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Parking deck, public participation and a cautionary tale

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 of this piece appeared in the Wednesday, July 14, edition of the Daily Mining Gazette.

On Aug. 4, 2020, Houghton residents (myself included) voted overwhelmingly (830 to 226) to postpone the sale of the city’s Lakeshore Drive parking deck property “until the citizens of Houghton . . . are able to participate in an open decision-making process about the use of the property.”

At this point, almost a year has passed, and few people have taken advantage of that time to attend and participate in city-sponsored public meetings about the parking deck and related issues.

Some research suggests that, among other reasons, people don’t participate in political processes (attend meetings, vote, run for office, etc.) because they don’t feel well enough informed or they believe their voices will not be heard or respected. With that in mind, please consider the following key events and issues in Houghton’s parking-deck controversy:

In Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand Center, the first reference to the prospect of redeveloping the Lakeshore Drive parking area is during a Jan. 15, 2019, meeting of Houghton’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Tax Increment Finance Authority (TIFA). Subsequently, this prospect was discussed during at least half-a-dozen public meetings prior to the well-attended Aug. 14, 2019, city council-sponsored public hearing on the issue, during which three developers presented their responses to the city’s request for qualifications (which were not redevelopment proposals).

After a public hearing during its Aug. 28, 2019, meeting, the council voted 5-to-2 to ask the Veridea Group in Marquette to devise a proposal for redeveloping this area.

On Dec. 16, 2020, during a joint meeting of the council, the Planning Commission and the DDA/TIFA, Veridea presented its proposal, which included a hotel with conference space; residential units; and restaurant, retail and office space. The plan also included removing the existing parking deck (at an estimated cost to the developer of $1.5 million) and building a new, 250-stall covered parking deck to support both new development and daily public use (at an estimated cost to the developer of $8 to $10 million).

(Early along, there was some concern about waterfront access, which was never at risk because the Houghton Waterfront Trail was never for sale.)

During the City Council’s Jan. 6, 2021, work session, City Manager Eric Waara read a letter from Veridea announcing the company’s withdrawal from this project. The letter included the following comments:

“It is clear that the city has no defined process in place that can move this project forward at this time. Further, it seems clear that the council may decide to create another community input process that will potentially change critical development parameters for the site. . . . We recognize that a development project of this magnitude deserves close scrutiny and active public participation. However, it should not devolve into the spreading of misinformation, false data, outright lies and personal attacks, as has been the conduct of many of the opponents of this project. Challenge our plans, not our people and their integrity.”

I don’t know what personal attacks this letter references; however, among many more respectful comments, I did find these comments posted on a local, social-media site:

“My honest opinion is there’s some under the table deals and payoffs going on.”

“You are not the only one who thinks this deal is not honest. When did the city sell out to this private company behind the peoples back?”

Since October 2020, I’ve attended every meeting of the City Council, the Planning Commission and the two Planning Commission subcommittees. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours on Houghton’s Documents-on-Demand Center and on other sites trying to better understand both this issue and municipal governance in general. Reasonable people (including Veridea) might conclude that there are problems with processes and structures, but I find no evidence in Houghton governance of problems with either intentions or integrity.

If we all recognize that people on the various sides of this issue all care deeply about their community, we will increase the prospect of developing solutions that we can all accept or at least live with.

In light of Veridea’s withdrawal, during its Jan. 13, 2021, meeting, the council voted to ask the Planning Commission to advise the council on how the city should address the parking-deck issue.

On March 2, 2021, the Planning Commission voted to divide its response to this request across two subcommittees: a parking deck subcommittee and a master plan subcommittee (which has begun its work with the master plan chapters on downtown and the zoning plan and future land use).

Dr. Craig Waddell is a retired Michigan Tech professor whose research focused on risk communication and public participation. He’s also the former president of the West Houghton Neighborhood Association, which worked on parks, walkability, ageing in place and related issues. You can reach him by email at rcraigwaddell@gmail.com.

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