Council nixes apartment plan

HOUGHTON – By a 3-2 vote, the Houghton City Council rejected the rezoning of the former Good Will Farm property for a graduate student apartment complex at its meeting Wednesday.

The proposal from developer Jonathan Julien would have changed the zoning of the 134,000-square-foot property from R-3 (multi-family) to B-3 (general business). Conditions were that only the R-3 family use groups would be allowed, and the zoning would only change with the sale of the property.

Julien’s proposal included 138 bedrooms. Under the R-3 designation, he would be able to build up to 86 one-unit bedrooms with 172 parking spaces or 65 two-bedroom units with 130 parking spaces.

Going to larger arrangements would allow Julien more tenants than he was requesting: R-3 allows up to 172 bedrooms and 86 parking spaces for 43 four-bedroom units.

“We’re not asking to build more bedrooms on that property than what would be allowable … under R-3 zoning,” he said. “We’re simply wanting to arrange those bedrooms in a different configuration that’s more desirable to the market.”

Julien pointed to a study done by Michigan Technological University saying there was a need for one- and two-bedroom apartments for graduate students; it was their top preference when considerations such as price points were removed. The waiting list for Michigan Tech’s Daniell Heights apartments stands at 100 people, Julien said.

Julien said increasing graduate student housing has also been a priority in Michigan Tech’s strategic plans going back to 1996.

“If they gain ownership of the property, nobody will have any say in what happens on that property,” he said. “If a private developer develops it, that’s the only way the city can have a say in how it’s developed.”

Numerous landlords who own student housing opposed the rezoning, complaining about the density and saying additional units in the area would depress local prices.

Landlord Derek Bradway saw a “possibly horrid” domino effect.

“There’s going to be a downward pressure on the rents we can charge in order to maintain occupancy … that means we have fewer dollars to maintain our facilities,” he said. As a result, he said, “then I suspect the satisfaction the thousands and thousands of students that live off campus currently enjoy will be diminished, for the benefit of 100, 150, who live in this building … for one landlord, to the detriment of everybody else.”

Some complained of unequal treatment. In 2008, the city zoning board denied Brian Bekkala’s request to change the density requirements to allow an extra bedroom. Wednesday, he sarcastically endorsed Julien’s proposal.

“I actually love this idea, because now I can get my zoning in and my density reduced,” he said.

City Manager Scott MacInnes said the density requirements were primarily in place for landscaping. Julien’s proposal called for 40 to 50 percent of the land to be green space, he said.

“We want the units to look nice, we want them landscaped, we’re worried about parking and how it fits in the neighborhood,” he said. “That’s our concerns.”

MacInnes said he had met the new fraternity and existing fraternity nearby and neither had objected to the project.

To pass, the rezoning would have needed four votes – a majority of the full council.

Mayor Bob Backon and Councilors Craig Kurtz and Gernot Joachim voted against the rezoning. Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen and Councilor Dan Salo voted in favor of it.

Councilor Rachel Lankton was not at the meeting; Councilor Mike Needham could not vote, because he had already done so at the planning commission level.

Reached for comment this morning, Julien reiterated his proposal was about the optimal arrangement of bedrooms, not the number.

“I’ve got to rethink the overall project,” he said. “I think it was voted down for all the wrong reasons. i don’t think the council or the public necessarily understood what we were trying to do there.”

Julien said he had been caught off-guard by the vote, since it had passed at the Planning Commission by more than a bare majority.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I just don’t think it was in the best interest of the city to do something like this.”