue and the south side of Lakeshore Drive, and 70 feet for the north side of Lakeshore Drive.

“We were thinking about, as you look down the street, the look of the varying heights,” said Planning Commissioner Mike Needham. “We didn’t want to allow anything taller than the tallest to a point where it would have bigger variance than the average variance already.”

Shelden and Montezuma avenues would be able to have up to two additional stories beyond the height limit if they were set back at least 12 feet from the street. Lakeshore Drive would be allowed one. 

Vice Chairperson Bill Leder said the difference was based on the width of the streets. While Montezuma and Shelden are fixed, Lakeshore could potentially become wider, he said, depending on what happens with the parking deck area.

“I think we pretty carefully took into consideration trying to balance maintaining that character of downtown with providing opportunities for development that ultimately could help the economy in terms of additional property tax revenue, and also job creation,” Leder said.

Members of the public expressed concerns that the height restrictions would still ruin the quality of downtown. 

Counting additional stories, the height restrictions would allow buildings up to twice as tall as the tallest buildings in downtown, Jan Cole said.

“There are thoughtful, creative ways to build economic vitality into our downtown district,” she wrote to the commission. “Obscuring what makes our downtown incredibly special with six- to 10-story buildings is not one of them.”

Edward Cole said he believed the changes would pave the way for the Veridea Group or any other developers to build structures in the downtown at heights unprecedented for the downtown. The Marquette-based developer is in negotiations with the city to buy the large parking deck area on Lakeshore Drive and convert it to a mixed-use development. 

“My strong recommendation is to put in restrictions that do not currently block existing views and are no taller than the existing historic buildings as they are today,” he said. “Then, let your proposed developers go through the difficult and complex process of getting a variance project by project instead of making a blanket height allowance ordinance that gives anyone the right to build a building eight stories tall.”

Jennifer Rachels, who lives up the hill near the downtown, said she is less concerned with the height restrictions than with an accumulation of little things gradually diminishing her property value and living experience. Taller buildings are part of a number of things that could lead to less waterfront access, worse views from residential areas, and increased surface runoff, she said. 

Jonathan Julien, a developer with properties downtown, said a more reasonable height restriction on Lakeshore Drive would be 30 to 40 feet, along the lines of the Dee Stadium. He used the example of the three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the Rhythm building, or his properties at the Franklin Square Inn or his proposed development adjacent to it. He is also negotiating with a building owner on Shelden Avenue to build residential housing on the second and third floor. 

“We’re looking at a complete gut from the basement all the way up on a five-story building, and renovating it into, on the upper levels, housing that has a view (of the canal)…” he said. “if something is capable of being built in front of it 82 feet tall, that’s a decision we probably wouldn’t make.”

Ben Ciavola agreed with Julien’s take on the Lakeshore Drive height restriction. Ciavola is a member of the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group, which is seeking more public input into what the city decides to do with the parking deck property. He worried that as written, the ordinance would stifle debate on properties below the height limit — including the potential Veridea development — that might not fit with what residents want. 

“If it is the option of these numbers or no numbers, I would rather have there be no ordinance passed for this and have the debate later on about what is a reasonable value for the parking deck property,” he said. 

Whatever Veridea’s final proposal might look like did not factor into the discussions on the ordinance, which were conducted neutrally, Needham said. 

Commissioner Kristine Bradof said they did not want to craft an ordinance with the idea that there would be variances granted. And with no height restriction, the planning commission would have to grant a site plan review for a building of any height that met the ordinance. 

“In my 30 years here, there’s been relatively small changes and generally good improvements downtown, notably the library and the beautification, the murals and the flowers and all of that, but we’re looking at some big things now and we do need to be getting something in place before that happens,” she said. 

While no action was taken Tuesday, Chairperson Tom Merz said the issue will be revisited. 

“My reading of this says this is anything but an issue that’s going to be swept aside,” he said. “There are a lot of good comments made here tonight. This is an important issue. And I would think that the Commission will do their job and somehow this will get resolved.”

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