Council OKs Julien zoning request

HOUGHTON – By a 5-0 vote, the Houghton City Council approved a rezoning request for a proposed apartment complex on the site of the former Good Will Farm residential building Wednesday night.

The property, on which developer Jonathan Julien plans a 135-bed complex, is changing from R-3 (residential) to B-3 (business). Julien has said the rezoning request is to allow him to build the units in the one- to two-bedroom configurations graduate students prefer.

Plans for the complex included in a council information packet include 66 one-bedroom apartments, 24 two-bedroom apartments and seven three-bedroom apartments. The complex would be on the site used until recently as the headquarters and boys’ residence for U.P. Kids (formerly Good Will Farm). U.P. Kids headquarters has since relocated to a site downtown.

Before their votes, council members ran through a checklist of six factors from city attorney Dave Mechlin they would need to consider before they could approve a rezoning.

The project must: be compatible with use surrounding the property, not cause traffic congestion or a safety problem, not adversely affect property values, not significantly affect noise, satisfy a need in the community and be compatible with the city’s master plan.

City Manager Scott MacInnes said he had counted cars and pedestrians on Fairview Street numerous times over the past two weeks at different times of day. On average, he counted one car every seven minutes, and one pedestrian every three minutes.

“It’s probably one of the least-traveled streets in east Houghton,” he said.

Referring to a map of rental properties near Michigan Technological University, MacInnes said there were fewer than 20 one-bedroom apartments in the area.

Councilor Rachel Lankton said the city has had a good experience with Julien’s developments.

“I trust he will build something this city will be proud of,” she said.

U.P. Kids Executive Director Mark Lambert withdrew a request for a parking variance of the property Wednesday. The variance would have allowed the property to have only 150 parking spots, instead of the 194 required by ordinance. Julien and U.P. Kids are in the process of negotiations for the sale of the property.

Attorney Steve Pence, who represents several landlords in the city opposed to the project, said after the meeting they would meet to decide what future course of action to take. He said he was disappointed by the council’s vote.

“They didn’t ask the right questions,” he said. “We all agree residential housing is compatible there. We don’t agree that you apply the criteria to a business zone to give an advantage to one landlord over every other landlord in the city. We think it’s a bastardization of the process, and it’s probably illegal.”

The board had originally voted down the request by a 3-2 margin at a meeting in September. Julien requested another hearing on Oct. 10, where the council tabled the issue.

At a special meeting on Oct. 17, city attorney Dave Mechlin laid out the checklist of factors, which he said the council had not followed in its earlier vote.

The ordinance required four votes for the rezoning to take effect. Councilor Craig Kurtz, who had voted against the proposal in September, was not at Wednesday’s meeting. Councilor Mike Needham was ineligible to vote because he had already done so at the Planning Commission level.

The council received a number of letters on the project, including from landlords and neighboring fraternities.

Glenn Smith, attorney for the adjacent Kappa Delta Psi, said the rezoning amounted to unconstitutional “spot zoning” for business use, and would also cause congestion issues. Jim Cote, president of the Beta charter of Theta Tau fraternity, was also concerned about pedestrian traffic, and asked the city to consider an entrance to the apartments from MacInnes Drive.

MTU’s Graduate Student Government voted unanimously earlier this month to support the rezoning, saying the increased competition would improve housing conditions for students and could help grow graduate enrollment at Tech.

“The Graduate Student Government generally agrees with and supports housing developments that meet graduate student needs regarding safety, quality, affordability and proximity to campus,” President Amberlee Haselhuhn said at Wednesday’s meeting. “And there are many solutions to meeting those needs, not just one.”

Landlord Derek Bradway, part of the group represented by Pence, questioned the need for the complex, pointing to an increase in off-campus vacancies.

“Students looking now have more options off-campus and on-campus than they’ve ever had before,” he said. “There are no homeless kids – but there are vacancies.”

Mike Burink, Julien’s attorney, presented densities under three scenarios. The total number of bedrooms in the plan is less than the 156 in the current building, and under the 172 bedrooms allowed under current R-3 zoning.

“His request is not a significant change,” he said. “The footprint is the same for all three scenarios here.”