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December 5, 2012

Community responds to proposed Wal-Mart at St. Bede property

Public asks about location, ethics and tax revenues

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

SOUTHFIELD — Some call the vacant St. Bede property at 12 Mile and Southfield an eyesore, while others view it as a diamond in the rough.

The Rev. Philip Jackson of Detroit’s Seth Temple Church of God in Christ sees it as the latter, and he has a solution for it, he said.

“Too many prayers have gone up in that church to let it come down with a wrecking ball,” Jackson said to members of the Southfield Planning Commission and general public at the public hearing Nov. 28. “My congregation has been waiting on this church for years.”

Jackson, his deacons and a bishop were among the approximately 250 people who crammed into City Council chambers and spilled out into the lobby for a chance to speak out on the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter to be built at the site of the former parish.

Jackson came armed with a folder of documented correspondence he had with archdiocese officials, explicitly expressing interest in buying the property for Seth Temple Church of God in Christ’s expanding congregation of more than 400.

He said it’s been nearly five years that his church has been trying to complete the sale, after touring the facilities with the entire congregation, paying to have the property appraised at $3 million and offering a payment plan of $500,000 down and $20,000 a month for five years.

“It would be paid for by now. The church would be ours,” he noted.

The holdup came when Jackson said Michael Moran, properties director for the archdiocese, told him Wal-Mart had an interest in the property and indicated they offered “more than (he) could ever pay.”

“All of the sudden, the little fella gets knocked out,” Jackson said. “But I haven’t lost the faith; I believe God has plans for us in that church.”

Joe Kohn, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on any previous dealings or potential sales, and City Planner Terry Croad noted that, since it is a private sale, neither the price nor business deals are being disclosed.

Based on the Planning Commission’s favorable recommendation Nov. 28, Southfield City Council will now study the proposal to rezone the property for commercial use and the proposal to demolish the existing church to build a 130,124-square-foot Wal-Mart.

The recommendation came from the commission in a 5-1 vote, but not before residents lined up for hours in order to speak out on the plans and their areas of concern.

Southfield resident Pam Gerald was one of many residents to bring up ongoing public criticisms of Wal-Mart’s company policies and workplace.

“If you treat your workers like you do, how are you going to treat Southfield?” she asked.

Residents also raised issues of having a proposed 24-hour store that would sell weapons and liquor situated just half a mile from Southfield-Lathrup High School and also backed against a residential neighborhood. Security late at night and through the expansive parking lot was also a common thread in the public’s safety concerns.

Robert Walker, who lives just south of the proposed site, said he’s leery of the kind of customers that would be attracted to the store at wee hours of the morning, particularly those on their “last liquor run at 2 a.m.”

“Those are not people I want in my neighborhood,” the Southfield resident of 12 years said.

During the meeting, the Planning Commission addressed some of the questions raised by residents after the public hearing portion and also prompted answers from Wal-Mart representatives in attendance. Several questions were answered with concrete facts; many remained up for debate.

When it came to the proposed site, residents shared ideas about other locations, such as near Northland Center Mall or on the Oak Park side of Greenfield Road. City Planner Terry Croad noted that “for one reason or another,” those locations were not suitable, for reasons ranging from disinterest on Wal-Mart’s side to literal construction obstacles and issues of inadequate space.

Wal-Mart Realtor Steve Englehart did confirm to the commission that they would be likely looking into a second location to propose, once plans were under way for the first store, though the potential location for that store was not specified. 

Croad noted that, based on the master plan, the St. Bede property is “designed for and can handle the proposed uses” of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

As for security concerns, the Planning Commission agreed to recommend limited hours to council. With this recommendation, the Wal-Mart would technically operate around the clock, but only be open to customers between 6 a.m. and midnight. The remaining hours would be restocking and maintenance by employees, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Hingst.

A handful of residents who live in close proximity to the site questioned their commitment to remaining in Southfield if the dynamic of their neighborhood was to be impacted by future Wal-Mart construction.

Becky Edwards said that, despite her family being longtime residents and having kids graduate through the Southfield Public Schools, they began thinking about selling their house on nearby Guy Street when rumors of Wal-Mart surfaced last year.

“We had a feeling we would grow old here. Now I’m not so sure,” she told commissioners during her comments.

Others, like Carrie James, a resident of 21 years, are unsettled about the location and potential traffic congestion in the area.

“I am not opposed to Wal-Mart coming to Southfield — we can use the revenue and the jobs — but the location can’t hold it,” she said. “When I moved into the community, I came for the schools … for the library, not for the Wal-Marts.”

James added that she would like to see the St. Bede area rezoned for commercial use and then designed as a walkable, more open area with bistros and shops.

Other concerns voiced against the Wal-Mart proposal included the store stifling entrepreneurship and small business in Southfield, declining home values for surrounding residences, low-paying and non-union jobs for local Wal-Mart employees, and logistical concerns, such as flooding (which residents reported during the construction of the nearby Home Depot) and traffic overflow onto side streets.

The details on how much revenue the city would bring in from a commercial tax base was also questioned by residents and Seymour, who noted that, of the projected $350,000, only around $100,000 of that could be realized for the city’s general fund.

Toward the end of the night, the mood changed when 35-year Southfield resident Colleen Bassett took to the podium with a different message from what was heard previously by fellow stakeholders.

“There is an undue fear because of misunderstanding. … Without development, this city cannot keep going. We cannot keep saying ‘no,’” she told commissioners and the public, noting that the property had been vacant for several years and the city should be eager to revitalize it.

“What are we waiting for?” she urged.

Bassett also addressed the issue of Seth Temple Church wanting to keep the zoning as is and purchase the property for its own congregation.

“When you’re selling your home, wouldn’t you try to find the best buyer? … You have the right to sell for the best price,” she said.

During upcoming City Council meetings, the Wal-Mart proposal is expected to come up as an agenda item, as council studies the issue. A public meeting will be held before they reach an official decision in approving the proposal.

The time frame is still tentative and meeting agendas can be found at www.cityofsouthfield.com.

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