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Master plan subcommittee talks parking issues

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Bill Leder gives introductory remarks during a master plan subcommittee meeting in Houghton Monday.

HOUGHTON — Houghton’s master plan subcommittee meeting Monday served as a brainstorming session between committee members, landlords and Michigan Technological University officials on how to promote denser development while addressing parking needs.

To alleviate parking issues close to campus, committee member Kristine Bradof suggested creating a covered parking lot where students could park long-term and use public transit to get there.

“Some of the big parking lots are now selling outlots, because we required too much parking for the uses,” she said.

For students to be convinced to leave their cars at home, Houghton will need to improve its transit system first, said committee member Jen Julien.

Given the size of the community, the city is already at the limits of what it can afford for transit, said City Manager Eric Waara. He said the city has had discussions about partnering up with Hancock and the university about a larger transit system. The city will apply for a Michigan Department of Transportation grant this winter that would fund a study into consolidating the transit system.

A broader rural transit system could help not just with the number of cars, but also spread the student population, said committee member Michele Jarvie-Eggart.

“That would open student housing into Lake Linden, Laurium,” she said. “There’s a lot more affordable housing outside the City of Houghton that students could access without vehicles.”

One tool for creating denser housing is R-4 zoning, which members said was intended to have a “wicking effect” of drawing student renters away from single-family residential areas.

The City Council is considering approving a request to rezone to R-4 four properties on College Avenue, where the owner is looking to build denser student-oriented housing. Less parking is required in R-4 — one spot for every two bedrooms, instead of for each.

While landlords agreed with creating more housing stock, they thought the reduced parking requirements would drive students to illegal offsite parking elsewhere. Landlord Derek Bradway said more than 90% of his tenants near campus own cars.

Bradway and landlord Gail Sanchez said they had not considered charging students more to have cars. While improving the city transit system might get more students to stop driving in town, they said, leaving their cars at home would be at odds with the messaging that likely brought them here in the first place.

“Michigan Tech does a great job of marketing itself as a place, that this area needs to be explored … ‘Explore the Keweenaw, it’s beautiful, we have so much to offer, but don’t bring your vehicle,’ … it’s a little bit of a mixed message,” Bradway said.

Bradway brought up the idea of transit to an off-site parking lot as a compromise. That had been tried before at a lot by the Gates Tennis Center, Waara said.

“The intent was there, the routes were in place … it was a 15-minute rotation, which wasn’t very long, and the lot wasn’t used,” he said.

This year, more students are bringing cars to Tech, said Theresa Coleman-Kaiser, Tech’s associate vice president for administration. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID, students might want to be able to leave if needed, she said.

“We don’t know if that’s a one-time blip,” she said.

Campus transit ridership numbers were down somewhat, but that was due primarily to capacity limits for COVID, Coleman-Kaiser said.

The parking issues come as the city continues to grow overall. It was one of four Upper Peninsula cities to add people over the past 10 years, Leder said. And there’s already early evidence of climate-focused migration from people wanting out of drought- and wildfire-filled areas of the West, Jarvie-Eggart said.

The master plan subcommittee will next meet on Sept. 20.

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