Architecture & Design, Government, and Real Estate

Grand Rapids denies apartment complex proposal

Planning commission cites size of project in Fulton Heights would not be consistent with desired density of surrounding neighborhood.

March 22, 2019
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A proposal to build a 30-unit apartment complex in Fulton Heights was struck down at a recent planning commission meeting.

The applicant, Gary Hensch, working under Michigan Street Apartment Homes LLC, requested approval from the Grand Rapids Planning Commission to construct a 16,100-square-foot, two-story apartment complex at 1542 Michigan St. NE. The building would total 30 dwelling units with a mix of six studios, 12 one-bedroom units and 12 two-bedroom units. A parking lot of 48 spaces also was proposed.

Ultimately, the planning commission voted to deny approval for construction because the proposed use would not be consistent with the low-density designation of the 2002 master plan, and the size of the project would not be consistent with the single-family residential character and desired density of the surrounding neighborhood.

Due to an elevation change on-site, a retaining wall was proposed between the building and the east property line. The wall would be about 6½ feet at its tallest, concealing much of the first floor of the building when viewed from the east of the property.

The developer proposed the building for the southeast quadrant of a parcel covering just less than 2 acres. An existing 12-unit apartment building also sits on the property.

This was the second iteration of Hensch’s proposal to build an apartment complex on the property. On Feb. 14, the planning commission considered the original application for approval. Multifamily residential uses require Special Land Use approval in low-density residential zone districts.

Although the applicant consulted with the board of the Fulton Heights Neighborhood Association, a full neighborhood meeting was not held. Several neighborhood residents who testified at the public hearing felt public engagement was inadequate. The planning commission then tabled the matter to allow for additional neighborhood outreach.

The applicant held a neighborhood meeting March 4, which resulted in several changes to the plan: the building footprint was reduced to 16,100 square feet from 16,643 square feet; the length of the building was reduced by 11 feet, resulting in an increased setback of 36.4 feet to the south; and two parking spaces were removed to provide a greater setback to the south and more overall green space while still meeting the parking requirement.

According to planning commission documents, the maximum allowed density within the zoning district is about 21 units per acre. Given the proposed 30-unit apartment complex, in addition to the existing 12-unit complex, a total 42 units on a 2-acre property fell within the density requirements of the zoning ordinance.

The LDR designation within the city’s 2002 master plan, however, corresponds to a residential density of 1-to-4.9 dwelling units per acre, meaning the project exceeds the low-density intent proposed by the master plan.

Planning commission documents also explain the commission may approve a density exceeding that in the master plan if the density requirements of the zoning ordinance are met. The commission also will consider if the proposed project is appropriate for the site and the neighborhood.

The planning commission received more than 30 letters from neighborhood residents in opposition to the development. Fulton Heights residents Chris and Beth Locke said a 30-unit apartment building is not a good fit for their neighborhood.

“We are very concerned that it would lower the property value of our homes — especially those that would now have the apartment complex in their backyard,” the letter read. “(It) seems there would be a better place to put a development like this.”

Another letter from Sarah and Matt Coullard of Fulton Heights expressed concern for the loss of green space, drainage problems that could result from the loss of green space and loss of privacy because of lot-size restrictions.

“Pulling up an aerial view of the property, it was hard for me to fathom how they were going to squeeze such a large building and a parking lot into such a small space,” the letter read. “Being in the heart of the city, the lot sizes in Fulton Heights are pretty small. The neighbors adjacent to the proposed structure will have a complete loss of privacy in a very close vicinity to their homes.”

The planning commission also received a petition, with 127 signatures from Fulton Heights residents, requesting it deny approval to construct the 30-unit apartment complex.

The planning commission brought up a conflict between the master plan and the Michigan Street Corridor Plan, the latter of which has the goal of concentrating high-density, mixed-use projects along Michigan Street and the Monroe North Business District, with the intent of capitalizing on transit investments, providing more housing units and adding vitality to business areas.

According to an excerpt from the Michigan Street Corridor Plan, the subject parcel’s location has caused confusion as to whether it would be classified low density under the master plan or higher density under the Michigan Street plan.

According to an aerial map, the property sits perpendicular rather than parallel to Michigan Street, with the existing apartment building facing the street and the southern edge buried further back in the Fulton Heights neighborhood.

“I think the positioning of the parcel does make a difference,” said Commissioner Kyle Van Strien. “The site plan is what I’m a little uncomfortable with.

“We’re all in favor of more density, and there are plenty of times where putting mixed or high-density into a low-density residential (works), but this just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The planning commission also said the project would adversely raise traffic density, as well as affect the walkability and financial stability of the surrounding neighborhood.

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