Towers Receive Strong Support

October 31, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — If it were a football game, the final tally would have been something like 67-10.

But it wasn’t any game played on any field.

Instead it was a public hearing held in the City Commission chambers on a $50 million project planned for the Monroe North Business District. And the outcome of that hearing, most probably coming from commissioners later this month, will have a serious effect on the future of the district and downtown.

Still, the public part of the hearing wasn’t even close. Those who showed up to support Union Foundry’s effort to build two tall apartment towers at the intersection of Bond and Trowbridge easily outnumbered those who criticized the development.

By at least a 6-to-1 ratio.

Backers of the project said it would create much-needed jobs in the construction industry, would draw needed retailers downtown, and would keep young professionals from leaving town. Many supporters identified themselves as members of the United Auto Workers union, while others said they were business owners in the Monroe North district.

That latter group of supporters included Larry Zeiser, owner of the Cambridge House. The Cambridge House is a restaurant situated on the ground floor of 600 Monroe Ave. NW, and 600 Monroe is the former Ammerman warehouse now known as Monroe Terrace.

Almost all the criticism leveled at the project came from condominium owners in the five-story Monroe Terrace. Most said the north tower at 220 feet and 22 stories high was way too tall for a building that would be roughly 20 feet from their living-room windows. Others felt the project overwhelmed the building site.

“It almost seems like 10 pounds of sand in a five-pound bag,” said Jon Rooks, who developed Monroe Terrace into a commercial and residential success. Rooks sits on the condo board and is a resident in the building.

City planning commissioner Peter Carlberg also spoke against the project, but directed as much of his criticism toward the city as toward Union Foundry. He reminded city commissioners that the downtown zoning ordinance was adopted only a few years ago and it was designed to cover every potential project except those that are considered a special case.

But Carlberg said the rules that define the ordinance are being bent too often and have simply become starting points for negotiations with developers.

“This isn’t a special case. He just wants a taller building,” he said of the project.

And that was one of the four reasons the hearing was held last week.

Planning commissioners recently denied Union Foundry, headed by Moch International, four variances for the project, including one for taller buildings, and the developers appealed that decision to the City Commission.

Joseph A. Moch, of Moch International, explained to commissioners last week why they need exclusions on building height, building setback, a recess line for the north tower, and for longer canopies at the front entrances of both towers.

If the buildings were 220 feet tall instead of the 165 feet allowed, Moch said each tower would have five more stories and those extra levels would result in 130 more apartments. At 165 feet, or 17 stories, the buildings would have 268 units. At 220 feet, or 22 stories, the number rises to 398.

As for the recess line, Moch said building the north tower as they designed it would give residents of Monroe Terrace more space and sunlight than they would get if the developers turned the building to meet city code.

“The recess line puts 40 feet more distance between us and the nearest building,” he said.

Moch added that the project would create a critical mass in the district, one large enough to draw retailers and service businesses to it.

City commissioners are free to rule on the requested variances as they see fit, as they are not required to follow the decision made by planning commissioners. That means they can grant all, none, some, or one of the variances.

Union Foundry can build the towers right now. But until commissioners rule, the project can be done only at 165 feet and with the recess line of the north tower facing Bond Avenue.           

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