By Rosemary K. Otzman
Three Belleville businessmen attended the Feb. 14 meeting of the city Planning Commission to express their deep concerns about the Downtown Overlay District rules that affect them in a negative way.
Present were former Mayor Glenn Silvenis, owner of a real estate firm on Main Street; Gary Snarski, owner of another real estate firm in a historic building that has been upgraded at great expense on Main Street; and Bob Stoner, who owns an office building in the former movie theater on Main.
Silvenis asked if the planning commission had done an economic impact study before putting in place the ordinance that limits office space in favor of retail.
While the offices now in place are grandfathered in, if someone wants to sell an office building, the new owner would have to put in retail on the ground floor. This ordinance has been in place since the summer of 2010.
Silvenis said, if the Deering Agency, for example, wished to sell its building to another insurance company, it would be prohibited.
Silvenis was told by the planning consultant that the building could be sold for the same use.
“If it’s vacant for 90 days, you can’t,” said DPW Director/Building Official Keith Boc, adding the planning commission is working at updating the ordinance and that provision could be changed.
Silvenis said the businesses never got proper notification on the change and, “I knew nothing about it.”
Planning Commission chairman Steve Jones said the ordinance changes were published as required by law.
“You’re trying to legislate demand. You’re not doing that,” Silvenis said.
Jones said it’s not the planning commission’s purview to see what businesses are trying to come in. He said the planning commission and city council are “totally different” than they were when the ordinance was enacted.
Jill Bahm of Birchler Arroyo said the planning commission is studying the downtown to determine the kinds of uses to contribute to a vibrant downtown. She said they want it walkable, with people going from shop to shop.
She said they are talking about it and coming up with solutions to mix up the uses, liven up the downtown, and make the community vibrant again, with fewer offices and more retail.
“I just don’t understand it,” Silvenis said. “I was going to be a city planner, but changed my major,” he said explaining that he had gained knowledge of the field.
He said the government is taking the lead in putting businesses out of the community. He asked them if they wanted everyone to go to Van Buren Township? If the Deering building is empty for 90 days it can’t sell to another insurance agency, he stated.
“We’re trying to alleviate the situation … that took place three years ago,” said Commissioner Michael Renaud.
“Can we go back to the way it was?” asked Stoner. “I have the Professional Building, with all offices.”
“You were already non-conforming when you bought it,” Boc said, noting it should be in office zoning.
“It was a theater,” Silvenis said.
Snarski said limiting the office space to a percentage of the downtown, which is being proposed, doesn’t make sense to him.
“We all want retail,” Snarski said, adding that he and Silvenis, as realtors, are trying to work with their clients.
He said Dr. Robbe’s building is zoned retail and has been vacant for more than 90 days with offices in back.
“What does he do?” Snarski asked. “If it can only be sold for retail, what does it do for people who own the building?”
“You want retail, but you don’t want to affect your business?” Jones said to Snarski. “I just want clarification.”
Snarski took offense to Jones’ comment, saying if Bob Stoner wants to sell his building, with all offices, what does that do?
“It’s not about Gary,” he stated.
Jones cut off his statement¸ saying some houses have been changed into businesses and they have to figure out how to make adjustments.
He said Stoner’s building could possibly be office space, but as a city they have to come up with how they want the downtown to look.
“We could say, it’s hard out, do what you want,” Jones said, adding in the future you couldn’t put people out. He said they want to make a walkable downtown and they are trying to make a logical mix of the whole downtown.
Jones said they could lose in the long term and they can’t let it all be office space.
“When you made a comment to me, I take offense,” Snarski said to Jones, noting Jones just said it again.
“I apologize if I misunderstood you,” Jones said to Snarski.
Boc suggested they could put a limit of 8% of professional offices allowed and once that is surpassed, no more. He said they could keep a file on them. He said some buildings have no window frontage and are not designed for retail.
Commissioner Michael Hawkins, who voted against the ordinance in 2010, said there is so much room for more development on Main Street that he would rather restrict what’s being built than what’s already built.
He referred to the photos of the downtown area taken by Bahm and displayed on the walls in long displays showing a block at a time.
Bahm said her figures show that office and services are currently 22%, plus medical offices makes 36%. Retail, barber and personal services is 16% — about half.
After more discussion, Silvenis asked if one of Stoner’s tenants moved out, can he rent it to another tenant?
Boc said he can’t expand the footprint of the building, to discourage the growth of a non-conforming use. Boc said he really wouldn’t know if one tenant was moving out and another moving in.
“You force us to lie?” Snarski asked, noting many properties have set vacant for years.
Silvenis said the planners talk about retail space, but they should consider that with amazon.com and eBay, a lot of purchases are made on line.
“That has to be taken into consideration,” Silvenis said.
Jones said they are trying to have a good mix and the language written three years ago was not the best language to use. He said they are making good strides on coming up with the right mix.
Bahm said offices have always been allowed on the upper floors. She said the 2010 language was confusing, vague, and hard for Boc to understand and enforce.
Stoner said in his building there’s 100 people every day going into the Independent newspaper office and so the city is getting a lot of foot traffic from offices.
“Until now we haven’t had funding to fix and correct our ordinances,” Hawkins said. “Some of our ordinances are so confusing.”
City Manager Diana Kollmeyer said the changes in 2010 were done legally and above-board.
“Zoning is always a moving target,” Bahm said. “We are always trying to improve it and make it better. It should be a vibrant, bustling downtown.”
Snarski said they can’t make everyone happy with the ordinances. He said Chesley Odom’s old building went vacant for two years because it couldn’t have professional or office use. He said Barb Rogalle’s building, which has been a law office for more than 30 years, would have to be knocked down.
“That’s what we want to do for some of those buildings,” Boc agreed.
Jones suggested the commission come up with a percentage, offering 30 or 35% for offices and survey that percentage to see what it would bring.
Bahm asked if they wanted to limit the office space to a percentage and then “put a fence around it and not let anyone in”?
“The free market should control it,” Silvenis insisted.
Silvenis said a doctor is looking at Dr. Robb’s building and Boc said, “Can’t go there.”
Bahm said they could be comfortable with the offices in place now, but not bring more.
Silvenis asked if there should be tax relief for buildings they can’t sell. He was told there couldn’t.
“It’s all fine, if you have a developer coming in,” Snarski said. “But, they’re not knocking on your door. Change it. That’s why we’re here.”
Renaud said businesses have trouble with financing non-conforming parcels and some cities set up a class system for non-conforming, making some have more confidence.
“And, there’s a problem with insurance,” said Snarski. “Can’t get insurance if it can’t be rebuilt.”
Silvenis asked how many buildings downtown are two stories.
Bahm said in the 2006 version of the master plan they thought there would be more since the two-story building was constructed between Second and Third streets.
“Belleville is very much a one-story town. We thought more would come,” Bahm said. She said she would contact other communities to find out their percentages.
Hawkins suggested she find out about eclectic towns, like Saugatuck. Others added Suttons Bay, Frankenmuth, Manchester, and Dundee. Hawkins said to stay away from Plymouth.
“I think we’re getting close to making positive progress on this,” Jones said.
In other business at the Feb. 14 meeting, the commission:
• Changed the Bylaws and Rules of Procedure to change the wording that they “shall” have one regular meeting a month to “may” hold at least one meeting a month. If there is no agenda or no quorum they can cancel the meeting;
• Learned the Sign Ordinance Committee didn’t meet, but a document will be ready for review at the March 14 meeting;
• Heard Jones thank the business owners for coming to the meeting. He said it is difficult to make decisions without input and before a roomful of empty chairs. He said it was not intentional to offend Snarski. “We don’t want to zone you out of anything,” Jones said; and
• Heard Bahm announce that her firm Birchler Arroyo has changed its name to Clearzoning. She added the meetings always are better with business input.
By Rosemary K. Otzman