7-12-2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Here are my vote explanations for the July 12, 2021 City Commission meeting – apologies in advance for the length of these explanations and the delay in publishing them, this was a very full meeting packed with complex issues, and a very busy week for me in my personal and professional life. You can watch the video recording of the meeting at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnHN9-EAHF0.

Vault Marquette Brownfield Plan: NO (Passed 5-2)

I voted No on the Brownfield Plan for the Vault Marquette/Savings Bank Building development proposed by Braveworks and their architect, Barry Polzin. I am not at all opposed to development on this property, and I agree that the two private parking lots behind the Savings Bank Building are a wasteful use of space in the heart of downtown Marquette. However, I felt that there were too many unanswered questions about this project and not enough time for public input, and I was not convinced that the proposed development was the right fit for the property in question or for Marquette’s downtown and waterfront as a whole.

There were several reasons why I voted No. First and foremost, I did not feel that the Vault Marquette proposal was the best realistic potential reuse of this property. To review, Braveworks proposed a luxury boutique hotel with over 100 rooms in the Savings Bank Building and a new 5-story building to the rear connected by a glass atrium, with a 5-story, 36-unit luxury apartment building next door and a 220-space parking structure and green roof/public event space in between the hotel and the apartment building. This was a high-density development in comparison to most of Marquette’s downtown and waterfront, and the design seemed to be similar to the controversial Marquette Place development at Founders Landing. 20% of the apartments would also be reserved for renters earning 80-120% of the Area Median Income (AMI), and a private “maker’s space” would also have been included in the development. However, this is a highly desirable property in the heart of downtown Marquette with a view of Lake Superior. Had the Commission rejected this proposal on Monday night, it is virtually certain that within a short time another developer would have come forward with another proposal for the property which could have yielded greater public benefits to the people of Marquette. For instance, the exact same development with the same 20% workforce housing commitment, with the sole difference that the 100+ hotel rooms would instead be developed as long-term residential units, could have produced dozens of affordable workforce housing units, rather than just 7 not-actually-affordable units in the Braveworks proposal. The City would have almost certainly had the leverage to request public benefits like this from future developers, as the Braveworks developers and Mac McClelland (the Marquette Brownfield Redevelopment Authority’s consultant) both stated that without a Brownfield Plan “there would be no project,” and that any future development on this site would likely require a Brownfield Plan. In other communities, market-rate housing developments (even those in prime locations like this one) routinely include a certain percentage of low-income or workforce housing units – the common refrain that, “You will never get any affordable housing on the waterfront,” is simply not correct, especially when the City government is actively facilitating the development.

Which brings me to my second reason for voting against this Brownfield Plan – I was not convinced that the workforce housing units promised by Braveworks would actually be affordable for working-class City residents. As mentioned above, at the City Commission work session on June 30, Braveworks committed to setting aside 20% of the apartments in the development for renters earning 80-120% of the Area Median Income – i.e., the “workforce housing” price range which is affordable for lower-middle-income households. However, this would only amount to 7 affordable units out of 36 total units, and Braveworks later revealed at the City Commission meeting on July 12 that the rents for these “attainable” workforce housing units would still be $1,250-$1,350 per month for 500-600 sq. ft. studio and 1-bedroom apartments. This is not truly affordable for a 1- or 2-person household earning 80-120% of the City of Marquette’s median income. For comparison, I pay $680/month for a 1-bedroom apartment 2 blocks from downtown in a nice neighborhood in east Marquette, and according to the Ad-Hoc Housing Committee’s Final Report, the HUD Fair Market Rent for studio and 1-bedroom apartments in Marquette County is $542 and $624 per month respectively, and the monthly housing budget of a household earning 80-120% of the median household income in the City of Marquette is $880-$1,319. At best, units priced at $1,250-$1,350/month would just barely fall into the top end of the workforce housing price range, but it is also important to note that 1) these monthly housing budgets include rent plus utilities, and 2) the median household size in Marquette County is 2.4 people, whereas only 1-2 people could realistically live in a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, so the “median household” in Marquette probably earns slightly more than the households that would actually be living in these apartments. Finally, this 20% workforce housing commitment is purely verbal at this time, and there is a very recent example – the Gaines Rock Townhomes at Founders Landing – of another developer and the exact same architect telling the City Commission that they would build “attainable” housing priced for “the average household” in Marquette in order to convince the Commission to approve a Brownfield Plan, and then going back on their word and instead selling the housing units in question for $400,000 or more.

I was also concerned about the impacts this development would have on the City’s ability to issue bonds to facilitate the redevelopment of other, higher-priority problem properties in Marquette (for example, the old Marquette General Hospital property, the Cliffs-Dow site, or the old Shopko property). The City was being asked to issue about $7.5 million in bonds to finance the construction of the public parking structure that was included in this project. This would bring us $7.5 million closer to our Legal Debt Limit, leaving the City with only about $10 million in remaining bonding capacity for projects that could not be financed through Capital Improvement Bonds (which have a different bonding limit). When you factor in the huge scale and cost of redeveloping the old hospital property (which will require a Brownfield Plan and which needs to happen within the next 2-3 years), as well as the ever-present potential for a devastating (and expensive) natural disaster like the Father’s Day Flood which hit the Keweenaw Peninsula in 2018, I did not see how approving this project would not significantly limit the City’s ability to issue bonds to support the redevelopment of other, higher-priority properties in the coming years.

This vote explanation is already very lengthy, so I will conclude by listing a few other concerns which heavily factored into my decision to vote No:

  1. The Commission first learned about this project barely 2 months ago, leaving no time for proactive public planning, and inadequate time for public input and meaningful negotiations between the City and the developers. I understand that this was due to the time-sensitive nature of Braveworks’ financing for this project, but frankly, that should have been treated as their problem, not the City’s.
  2. Concerns about the impacts of this development on both short-term and long-term traffic patterns and congestion in downtown Marquette were not adequately addressed.
  3. The Savings Bank Building is of course very old, but its clock is still functioning and it is not in dire need of structural repairs or exterior maintenance. This project was not necessary to preserve the Savings Bank Building in the long term, and the building has several active tenants.
  4. The aesthetics of the proposed buildings, at least as presented in the architect’s conceptual illustrations, were not respectful of the historic character and beauty of downtown Marquette. Rather, they would dramatically change Marquette’s downtown skyline, and seemed very similar to the aesthetics of the One Marquette Place building, which most City residents (myself included) do not find aesthetically appealing. Some may say that this is a trivial concern, but I think it is actually very important – after all, when we talk about the best aspects of downtown Marquette, one of the first things we always mention is its historic beauty and aesthetic appeal.
  5. The public feedback about this proposed development that I received from my constituents – in my email inbox, on social media, and at the public hearing on July 12 – was overwhelmingly negative, and given that this will have a huge impact on downtown Marquette, that the City would be issuing over $8 million in public bonds to support this project, and the fact that I was elected to represent the people of Marquette, I felt a responsibility to listen to that feedback.

For these reasons, I voted No on this Brownfield Plan, along with Commissioner Sally Davis.

Deny Rezoning Request for 1651 S Front Street: YES (Passed 4-3)

The owner of the vacant Pizza Hut/Union Grill property on 1651 S Front Street in south Marquette had requested that the City Commission rezone his property to General Commercial to allow the property to be sold and redeveloped as a marijuana retail and consumption establishment. As a City Commissioner, I have always strongly supported the growth of the marijuana industry in Marquette, and I sympathize with the property owner, who has been trying to sell the property for several years. Strengthening his argument for rezoning was the fact that this property has been used solely for commercial uses for over 40 years, and prior to the adoption of the City’s new Land Development Code in 2015 it was always zoned commercial. However, in 2015 the zoning of the property was changed from commercial to Mixed-Use because it is surrounded largely by residential properties. In 2020, the City Commission voted 5-2 to “conditionally rezone” the property as General Commercial, with the conditions that the property could not be used for certain commercial purposes, including “Excess” (i.e., very large) marijuana growing facilities and marijuana consumption establishments – I gladly voted Yes on this conditional rezoning.

However, most of my fellow Commissioners and I felt that rezoning this property to General Commercial with no conditions would permanently allow a wide range of future uses – hotels, motels, gas stations, etc. – which would not be appropriate at this site due to its proximity to a residential neighborhood and a hazardous curve on a busy highway. Instead, several of my colleagues and I encouraged the property owner and the prospective developers, who were present at the meeting, to instead apply for conditional rezoning to specifically allow marijuana consumption establishments. I am not opposed to a marijuana consumption establishment on this property, but I felt that rezoning the property to General Commercial with no restrictions would have been irresponsible and potentially dangerous in the long term, and as a result I voted to deny this rezoning request. I hope the property owner comes back with a conditional rezoning request in the near future.

Allow PUD Amdt. for 6-Foot Fence at 1301 Picnic Rocks Drive: YES (Failed 4-3)

This was a vote on a requested Planned Unit Development (PUD) Amendment for the Picnic Rocks PUD along Lakeshore Boulevard. The homeowner at 1301 Picnic Rocks Drive had been given incorrect information by a contractor and the president of her HOA, and the HOA had erroneously granted her permission to build a 6-foot fence on her property. In reality, her condo association is governed by the City Land Development Code, which only allows fences to be up to 4 feet tall in residential zones, and she never obtained a City permit to build her fence as required by the Land Development Code. Ignorant of this, she subsequently built an unpermitted 6-foot fence because her dog could jump over a 4-foot fence. However, it was clear to me that the applicant had not been acting with any malicious intent and had been genuinely misled by her contractor and the leaders of her HOA. She had already paid $1,900 in fees to the City to request a PUD Amendment to allow the fence to remain, and many of her neighbors and other members of the public had expressed support for her application. I was also not convinced that granting this PUD Amendment request would have set a precedent of any kind, for 3 reasons:

  1. The PUD Amendment clearly stated that the 6-foot fence would only be allowed on the applicant’s property, and that the 4-foot height limit in the Land Development Code would continue to apply to the 14 other properties in her HOA.
  2. When asked at the June 1 Planning Commission meeting whether granting this PUD Amendment would set a dangerous precedent for fence-related variances in the City as a whole, the City Zoning Administrator clearly stated, “No, (because) we review everything on a case-by-case basis … it is the same for variances (outside of a PUD).”
  3. This would also not have set a precedent within this specific PUD, as the circumstances surrounding this PUD Amendment request were very unique, each PUD amendment is considered on a case-by-case basis, and similar PUD amendments had been granted in the past – for example, the City Zoning Administrator described a recent PUD amendment where “they just asked for a setback to go … from 10 feet to 9 feet or something like that, and that was reviewed and approved.”

After visiting the property myself and listening to the comments at the public hearing, it was also clear to me that the fence does not actually block anyone’s view or negatively impact driver or pedestrian safety, so the argument that this would negatively impact other properties seemed to be quite weak. For all of these reasons, I voted along with Commissioners Jess Hanley and Cody Mayer to grant the PUD Amendment and allow the fence to remain on this property, although the majority of the Commission voted against the PUD Amendment.

Street Performers Ordinance: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a vote to approve an ordinance to allow street performers in public spaces, including on local streets, sidewalks, and paths and on public properties. The ordinance establishes regulations on the permissible location and hours for street performances, limits monetary transactions, provides for keeping pedestrian walkways clear and free of litter, prohibits dangerous activities and the use of amplifying equipment by street performers, and requires that street performers be a certain distance from businesses, playgrounds, and schools. This ordinance was crafted in close consultation with the City of Marquette’s Arts & Culture Advisory Committee. I felt that this was a common-sense policy, and voted Yes.

Presque Isle Open Burning Ordinance: YES (Passed 7-0)

This ordinance amends the City’s current Open Burning Ordinance to reduce the risk of wildfires on Presque Isle, which is significant due to the natural condition of Presque Isle Park and the high visitor volumes and dry summers we have seen in recent years. This ordinance explicitly states that patio wood-burning units can only be used on private property, and that the only fires permitted in Presque Isle Park are those in City-owned grilling appliances provided for cooking purposes – in other words, visitors will no longer be allowed to bring their own grills or wood-burning units to Presque Isle, and campfires will continue to be strictly prohibited. This ordinance was developed and approved with the full support of the Presque Isle Park Advisory Committee. I was glad to see this ordinance finally make it to the City Commission for approval after years of discussions and development, and I voted Yes.

Resolution in Support of MBLP Public Broadband: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was a resolution in support of the Marquette Board of Light & Power (MBLP) developing a publicly-owned and operated broadband network in the City of Marquette and offering high-speed broadband internet service as a public utility like electricity. The BLP is currently conducting a feasibility study, and peer communities in Michigan and throughout the country, including Holland and Traverse City, have already established successful, financially sustainable public broadband utilities that provide faster internet (with upload and download speeds on the order of 1 Gbps, which is currently unavailable anywhere in Marquette County) at lower prices than the private sector. This would be a huge step forward for economic development, education, and quality of life in Marquette, and I hope this happens in the next couple of years.

On a related note, I also hope that in the coming years the City of Marquette (perhaps in partnership with the DDA and the BLP) can provide free, high-speed public Wi-Fi in downtown Marquette. The Village of L’Anse and the Cities of Holland and Traverse City already do this. If L’Anse can do it, why can’t we?

June 28, 2021 City Commission Vote Explanations

Here are my vote explanations for the City Commission meeting on Monday, June 28. My apologies for posting these a couple days late – I have been dealing with an ankle injury since Tuesday night, and I have also had many other personal and professional commitments that had to take priority this week. As a result, I have not had time to sit down to write these vote explanations until the past 24 hours. You can watch the meeting video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGUvc15SnDQ&t=3667s.

Schedule a Public Hearing for Vault Marquette Brownfield Plan: YES (Passed 7-0)

This vote was only to schedule a public hearing on the Vault Marquette Brownfield Plan for the July 12 City Commission meeting (NOT for final approval of this project). Approval of this Brownfield Plan will be necessary if the proposed redevelopment of the Savings Bank Building and adjacent parking lots into a boutique hotel, apartment complex, and public parking structure is to move forward. The developer is Braveworks, and the architect is Barry Polzin. I still have many questions and concerns about this project, even after the City Commission work session on this topic which was held on Wednesday, June 30. Here are a few of the most important ones:

– How will taking out an $8.5 million infrastructure bond for the proposed parking structure impact the City’s finances and ability to bond for future projects/emergencies?

– How would this development impact traffic flow on Front, Lakeshore, Washington, and Main Street?

– Does the proposed design truly respect the unique, historic nature of the Savings Bank Building and the rest of downtown Marquette’s historic waterfront and skyline?

– At the June 30 work session, I appreciated that the developers committed to working with the MEDC to set aside at least 20% of the residential units in the proposed building as “workforce housing” units that would be affordable for households earning 80-120% of the Area Median Income (AMI), but how many workforce housing units would be produced, what would be the dimensions of these units, and what specific price points would they be offered at? Would City or County AMI figures be used to calculate affordable price points (this is important because the City of Marquette’s median income is significantly lower than Marquette County’s)?

– How many of the 220 spaces in the public parking structure will actually be available to the general public at any given time? The developers have stated that there will be 80-90 spaces available in the lot during peak usage after accounting for parking for hotel guests and long-term residential tenants. It is also unclear whether individuals or businesses will be able to reserve private parking spaces, or what the parking rates and hours of operation will be.

– Perhaps most importantly, what is the “opportunity cost” of approving this Brownfield Plan? In other words, what potential opportunities would the City be giving up if we approve this particular project? Is this the best potential use of this property, or could another developer come along in a year or two with a proposal that might be a better fit and yield more benefits to the community (for example, a 3-4 story building instead of a 5-6 story building, and/or a purely residential development which would allow dozens of workforce housing units to be produced instead of 7 or 8)? Would statutory bonding limits prevent the City from taking out Brownfield Redevelopment Bonds in the future to help redevelop other vacant properties in the City which are in more urgent need of redevelopment than this site, most notably the old Marquette General Hospital campus?

In the next couple of weeks, please contact me and my fellow Commissioners with your thoughts and any questions or concerns you have regarding this proposed development. Your voices truly could swing the Commission one way or another on this one. Our contact info can be found at www.marquettemi.gov/commission/#meetthecommission.

Accept Ad-Hoc Housing Committee Report: YES (Passed 7-0)

One of the major themes of the Ad-Hoc Housing Committee’s Final Report is the need for more “Missing Middle Housing” in Marquette, which is housing that is generally affordable for middle-income households and which falls somewhere between large single-family homes and large apartment buildings in terms of scale. Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, who coined the term “Missing Middle Housing” and created this Missing Middle Housing diagram, was one of the many experts who advised the Housing Committee over the past 18 months.

This was a procedural vote to accept the Final Report of the Ad-Hoc Housing Committee. The Housing Committee was created by the City Commission in January 2020 to study the issue of housing affordability in the City of Marquette and report back to the City Commission with our findings and a set of policy recommendations. I have served as the Chair of the Housing Committee for the past 18 months. In that time, the Housing Committee (with the invaluable support of City staff) has done a tremendous amount of research; gathered input from dozens of experts and stakeholders not only from Marquette but from across the state and country; released an Initial Report in January and listened to public feedback on that report; had lengthy and at times contentious debates about various housing issues in Marquette; and ultimately produced a Final Report to the City Commission, which was unanimously approved by the Committee at our final meeting on June 8, 2020. I was glad to see my colleagues vote unanimously to accept the report, and I look forward to holding a City Commission work session on the Final Report in the near future, and working to implement the Housing Committee’s many recommendations in the coming months and years. If we do so, I think we will succeed in our goal of making sure that Marquette remains an affordable place to live for City residents of all incomes.

You can read the Final Report for yourself at marquettemi.gov/adhochousingcommittee/

(Note: while the entire Final Report is 200 pages long when you include appendices, you really only need to read the first 23 pages to see all of our most important findings and our policy recommendations to the City Commission).

Move Ordinance #697 (Wastewater Treatment Plant Bonds) to July 12 Meeting: YES (Passed 7-0)

This was another procedural vote, this time to move an ordinance authorizing $8.5 million in bonds for upgrades to the Wastewater Treatment Plant to the July 12 City Commission meeting for a second public reading and final vote. The City is considering participating in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which would allow us to secure low-interest bonds to make much-needed upgrades to our biosolids handling system at the Marquette Area Wastewater Treatment Plant. The proposed $8.5 million in bonds would be for a 20-year period and would carry an interest rate of 1.875%. These upgrades would allow us to comply with EGLE requirements for biosolids handling, and also allow the City to earn about $200,000 in additional revenue each year by processing waste products from other communities for a fee. The bonds would also potentially be eligible for principal forgiveness after a few years, and the City of Marquette would only be responsible for 84% of the debt service payments, with the remainder paid by Marquette and Chocolay Townships.

This project is clearly necessary, and this is the lowest-cost way to finance it. However, I am seriously concerned about the impact this will have on utility rates in the City of Marquette. The most recent City of Marquette Utility Rate Study, which was presented to the City Commission by Raftelis in May 2020, incorporated these Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrades into its calculations, and it recommended significant Sewer Rate increases of 9.5% for the next two fiscal years (FY 2022 & 2023) and an increase in the monthly Fixed Sewer Charge of more than 50% in the same time frame. Those are large increases that many City residents simply cannot afford to pay, and that isn’t even considering the large rate hikes for Water (8-9% per year) and Stormwater (15.25% per year) that are also proposed for the next 4 years by the Utility Rate Study. This will require serious additional discussion by the City Commission as we prepare our FY 2022 budget over the next 3 months. However, for the time being I voted Yes so we could consider this proposed bond issue at our next meeting.

Authorize Capital Improvement & Refunding Bonds: YES (Passed 7-0)

Every year the City of Marquette issues Capital Improvement Bonds to fund major infrastructure upgrades, and we generally try to not take on more Capital Improvement Bond debt than we pay off each year, so these bonds do not result in a net increase in the City debt. This was a vote to issue up to $6,118,881 in Capital Improvement Bonds to replace City streets and water/sewer pipes over the next year. After some discussion, the City Commission approved a Resolution of Intent to issue bonds in this amount at our April 26, 2021 meeting (where I successfully advocated for the inclusion of both Shiras Drive and Newberry Street in the Capital Improvement Plan for this year). This is final step in the process of issuing these Capital Improvement Bonds. We also had an opportunity to refinance previous Capital Improvement Bonds from 2011 and 2012 to obtain a much lower interest rate for the remaining life of these bonds. This will save the City at least $164,000 over the next 6 years. This was a common-sense Yes vote for me.