Sterling HeightsJuly 31, 2012
New development option aims to revitalize ‘maturing’ centers
By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer
Sterling Heights officials are gaining a new tool for encouraging overhauls of existing commercial and retail sites in the community.
On July 17, City Council adopted zoning ordinance amendments that establish a commercial redevelopment planned unit development option, or CRPUD, which streamlines the process for certain mixed-use projects.
It’s generally available for C-1 (local convenience business), C-2 (planned comparison business), and C-3 (general business zoning) districts, but “it’s intended to target smaller properties and older properties … parcels that are 25 acres or less in size, and centers that are 20 years of age or older,” said City Planner Don Mende.
Previously, owners of aging shopping centers would have to request a text amendment, rezoning, use variance or a traditional planned unit development — or a combination thereof — if they wanted to pursue new uses, mixed uses and uses not outlined in the zoning ordinance, he said.
Those options might necessitate appearances before the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals and City Council to secure approvals, said Mende. For instance, changes in technology and trends sometimes prompt petitioners to pursue uses not spelled out in the city’s zoning ordinance, which in the past may have required a time-consuming text amendment, he said.
“You could be going to three different boards for various approvals,” he said. “It could take a number of months to go through those processes.”
By contrast, the CRPUD is a one-stop shop, overseen by the Planning Commission.
“They would review the request and conceptual plan to see if it meets all of the ordinance requirements,” said Mende. “They are given the authority not only to do the site plan review, but if there were any variances that would be required, they could do that. If it’s a special approval land use, they can do it. They can take care of it all at one meeting, instead of bouncing from one board to another board for all the approvals.”
Introducing the proposed amendment to City Council July 3, Mende added, “While the city can’t offer any financial incentives to help with the redevelopment of these centers, we certainly can provide a less cumbersome review process for them.”
A Plan Review Committee — consisting of Sterling Heights’ city development director, planner, engineer, economic development manager and business development director — will conduct an informal “pre-preliminary” review of a conceptual plan at no cost to the petitioner.
Factors evaluated will include centers’ size, age and condition, with priority given to the older, smaller centers. Other criteria include current zoning, occupancy level, tenant mix, restrictive physical site characteristics, and incorporation of “unique uses and design elements,” as well as perceived benefits and the long-term “economic viability” of the center.
In a memo to council, Mende noted that “mixed uses and other creative land uses are encouraged.”
In the same memo, he indicated that preparation of the 2005 master land use plan led to the conclusion that “build out of the city was rapidly approaching,” with only 6 percent of the community’s total land area remaining vacant.
That prompted officials to refocus efforts on redevelopment versus development of vacant parcels, a philosophy that Mende says will continue.
The city’s goal is to “maximize investment in maturing commercial and retail properties,” his memo states, adding, “The master land use plan recognizes that major redevelopment opportunities envision complete reuse of the site from the ground up, and should create unique places and identities, not replaced with simply another strip mall.”
According to city-supplied data, Sterling Heights’ commercial shopping center vacancy rate, including malls, was 12 percent in 2011, down from 13.9 percent in 2010. The city’s commercial general retail vacancy rates, which apply to stand-alone buildings, were 5.1 percent in 2010, compared with 4.3 percent in 2011.
Last year, Macomb County and the Detroit metro area had 13 percent and 13.6 percent commercial shopping center vacancy rates, respectively, and 7.3 percent and 7.7 percent on the commercial general retail side, according to the city.
Economic Development Manager Kasey Green said she hopes Sterling Heights’ addition of the CRPUD option will show commercial property owners that the city is serious about securing their business.
“Of course, anything we can do to allow for alternative developments that fit the interest and objectives of private developers, while also representing a fit for the city, that is a great thing to spur investment,” she said. “Hopefully, this will be a sign to developers looking to invest that we are open for business and eager to work with them.”
Council approved the CRPUD measure 6-1 July 17, with Councilman Paul Smith — who said he felt the process functioned fine as is and found the amendments unnecessarily convoluted — dissenting.
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