Old churches, schools used for housing in Michigan
By BRYCE AIRGOOD
Aug. 06, 2018
BERKLEY, Mich. (AP) — When Berkley resident Eric Wheeler found out Our Lady of La Salette School could be redeveloped into a five-story apartment complex, he was worried.
Wheeler's house shares a lot line with the property. What would happen to his privacy? Traffic? The view out his windows?
So Wheeler joined a growing group of residents in fighting the developer's plans, arguing both at City Hall and on social media that the 129-unit development along Coolidge Highway was too dense, too tall, would create too much traffic and wasn't a fit for this small, bedroom community.
This month, they won, with the Berkley City Council voting down the project.
"It can't overwhelm the area, it can't be this big albatross we're stuck with for 30 to 40 years," said Kurt Hite, a third generation Berkley resident who is also co-administrator for the Berkley Residents Against Residential Rezoning Facebook page.
But the battle is likely to come up again in Berkley and cities across southeast Oakland County as residents, city officials and developers fight over one of the few pieces of massive land-grabs available: old churches and closed Catholic schools. On one side developers are looking to create new types of housing that will serve residents of all ages. On the other are residents living in houses on small lots that don't want to see increased traffic, reduced parking and changing views in their neighborhoods.
In Ferndale, residents this month won their own fight against plans to redevelop the old Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church into a 30-unit apartment complex.
Ferndale's Community and Economic Development Director Jordan Twardy said density was the community's biggest concern.
"People get really really sensitive to density, and rightly so," he told the Detroit Free Press .
Still, Twardy said people of different ages, income and ability need different types of housing. Empty nesters might want to downsize while medical students might want temporary housing.
He said adaptive re-use and preservation is preferred by the city for redeveloping buildings like the Drayton Avenue church but whoever owns the land has the right to tear down the building if they want to.
Kevin Messier, Real Estates Professional Services associate broker for Drayton Avenue church, said the building, located on 2.3 acres, is in great shape and it would be easy for a church to move-in. He said several church groups have looked at the property but even more investors and developers have shown interest.
He said the church is under new contract this month after the Ferndale Planning Commission decided not to take action at its July 11 meeting for a Drayton Avenue Lofts LLC proposal. Without a motion made, there was no vote on the zoning recommendation and the 30-unit apartment plan could not move forward.
Although Messier would not release details of the church's new contract, he said Ferndale is a hot area, like Birmingham and Royal Oak, and there is a need for more housing there.
Just over a mile away at St. James Church in Ferndale, redevelopment of its old school into senior housing has been ongoing for months.
Once complete, "The James" will have 105 units and offer an in-house theater, shuttle service and 24-hour staffing.
Developer Jeff Schmitz, owner and president of J.S. Capitol, said he is blessed with the outcome of the development. He said he has met openness from the community.
Twardy said the St. James School redevelopment was relatively uncontroversial, with the exception of tearing down the school's convent due to poor conditions.
He said the big reason there was more controversy with the Drayton Avenue redevelopment than St. James was location. St. James School is adjacent to a neighborhood, but not in it like Drayton Avenue church, which is surrounded by single-family homes.
"I think with Drayton, emotions tend to run higher when (a development) is surrounded by residential uses," he said.
Whenever there is a perceived impact on a neighborhood from a development, whether it be traffic or parking, residents are going to have anti-development and "not in my backyard" feelings, he said.
Holly Fournier, media relations manager for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said in an email that the St. James School was built in 1925 and closed in 1971 due to declining enrollment and financial deficits.
The building was leased to a charter school from the late 1990s until around 2012, when it became vacant. In February 2017 it was sold to J.S. Senior Living LLC.
"By 2017, it was apparent that the best option was to sell the property for redevelopment," Fournier said.
Our Lady of La Salette School in Berkley was founded in 1943 and closed in 2013 due to declining enrollment, according to an Archdiocese of Detroit press release.
The school had 73 students in 2013 after a 47 percent decrease in enrollment since the 2008-2009 academic year. The school had a peak enrollment of more than 1,000 students in the 1960s, according to the press release.
Wheeler said no one is against development of the La Salette parcel, but he hopes the next proposal is not so heavy handed with forcing a "monstrosity" onto the neighborhood.
"We're the ones who would have had to live with it," he said.
Matthew Baumgarten, Berkley city manager, said for a built-out community like Berkley, these types of development topics tend to be controversial.
He said the vast majority of people were more concerned with density and parking, but there is an increased demand in housing, especially different types.
As longtime residents age, the city wants them to have a space to move to when they leave their single family homes, he said.
Keith Owen, a representative of Berkley-Coolidge, LLC which wanted to redevelop the La Salette property, said at a July 16 Berkley City Council meeting that the design and developmental team worked diligently to try and fulfill the city's requirements.
"This site desperately needs development, needs development as housing, and there needs to be a path that's more direct and less filled with roadblocks than this one has been," he told the council, in the recorded video of the meeting.
Berkley Mayor Daniel Terbrack said at the council meeting the school gives developers the opportunity to create a project Berkley can both be proud of and fill the vacant property.
"But this project is not that project in my opinion," he said before the council voted against it. "The size and scale is just quite simply too large to align with our vision for Coolidge."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com