Eastown Flats residential plan is first of its kind


Grand Rapids city commissioners will enter new zoning territory next week when they begin considering whether to allow a new residential development in the Eastown Business District.

“This is not a problem that you’ve encountered before,” said City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz to commissioners last week. “You’re going to run into this in the future.”

The development in question is a proposal from Orion Construction to build Eastown Flats on Wealthy Street SE. The plan calls for two three-story apartment buildings with a total of 36 market-rate units in a mix of studios and one- and two-bedroom residences. One building would go up at 1400 Wealthy St. SE with the other at 1415 Wealthy St. SE.

The proposed sites are across the street from each other and on the fringe of the business district, meaning the parcels are situated between the end of the commercial portion of the district and the beginning of the residential section. One property is a parking lot reportedly used by a nearby church, while a closed car wash sits on the other site.

The difficulty is both parcels are zoned Traditional Neighborhood-Traditional Business Area, and that designation requires retail on the ground floor. However, Orion has residential on both ground floors. The company says it needs more residential density than normally is allowed in order to make the numbers work.

Changing the zoning to Traditional Neighborhood-Transit Oriented Development would go a long way toward allowing Orion to proceed with Eastown Flats; the planning commission gave its approval for that last month. Residences are seen as being good assets in a transit-oriented zone and, at one time, Schulz said the city considered designating all of Eastown as a TOD.

However, a transit-oriented designation does not permit residential on the first floor, at least not without a specific directive. So a TOD zone must be amended to include a Special Land Use status that would allow Orion to put apartments on the ground floor.

“In my mind, the project meets those tests and I support it,” said Mayor George Heartwell.

According to city officials, not all the members of the business district favor those changes. They’ve requested more time to consider the consequences of this project.

“My concern is for the business district,” said Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

“We need to be very thoughtful on both issues. I think there are two separate issues,” added Bliss about the zone change and Special Use amendment. “I don’t want to rush something.”

City commissioners will hold three public hearings regarding Eastown Flats next week. Two will be about changing the zoning to TOD, one for each property. The third will be to amend the TOD for both buildings. The planning commission planned to take up the Special Use amendment last week.

“The planning commission can approve this, but it will still come back to you,” said Schulz to the commissioners.

Commissioner Ruth Kelly offered an alternative designation the city would have to create but that would make the Special Use amendment unnecessary. She suggested a TOD-Residential zone be established and asked Schulz how long it would take to do that. Schulz said it would take months to go through the process and she didn’t want to stall the Orion project for that length of time.

“You still hold the cards,” Schulz told Kelly.

City Attorney Catherine Mish said the commission would decide whether to grant the zoning change and Special Use status next month, mostly likely Oct. 22 but possibly Oct. 8.

“I like the project. I looked at the drawings and I liked those,” said Commissioner James White of Eastown Flats. “It’s not too tall. It makes a nice gateway into the neighborhood.”

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