By Katie Winkler
Clinton County Chatter staff reporter
ST. JOHNS — Downtown St. Johns can expect a new development in the next year to replace the parking lot on the corner of Higham and Spring streets, parallel to the downtown strip. But not everyone is happy about that.
Last winter, city officials of St. Johns supported the proposed project of an apartment building, called St. Johns Castle, taking over this lot. This has created uproar with business owners in the area.
Dan Mazzolini, owner of Bruno’s Wonder Bar, Deano’s Pizza and Mazz’s Endzone Party Store downtown, foresees businesses “going out” due to the lack of parking.
“Downtown parking is very limited, and that’s why downtown businesses are very limited because they need parking,” he said. “We happen to be the only block that has a decent sized parking lot right now, but when they take that away from us, we are going to be in the same boat as everyone else and we will make their situation even worse because most of us will park in those spots.”
Project boosters disagree with that gloomy assessment.
“I believe it is going to be very beneficial to the downtown area,” City Commissioner Bob Craig said. “It’s the first new development building that Downtown St. Johns will have had in over 25 years.”
Currently, this parking lot provides 45 free community parking spaces. Without those, business owners are concerned that customers will stop coming downtown to shop, dine and drink.
This $4 million project will include a four-story, 30-unit apartment building with surrounding sidewalks and 31 parking spaces. Low to moderate-income seniors of age 55 and older will be welcome.
“It’s been a long time since someone has invested that much money into downtown St. Johns,” Director of Downtown Shopping District Dan Redman said.
The developer, Phil Seybert, was notified back in July by the State of Michigan that the proposal had been approved for tax credits. He does not plan to break ground until next year, due to contamination under the site that needs to be handled first.
Seybert has a similar development in Downtown Clare, which is thriving, Redman said.
Mazzolini said that the residents of these apartments may become new customers, but he is unsure if his regular customers will be willing to walk a block or two, after parking, to have a drink at Bruno’s. He believes that this project will cause more damage than good to his businesses and has considered relocating all three of his shops.
Larry Martin, an economics professor at Michigan State University, said that local businesses are more likely to deal with the changes the apartments will cause than relocating.
“Changing business location is very costly,” he said. “I suspect that businesses are indicating that they are thinking about moving, but how many will actually do it is probably a much smaller number.”
The downtown bar Sirens has an outdoor patio that draws many customers in, said owner Lisa Kurncz. The view from Siren’s patio is the parking lot, which will be taken over soon by St. Johns Castle.
“In my head, I’ve already basically resigned to the idea that I am going to have closed this and make it into living quarters,” she said. “The parking lot isn’t the most beautiful view for sure, but the side of a brick building will be worse.”
Kurncz said she is against the location, not the project itself.
“Absolutely, I would support this project anywhere other than in a parking lot — the city needs parking anyways,” she said.
Martin said that customers are more likely to travel to malls and superstores like Walmart if parking is tight, causing local businesses to suffer.
Local business owners, including Mazzolini and Kurncz, helped create a petition to present to the city manager showing their disapproval towards the development. Mazzolini estimated that they had compiled a few hundred signatures.
“I have not met one person that is for this project. We had petitions all over, which I knew were not going to be legal standing petitions because we just quick did them,” Kurncz said. “But I at least thought that the council could see how the community objected to this project.”
According to Craig, the petition did not meet the legal requirements under state of Michigan law, with issues including the form of the document and some signatures not dated correctly.
“You can’t just have a sheet passed around and have people sign it without it being a legally and properly signed petition,” he said.
The city commissioners and Seybert are trying to work with business owners to keep and create new parking spots. By moving the development ten feet east, parking spots will be saved in the city lot behind Bruno’s, State Farm and RadioShack.
“We are very pleased that Mr. Seybert was willing to compromise and work with the city to shift it a little bit,” Craig said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but the whole thing being shifted allows us to save those 13 parking spots.”
In addition, the city is working to close two of the three entrances to create 10 new angled parking spaces in this same city lot. After these initiatives, the downtown community is losing a total of 22 parking spots.
“I hope the merchants feel that they are going to get new business. These people are not just going to sit in their apartments, they are going to go downtown a lot and patronize the different businesses — they are going to have new customers,” Craig