By Danielle Duggan
Clinton County Chatter
The planned construction of low-income housing on a large parking lot site in St. Johns has some business owners concerned. They predict that this project will lead to a lack of parking space and will directly and negatively affect their businesses. But city officials believe the concerns are overblown.
According to Dave J. Kudwa, community development director of St. Johns, the parking lot, located at 207 Spring St., is being converted into a low-income, 30-unit apartment complex that will likely bring in many senior residents.
“We have a developer that we’ve worked with, that has approached us. The city owns a parcel [of land]…and it’s about half an acre,” said Kudwa. “It is a parking lot, but it was for private use beforehand. It wasn’t utilized as public parking. When we got it in 2012, a developer came in and just liked that location. They’re proposing to put in a 30 unit senior housing project and they applied for tax credits on April 1, so they haven’t heard one way or the other if they got funding yet.”
Edward Brandon, owner of Gill-Roy’s Got It! Hardware Store, along with owners of two other St. Johns bars, Dean Mazzilini and Dana Swanson, are the main forces in the movement to cancel this construction.
These three business owners, along with others, believe that this construction will take away precious parking downtown and leave local employees and customers without a place to park.
“What they’re not looking at is the parking issue that it’s going to cause,” said Brandon. “There are 54 parking spots and now 54 cars have to park somewhere else downtown and that’s the only reason anyone is against it. All the downtown businesses want growth in the town; they just don’t want to lose parking to get it.”
Kudwa and the city commission has studied parking patterns in St. Johns and doesn’t believe this will cause problems.
“This development will create another nine spaces [nearby],” said Kudwa. “When we looked at this area there is really just a small number, maybe 15 people every day, parking in this lot…We talked to a lot of businesses about having their employees park over in this [other back lot] which would free up more spaces here. We want to have enough spaces for the downtown, but we also want to be realistic in that we don’t want to have a lot of spaces here and when development can happen, that doesn’t happen because of a perception.”
According to Kudwa, the city commission has also talked about expanding a lot nearby by adding an addition 15 parking spots to that area. This lot is directly across the street from the planned apartment construction site.
According to Brandon, this location will also create “the perfect storm” for residents who live there and for the surrounding businesses.
“You’ve got Siren’s Bar…They’re cranking the music until two in the morning,” said Brandon. “Then you have Dean’s bar here, Bruno’s, on this side of it…then you have a machine shop that unloads steel off trucks on the other side of it. There’s no way anyone is going to want to live in those apartments.”
Kudwa and the city do not think that this will create problems.
“Early on when we talked to the developer, he picked this site and all of those establishments were in there already,” said Kudwa. “It’s not a concern for them as far as possible noise problems or anything…I think by far the benefits of being in that location far outweigh any possible problems that they would have. But he was conscious of that and we talked about that early on.”
According to owner of Swany’s Pub and Grub in St. Johns, Swanson, the lack of necessary businesses to accommodate for older residents will cause problems.
“There’s no pharmacy downtown, there’s nothing downtown,” said Swanson. “There’s no grocery shopping, there’s no anything. Wouldn’t it be easier to have it closer to those stores?”
Kudwa and the city plan on using this slight drawback to the benefit of the city and the businesses.
“What we’re really excited about is the possibility of how we bring a group of people, which could be 30 to 60 people, to our downtown and that could potentially create retail opportunities for folks,” said Kudwa. “One of our views on economic development is that we have got to get people to our downtown area. First thing is to get people to the downtown, and we’re hopeful that whatever services that they need, they’ll eventually come.”
Many business owners and a few St. Johns residents said that they think there are multiple other more suitable locations for the project.
“I think it would be better if they take away the old houses that they don’t have anymore,” said Taylor Terpening, St. Johns citizen. “Take those houses that are demolished or half demolished that people have gotten kicked out of instead of letting them sit there and collect dust.”
According to Brandon, there are multiple open blocks and locations and the city is ignoring these other options for financial reasons.
“There are tons of locations,” said Brandon. “[There are] beautiful locations, [they] would be perfect for that building, but [builders] want more money grab. They have the state giving them a grand to put a park in so they put a park here, and now they’re trying to get a grant to put a park over there. They’re seeing how much money they can get from the state for projects so they don’t want to take this project and eliminate that project”
According to Kudwa, the developer chose this location for a variety of reasons and the city agrees that it’s a perfect spot.
“We like it, from the city’s perspective, that it continues the same [urban density]. In our city we have high urban density, high urban use, so all the buildings are right up against the right of way, and it’s really the only place within the city that we have that. It creates nice walkability in our downtown, and opportunities for retail and commercial development. It extends the same concept from our downtown into the side blocks,” said Kudwa.
The three business owners have been doing as much as they can to cancel the construction, but they claim this has been a harder task due to the alleged secrecy of the city.
“[The city] approved it without notifying anyone of the approval,” said Brandon. “Then we wrote a letter trying to get them to put it to a public vote and they knocked that out. That’s why we’re at this point here, because we’re too late on the original meetings. They didn’t notify anyone to oppose it.”
Kudwa claims the opposite. According to Kudwa, the city has been in an open and constant discussion with business owners and the public had multiple opportunities to voice their concerns.
“The process for site plan approval [includes] a number of opportunities for public comment,” said Kudwa. “It’s all public meetings, all open. We put an ad in the paper, a public notice. We also send out an ad to everybody within that area…to come to the planning commission meeting. So that’s the time for public comment. The planning commission just makes a recommendation, then the city commission hears that again, so there’s a second public hearing that they can go to to express any concerns.”
According to Kudwa, the city went through extra steps to ensure the public was aware of the project’s details and was able to voice their concerns.
“We additionally had a DDA meeting where we invited all the businesses which was not a requirement of the site plan process, but we thought because there was some folks who weren’t happy with the project, that we’d take that extra step and invite all of the business owners down to talk about the project. I thought we had really good public involvement,” said Kudwa.
The business owners have hung posters all around the city to raise awareness of the project and encourage citizens to contact city hall with their concerns. They also gave citizens the opportunity to sign petitions that could be found in various stores and bars.