By Sue Botos
Adherence to the city’s master plan and tenants for a long-blighted area were the issues weighed by the planning commission at a lengthy meeting last week. After sometimes heated discussion, comments from residents and a show of emotion by Rockport Shopping Center owner Dennis Fisher, the scales tipped in favor of the two projects being planned for the former Center Ridge Road strip mall as the commission gave the preliminary go-ahead to Edwards Communities and Wald & Fisher Inc.
Fisher confirmed longtime rumors that Fitworks is considering leasing a portion of the former Target building after expiration of its lease at the current location in the River Square Shopping Center on Detroit Road. That space is slated for a Whole Foods market that is to open in 2014.
“This is a vast improvement over what the neighbors have viewed over the past six years, but it is not an optimal project,” commented commission member Charles Gustafson, summing up the consensus for most of the 30-plus residents present, and other commission members. Much of the commission’s hesitation to approve the residential and commercial proposals stemmed from the numerous variances requested, especially by Edwards Communities, and the bending of the city’s master plan, which was put into effect in 2005.
“There’s no way we can expect any applicant to meet the master plan 100 percent,” commented Tricia Brown, who, along with planning commission member Tom Long, participated on the Master Plan Task Force. However, she was the sole negative vote for both proposals, which passed by 4-1 margins. Alternate John Hosek sat in for Long at the meeting.
Most of the commission’s concern centered around parking for three proposed retail structures by Wald & Fisher, which would face Center Ridge Road and have parking in front of the buildings. Dennis Fisher explained that one of the buildings will house the relocated Huntington Bank branch, and the second structure would be split between a Piada Italian restaurant and a tenant to be named. There is also no occupant for the third building. Fisher said the Performance Bicycle Shop now at Rockport will close in September regardless of plans, due to low sales figures.
According to the master plan (available at www.rrcity.org/departments/economic community development), which was developed during more robust economic times, three buildings are pictured in an architectural rendering in which they front the shopping center and are buffered from the street with landscaping. Parking is shielded by the structures. “The use of design guidelines for both the architecture of the buildings and more importantly for the treatment of parking lots could be of a particular benefit to the district,” it states.
“The master plan is being thrown out the window,” commented commission member William Bishop, who along with other commissioners pointed out newer structures in the city have rear parking. Brown agreed, saying, “We’re allowing the tenants to dictate to us. The community has decided we don’t want that (front parking). We have decided what we want the community to look like.”
“Our circumstances don’t support your master plan the way you would like,” said an emotional Fisher. He reiterated his statement made at the commission’s June meeting that his tenants insist on streetside parking.
Ryan Szymanski, senior vice president of development for Edwards Communities, supported Fisher. “The fact that there’s interest (retail) is a good start. That will help us with leasing if there’s something there. This takes time, and it’s especially difficult when you have a center like Westgate down the street,” he said.
Szymanski opened the meeting with his presentation of Edwards’ proposal for a four-story apartment complex, which will cover 6 acres of the Rockport area. The 274-unit development will feature two courtyards, one serving as green space, the other with a pool, and a 6,000-square-foot clubhouse featuring a “great room” and movie theater.
Some residents, as well as commission members, expressed concern over the smallest of the units, which range from 460 to 1,300 square feet. Edwards will seek a variance of the current minimum apartment size of 750 square feet. Questions were also raised regarding a variance for fewer parking spaces than required by city code.
“We have learned some things with experience. Excess parking causes projects not to work. We know what works best,” said Szymanski. He added that with rents projected at $930 to $950 monthly, the complex would attract high-end tenants.
A number of residents from nearby streets – including Goldengate Avenue, which backs up to the property – seemed to agree that while the projects may not be the best choice for the area, it’s better than what is there now. “Center Ridge is a main artery. Everything is developed and beautified north of Detroit. It’s time for our part of the city to be beautified,” said Goldengate resident Jen Steele.