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January 30, 2013

City Council says no to Wal-Mart at St. Bede site

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

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City Council says no to Wal-Mart at St. Bede site
In a nearly seven-hour City Council meeting Jan. 28, approximately 80 people spoke at the public hearing before council made a decision on the proposed rezoning of the St. Bede property at 12 Mile and Southfield.

SOUTHFIELD — It was a decision that shocked as many residents as it thrilled at Monday’s Southfield City Council meeting: Council voted 5-1 against rezoning the property that houses the vacant St. Bede church at 12 Mile and Southfield.

Because the property was not rezoned for commercial use, Wal-Mart will not be permitted to demolish the church and build a 130,124-square-foot supercenter, as it had planned.

Councilman Sidney Lantz cast the only vote to rezone the land to B3; Councilwoman Sylvia Jordan abstained, noting that her husband is pastor at a church that placed a bid on the property in 2009. 

“Corporations are making a decision about our community without even being here. … We need to strengthen our neighborhoods and find incentives for people to invest in their homes,” Council President Ken Siver said at the meeting. “If it takes a little longer and that property is vacant, I’m sorry, but I understand it.”

Siver, along with most other council members, praised community members for their engagement in the process and, on that particular night, their diligence and respect through the four-hour public hearing.

“We don’t all agree, but we had very civil discourse,” Siver said.

Councilman Jeremy Moss, who voted against the measure, saying, “I don’t want to look back and say we took the first development project that came our way,” told residents that they should be proud of getting to the point they had after months of meetings.

Councilman Don Fracassi told community members that he’d like them to “find out together how we envision our future.”

The following morning, Wal-Mart Communications Director Daniel Morales released a statement saying they are “disappointed” with the decision the council made on the rezoning.

“(Wal-Mart) listened to residents and elected officials and incorporated that feedback into a plan that was well within city zoning ordinances. What’s more, our proposed store would have been consistent with the city’s master plan for continued retail development along the Southfield Road corridor. It’s unfortunate that residents won’t be able to benefit from an additional 300 job opportunities and new, fresh food options along 12 Mile and Southfield roads.”

Despite widespread anticipation that opponents of the proposal would rally and that the turnout for the public hearing would stretch the capacity limits of City Hall, the meeting was structured and very manageable in attendance, according to officials.

“We were expecting three times as many people,” Fire Chief Keith Rowley said as the 7 p.m. meeting commenced. Rowley, along with the city’s fire marshal and a handful of uniformed police officers, were on hand to help ensure that the topic — which has been known to be a heated one during the last few months — was explored with respect and order in the chambers.

The city’s community relations team, including Michael Manion and Nimrod Rosenthal, helped to check in community members who wanted to address City Council before they announced their decisions. While they were prepared for several hundred registrants, Manion said about 80 people signed up onsite.

The chamber’s 200 seats were all full, and a few dozen individuals were seated in the atrium outside, in order to listen and view the meeting on TV screens. Among those who shared their feelings on the matter were Southfield residents who live near the property, Lathrup Village residents, people who pass the 12 Mile and Southfield intersection in their daily commute and even former residents of the city who felt strongly about the decision.

Echoing sentiment that had been shared since the decision was in its Planning Commission phase in the fall, the overwhelming majority of community members were against the B3 rezoning and construction of a Wal-Mart.

Southfield resident Barbara Seiden was among the many who noted the risk of pushing out small businesses, adding pollution and congesting the area with traffic.

“The costs overshadow the advantages of B3 zoning,” she told council.

Other opponents emphasized how the decision would reach them on a personal level. Ian Ferguson, a Lathrup Village resident who lives a quarter of a mile from the site, urged council to consider the impact on raising a family there. He said that, with speeding motorists in the area already, he worries about his 7-year-old daughter playing near his home.

Some residents said they hoped to see a walkable and more business-oriented atmosphere on the property, though the majority of people were in agreement that Wal-Mart was not the right fit, in their opinions.

Others, like Tom Bassett, a 35-year-Southfield resident, said the city can either redevelop or continue to decline, and it’s Wal-Mart that had the capital.

“The only zoning that is going to work there is B3. Anything else ignores the lack for demand in the market for office space, strip malls and other facilities that would fit B1 and B2 zoning,” he said before the final decision was reached.

Bassett, also a member of the Church of the Transfiguration pastoral council that is responsible for maintaining St. Bede and the other three churches that were a part of the 2007 merger into one church, has a first-hand look at the costs associated with the vacant building. He noted that they reach around $150,000 in annual upkeep.

“Why aren’t we using those funds to deliver services to the Catholic community of Southfield, rather than maintaining a building?” he said, adding that without rezoning, the alternative is “boarding St. Bede up.”

Michael McInerney, consultant to the Archdiocese of Detroit, spoke at the meeting and expressed the archdiocese’s eagerness to sell to Wal-Mart. He said the Archdioceses hoped to benefit from selling to a commercial buyer.

“Analysis shows the best use of the property is commercial use,” he told council. Max sale proceeds were one of the objectives for them to sell the property to a commercial buyer, he added.

Michael Moran, director of properties for the archdiocese, said that throughout the five years of St. Bede being on the market, they had specifically written purchase agreements for mixed and commercial use development that fits B3 rezoning.

“It has been in the market as a commercial property ever since it was closed,” he explained. “We are looking at our stewardship, trying to maximize that property to carry on the missions not just in Southfield but in the area.”

Moran said the next step for the archdiocese is to now “go back to the drawing board.”

“I’ll re-contact a lot of the developers from before. I have a long list of interested parties, including religious organizations,” he noted.

Since the property was not rezoned, its current permitted uses only include residential or religious. Several council members mentioned the idea of rezoning to a less-intense commercial use, such as B2, though Siver said he didn’t believe council was ready to make the decision that same night.

Siver also added that many Southfield residents took a hit on their property values and said the archdiocese needs a “reality check” because one of the reasons it likely hasn’t sold is because of its price tag, which is undisclosed.

After the vote Mayor Brenda Lawrence urged council members to make sure they don’t just send the plans back to the drawing board, but that members are active in finding alternative opportunities for the land.

“Council was not elected to sit here and say ‘no’ to development. … I’m sad. I don’t know what to do with the vote tonight,” she said. “We keep adding to the list of vacant and abandoned buildings.”

Eric Hingst, Wal-Mart spokesman who attended the meeting, declined to comment after the decision was reached, though he told a resident after the vote that “it’s part of the business.”

As soon as the vote was passed, residents in the chamber erupted into applause and cheering, celebrating a victory that, for some, made months of campaigning against the B3 rezoning and Wal-Mart worth the fight.

“We won! … David beats Goliath,” resident Ken Whittaker told anti-Wal-Mart supporters in an email after the meeting. Like most other stakeholders, he knows that it may be the end of the Wal-Mart era in Southfield for now, but that there are still solutions to be found for the city.

“We can’t put our slingshots away just yet, though. There is still an empty property at 12 Mile and Southfield, and we must now work hard to find the right fit for this location.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jessica Strachan at jstrachan@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1108.