Tweaking plans: Planning Commission backs College Avenue rezoning change, amendments to zoning ordinance

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Barry Polzin speaks about a rezoning request from R-3 to R-4 for a new housing complex proposed for College Avenue at the Houghton Planning Commission Tuesday.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton Planning Commission voted to recommend the rezoning of a College Avenue property to the city’s adjoining R-4 district, as well as changes in the wording of the city’s zoning ordinance.

TL Rentals is seeking the rezoning to Redevelopment-Ready Residential District for the property at 1203, 1205, 1209 and 1211 College Avenue. It seeks to create higher-density housing at those spots and create more student-oriented housing close to campus, architect Barry Polzin said in the request.

“The area’s primarily student housing, and there’s R-4 zoning across the street on both sides … it really would make that goal of achieving higher-density, higher-volume housing achievable,” he said.

Plans for the property would include indoor parking, which Polzin said would neutralize any potential increase in noise. The parking plans call for a 10-foot setback, requiring the zoning change, Polzin said.

R-4 also requires less parking — one for every two bedrooms, instead of for each. The project would aim to provide enough parking for 75% to 80% of residents. That would enable them to keep the parking at one level instead of two, saving $1 million, Polzin said.

Multiple landlords opposed the rezoning. Houghton landlord Gail Sanchez said expanding the R-4 zoning to College Avenue would set a precedent. She had applied for a variance for the R-3 building, allowing it higher density but still requiring one parking spot per bedroom. Allowing the rezoning would likely induce other College Avenue landlords to do the same, adding to parking problems near campus, she said.

“What makes this proposed housing development any different than the three I just pointed out?” she said. “If you approve moving forward … is this commission required to move forward with a potential request for R-4 zoning for each of the three properties I just mentioned?”

Houghton resident Craig Waddell suggested adding a recommendation that developers tearing down buildings to salvage any historic architectural features, which could be provided to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore.

Commissioner Mike Needham appreciated the development furthers the master plan goals of denser housing and more housing by campus. He also likes having the parking entrance on College Avenue, instead of on a side street.

Commissioner Dan Liebau was concerned about the potential of setting a precedent for College Avenue.

“The R-4 district is right there … it looks good on paper,” he said. “But what about the next parcels down to Agate Street?”

Commissioner Kristine Bradof worried about the increase in cars coming and going. Needham said many of those cars will be parked for most of the week.

The Planning Commission recommended the zoning change by a 8-0 vote, with Commissioner Jennifer Julien abstaining due to potential conflict of interest. The same vote occurred on the proposed changes to the city’s zoning ordinance.

Needham said the abstentions were fairly routine for the Planning Commission member. Julien’s predecessor on the commission, Franklin Square Inn owner Gary Lubinski, had often needed to abstain for the same reasons, he said.

The city’s zoning subcommittee had been working on revisions to the city plan since April 2020, after the last revision to the city’s master plan. Further rounds of smaller-scale changes are in the works.

“We don’t want to be discussing this for another two years if we can get something in place,” said Kristine Bradof, who served on the committee with City Manager Eric Waara and Commissioners Bill Leder and Mike Needham. “We know there’s some issues already that have been brought up, but it’s one of those things where it’s important to get those changes in and then deal with any tweaks that might be necessary.”

Changes to the city’s zoning ordinance included permitting short-term rentals. In R-1 and R-2, they are restricted to owner-occupied properties. They do not need to be owner-occupied in R-3, R-4 or any business-zoned areas.

The requirements also changed minimum requirements for off-street parking to minimum-maximums, in an effort to reduce the amount of land covered under parking.

For instance, the requirement for retail was reduced from a minimum of one parking spot per 150 square feet of usable floor area to one per 350 gross square feet of floor area. That matches the amount given to Meijer after it requested a variance in its recent site plan.

“This revised approach recognizes that land is a valuable resource for residents, the environment and prudent development,” the city said in a commentary on the proposed changes. Excess parking can contribute to stormwater runoff, heat islands, urban sprawl and costs, the city said. It can also reduce higher uses of land that would increase property taxes.

The Planning Commission would be able to increase or decrease the parking requirements upon applicants if they can demonstrate why the changes are necessary, including a quantitative analysis.

“That’s really one of our goals, is to make it reasonable, work for more people, and let’s still be flexible for the smaller people that feel like it doesn’t quite fit,” Needham said.

Setback requirements for 50-by-100-lot lots were set at 20 feet in front, five at the side and 15 in the rear. For lots abutting the Keweenaw Waterway, that was set at 25 feet in front, 10 on the side and 20 at the rear.

The minimum lot sizes in the R-1 and R-2 districts, and the density requirements in R-3 and R-4, were removed to allow for denser development. Architectural guidelines were added in both districts, such as a priority on facade design and the use of harmonious colors.

Derek Bradway, who owns several rental properties in the city, called the proposed changes “phenomenal.” But he said requiring fewer parking spaces could exacerbate problems such as unauthorized parking at the Pearl Street Mall. Nearly all his tenants have cars, he said, including 90% at the Kataluma Apartments and 96% at the Lakeshore Apartments.

“If we lessen the number of parking spots, the kids are going to find someplace to go,” he said. “They’re just not not going to have vehicles.”

Commissioners said individual projects would still be able to ask for variances if necessary. Bradof said there could be alternatives, such as the Copper Country Mall renting out long-term parking to students who want to keep their cars in the area but don’t drive every day.

“Let’s look for some solutions, instead of just saying ‘We’ve got to provide free parking for everybody,'” she said. “Because if you can charge extra for rent for people to park right on site, then they might think differently.”


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