Building projects move forward

March 18, 2012
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As expected, Grand Rapids city commissioners set March 27 as the public hearing date for the vacant Oakdale Elementary School. It will be the second hearing for a brownfield designation on the building in less than two months.

The first was held for GR School Lofts LLC, a Berkley, Mich., developer that told the city it wanted to convert the building, which it bought from Grand Rapids Public Schools, into apartments. Commissioners approved a brownfield for the project.

But shortly after that, GR School Lofts, a division of Ojibway Development, sold Oakdale to Charter Development Corp., a real estate arm of National Heritage Academies Inc., and then terminated its brownfield agreement with the city.

“Ojibway apparently intended all along to sell it to CDC,” said Mayor George Heartwell. The mayor learned that NHA had filed its charter-school application Sept. 30, months before the developer approached the city about the brownfield designation.

The city also gave brownfield status to the Lexington, Eastern and Stocking elementary schools that GR School Lofts said it intended to buy from GRPS. The developer closed on the Lexington and Eastern transactions but also sold those buildings to NHA, which reportedly is willing to sell both back to GR School Lofts. The deal for the Stocking structure wasn’t finalized and GRPS has retained ownership of the building.

Commissioner Dave Schaffer said residents have told him that having a charter school in the Oakdale building was fine with them, but they would have preferred if GR School Lofts and CDC had been honest in their dealings with the city. He said the city is still rewarding the developers, even though the project wasn’t presented in a truthful manner.

Commissioner Ruth Kelly asked how developers are vetted before they come to the commission. The rental-housing proposal that Ojibway brought to the commission was the first project it had proposed to do in the city. “We don’t want to discourage developers from coming here,” she said.

City Economic Development Director Kara Wood said her office reviews a developer’s projects and conducts a background check. Wood pointed out that her department has been able to protect the city’s involvement in all the development deals with private developers so far.

“The most important thing that I see happening is there won’t be a vacant building,” said Commissioner Elias Lumpkins of the Oakdale school.

The hearing next week will focus around a redevelopment plan that CDC has for the building at 944 Evergreen SE. The plan involves investing $7 million into it and its 4.6-acre site for the River City Scholars Charter Academy, a K-8 elementary school. The academy will open as a K-4 school and then add a grade in each of the four following years to ultimately reach an enrollment of 748 students.

“The building isn’t at capacity until four years down the road,” said Jeffrey Chamberlain, who represents NHA in real estate transactions, to the city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. Chamberlain said the school would likely open with between 350 and 400 students.

He said a normal site for one of its schools is eight acres. “It is definitely less than we typically have. … We have seven schools in the county and all have waiting lists.”

CDC is donating a portion of the property to the city for a public playground and will spend $353,000 to develop it. The site is contaminated and qualifies as a brownfield under state law. If commissioners OK the designation, which they are likely to do next week, the project will receive tax-increment financing from the local tax millage to help pay for demolition work, lead and asbestos removal and site preparation. CDC is expected to spend about $1.5 million on that work.

But instead of the public playground covering three acres as proposed by GR School Lofts, the park will be much smaller because the school needs more property for parking and drop-off and pick-up lanes than the residential project would have needed.

“It looks like it’s going to be a little more than an acre,” said Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong of the playground. “They will continue to work on the site plan.”

Also last week, commissioners granted G.A. Hahn Development of Harbor Springs and local businessman Surinder Singh zoning changes. Singh wants to build a neighborhood retail center along the 1000 block of Grandville Avenue SW. Hahn Development wants to covert the former Riverside Elementary School at 2420 Coit Ave. NE into a living center for seniors.

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