Reaching a decision on Wal-Mart

Council to study, heed public comments for Jan. 28 vote

By: Jessica Strachan | Southfield Sun | Published January 9, 2013

SOUTHFIELD — Newly appointed Southfield City Council President Ken Siver said the idea of a Wal-Mart Supercenter being built atop property housing a vacant church might be one of the most controversial planning topics council has seen in a while.

“It’s a topic of great interest to the community. It’s probably one of the highest-profile rezoning cases to come along in many, many, many years,” he said. “And we’ve been encouraging a lot of public input.”

Several upcoming meetings are designed to create dialogue among community members, the city Planning Department, council and Wal-Mart representatives. At the end of it all, a decision will be made for a possible supercenter, anticipated for spring 2014.

When to get involved

On Jan. 28, council is expected to vote on the rezoning of the property the old Church of St. Bede sits on, followed by a vote on Wal-Mart’s site plan to move in. Before that decision, however, both council and the community have opportunities to ask questions and express their concerns.

A 7 p.m. Jan. 14, a public hearing will be held on Southfield Funeral Home being rezoned and the street vacation to expand the parking lot. The funeral home has shared a parking lot with St. Bede for years.

Before that meeting, at 3 p.m., Siver said an open study session will be held as council hears a final presentation on the Wal-Mart site plan — though the matter won’t come up again until Jan. 28 — in the City Council conference room. There won’t be public comments during the study session, but residents are welcome to sit in and hear the presentation. If more space is needed, the meeting will be held inside council chambers, he added.

At 7 p.m. Jan. 28, the public hearing on the St. Bede property will be held, with the issue of rezoning first. If rezoning goes forth, discussion of Wal-Mart’s site plan will follow.

“Because we expect a large turnout that evening, I have moved a whole bunch of things off the agenda that were scheduled that night. We want people to be heard. I don’t want people to be frustrated,” Siver said.
He noted a “full house” at recent presentations in December and the overwhelming turnout for the public hearing that the Planning Commission held Nov. 28 on the Wal-Mart site plan. Siver also said he, other council members and city officials continue to hear regularly from residents expressing their opinions about the matter.

Making the decision

When it comes to sorting through the pros and cons, as well as the validity of concerns from various stakeholders, Siver said it is a challenge. Particularly with residents voicing their opinions and suggestions for other locations, Siver reminds residents that, while there may be mixed feelings about Wal-Mart as a company, the task of council is to now decide if it fits from a planning perspective.

“A lot of things have been said, and frankly, some of the things that have been said, though we have respect for those concerns, aren’t relevant to the rezoning issue — for instance, Wal-Mart’s business practices. Strictly, we have to look at it as a rezoning issue; if it is the best use of the property, how it will impact traffic and surrounding neighborhoods, if it is a good fit for the area,” Siver said.

Southfield Business Development Manager Rochelle Freeman also noted that, while residents may have suggestions of other locations for the Wal-Mart, a thorough process exists, when it comes to businesses choosing a new location to potentially buy.

“Wal-Mart has determined that this is the location they are looking at. They have already explored all the other available sites in the community, and this is their priority,” Freeman explained, adding that by scouring local properties and researching Southfield planning documents, Wal-Mart representatives have looked at all the available options and arrived at their conclusion firmly.

She said that neither residents nor the city would be effective in trying to suggest other sites after the work that has been put into analyzing the St. Bede site compared to others, especially since any other site is the topic at hand during meetings. 

A prime example is the Northland Shopping Center, which is privately owned by management that hasn’t expressed interested in the Wal-Mart on their grounds, she said. Many stores also have restrictions on other businesses coming into a set radius around their own property, also minimizing the places where Wal-Mart officials may want to build. 

These are the types of factors that neither the city nor residents control, officials say. Siver said the council will explore this proposal and the issues that relate to it, like store hours and deterring crime.

“Council is looking forward to getting more answers and more information,” he said. “Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we’ll be prepared to make a decision on Jan. 28.”

Jan. 28: Possible outcomes

If council does approve the rezoning of the property, the Southfield Master Plan highlights mixed-use development in the area and even big box development. If the area is rezoned, council would also need to approve as a separate vote the destruction of the church for Wal-Mart to be constructed.

If the property were rezoned but Wal-Mart’s construction shot down by council, City Planner Terry Croad said any other permitted uses for the rezoned property could come forward with a proposal. Any future proposals would start back at the Planning Commission to be studied and possibly recommended to council, which would make the final decision if it reached the chambers.

Croad added that the idea is to look at each possible use — including Wal-Mart — by the merit of its site plan.

If council does not approve the rezoning of the old St. Bede location, it will not be suitable for commercial use, only residential and religious organizations, as it stands now, Croad explained.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has confirmed that it is motivated to sell the property. Currently, the Church of St. Bede building has two rent-paying tenants, spokesman Joe Kohn confirmed: an adult daycare and a school for autistic children. Since it closed, however, St. Bede officials say, it has cost an average of $150,000 a year to maintain the facility, including the cost of utilities, a full-time maintenance employee, property insurance and recent repairs.

The rental income defrays fewer than 15 percent of the costs to maintain the building, Kohn added, so it is in their best interest for the building to sell.

A Detroit-based church, Seth Temple Church of God in Christ, has been eyeing the property to purchase in order to move their expanding 400-member congregation into the space.

Rev. Philip Jackson said the $3 million the Seth Temple offered based on the appraisal was reportedly less than the unknown amount Wal-Mart has offered, though four years ago, Jackson offered a $500,000 cash down payment and a $20,000 monthly payment plan to follow.

He said the transaction, along with communication between the two parties, dissipated when Wal-Mart began making offers.

Kohn said he was not at liberty to discuss any previous dealings with the church or other potential buyers, and Jackson said his church is still interested, if the property is not rezoned. Ultimately, the decision of who lands the old St. Bede property begins with the Archdiocese and who it intends to sell to.