Planning Commission discusses future of Chamber site, surrounding lots
HOUGHTON — The Houghton Planning Commission took steps Tuesday to determine what redevelopment could look like on the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce office site and adjacent lots on College Avenue.
The City of Houghton owns the Hodge Center, where the chamber is located, and the surrounding lot. The site is one of several the city recently identified as potential sites for development.
A city subcommittee made up of City Manager Eric Waara, Mayor Pro Tem Joan Suits and fellow Planning Commission members Ben Ciavola and Norma Veurink met before the meeting to discuss what potential guardrails beyond zoning to put on development on the property ahead of a sale.
After discussion Tuesday, the Planning Commission settled on conditions for any potential sale for the city-owned property: no short-term rentals, a 50-foot height limit, a desire for residential and mixed-use buildings, and having a development agreement to accompany the sale.
The Planning Commission also scheduled a public hearing on the conditional rezoning of Gregg Nominelli’s properties adjacent to the Chamber property. Those conditions would complement the ones on the city lot.
The commission endorsed what Waara called “Rezoning Option 1”: rezoning Nominelli’s property and nearby city-owned lots from R-3 (multiple-family residential district) to B-3 (general business district).
Because the B-3 zoning does not include a height restriction, Nominelli also requested the 50-foot height limit. That would put it roughly at the same level as the seventh floor of the Hampton Inn’s bar and restaurant roof at the end of Shelden Avenue.
As owner of the Chamber lot, the city can put restrictions on the sale of that property. Planning Commission Vice Chair Bill Leder noted the move to B-3 widens the scope of potential uses.
“It’s not likely, but what if someone wanted to put in an automotive sales place there?” he said.
Waara said while putting restrictions on the city property couldn’t prevent someone else from buying adjacent property for a zoned use. But having conditions on the city property gives the city more power to steer the direction of the site, particularly larger developments that would incorporate the city’s and Nominelli’s properties, he said.
“If somebody said, ‘Well, we want to buy all of it, and we want to put an auto repair place right there, and we’re going to comply with your conditions on the city property,’ maybe we don’t want to sell that to them,” he said. “…It doesn’t guarantee things, but it does give us a little bit more leverage on whether or not we have to sell the property to somebody who may not be necessarily intending to do everything we collectively say we’d like to see happen there.”
Ciavola asked if it would be feasible to rezone to R-2, which offers more restrictions on what kind of businesses can locate there.
“It seems like it is more in line with what we want to see in that part of town,” he said.
Waara said B-3 made more sense in maintaining continuity with other properties nearby.
“Some people could call that spot zoning, if you tried to use a B-2 in there instead of a B-3,” he said.
In April, Nominelli sent a request to the Planning Commission to expand the downtown to include the Chamber property and his now-vacant property next door at 908 College Ave., which had housed an apartment complex prior to an explosion and fire last year. The request also included his lots on College Avenue and Lakeshore Drive.
The downtown designation would help both the city property and his to qualify for additional grants, particularly for commercial and residential development and improvements, he said.
“These lots utilize access points on multiple roads, so as to minimize additional congestion on one street, the location is exceptional and there is now an opportunity to develop all of these lots together, before smaller units are built or re-built upon only one lot at a time,” Nominelli wrote at the time.
In a memo to the Planning Commission, Waara outlined another option that would rezone the entire block north of College Avenue between Shelden Avenue and Lake Street, including the Alpha Sigma Tau and Lambda Chi Alpha houses.
He said the first option would be preferable. Including the city properties in the rezoning to B-3 would allow for more kinds of businesses to be included in mixed-use development. By restricting it to the portion of the block turning towards Shelden Avenue, it maintains the historic character of the College Avenue-facing parts, he said.
A public hearing on the rezoning was set for Oct. 24.
In other action, the Planning Commission:
• Recommended the approval of a lot split for two parcels owned by Hope Fellowship Church subject to verification and possible correction of the acreages described.
• Set a public hearing for Oct. 24 for Nominelli’s application for a special land use permit to build a home with an accessory dwelling unit at 7023 Sandpiper Dr.
• Discussed the Huron Creek Watershed Advisory Committee. Chair Tom Merz, Leder, Waara and Planning Commission member Kristine Bradof will serve as the committee and meet to prepare the city’s comments on the watershed plan. The subcommittee will then send it to the other commissioners for feedback before sending it to the city council, which must submit it by Oct. 15.