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February 6, 2013

What happens next to St. Bede?

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

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Southfield City Council voted down the proposed B-3 rezoning of the St. Bede property located on the corner of 12 Mile and Southfield Road. The property is expected to go back on the market now.

SOUTHFIELD — The site of the former St. Bede church at 12 Mile and Southfield roads is now the city’s most talked about piece of property.

After months of study sessions, public outcry against Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a supercenter there and research determining whether the land should be rezoned for commercial use from its current residential or religious use, it appears the property will go back on the market.

According to the Archdiocese of Detroit’s public relations director, Joe Kohn, they are waiting for Wal-Mart to formally pull out of the deal, and they will then strategize on how to move forward with the site.

“The property is still officially under contract with Wal-Mart. As their deal was always contingent on a B-3 rezoning, we expect they will execute their right to terminate the agreement,” Kohn said. “If and when that happens, the property will go back on the market.”

During the Jan. 28 Southfield City Council meeting, council voted down the rezoning of the property 5-1. That means Wal-Mart could not go forward buying the property to build a 130,124-square-foot supercenter on that land.

Wal-Mart Realtor Steve Englehart told the Southfield Planning Commission during a Nov. 28 meeting that Wal-Mart already had interest in scoping out locations for a second store in Southfield, though Wal-Mart spokesman Erik Hingst later said, on Jan. 28, that was not true.

As of press time, Wal-Mart officials had no comment on whether they would, in fact, consider a different location for a store in Southfield or if they would consider a different Wal-Mart model that wouldn’t require B-3 rezoning at the St. Bede site.

The answer to the question of “What will happen to the St. Bede site now?” is one that City Planner Terry Croad said has too many unknowns and moving pieces to try to answer right now, though it’s clear that it’s a question various stakeholders in the community will have to come together to answer. This includes planning staff, council, city leaders, the archdiocese and residents.

“I think the city is committed to looking at options that are viable for the neighborhood and that area … but it is privately owned and up to (the Archdiocese of Detroit) to decide how they will continue to market it,” he explained. “They are going to have to consider some other options now, and if it’s anything but religious or residential (buyers), they will have to come back and rezone.”

Croad said that by harnessing the energy of community involvement in the project proposal and by being proactive in addressing vacant land issues, a good fit for the St. Bede property can be found. He did note, additionally, that it would take another 60-90 days to process the rezoning should another commercial developer step forward with interest in the property.

When asked if the property would continue to be marketed for commercial/mixed use, as Director of Properties Michael Moran previously noted, Kohn said that it is still to be determined.

“The archdiocese is engaged in conversations with the city to best determine what types of uses for the property the city will support,” Kohn said.

As for what the archdiocese will do with the St. Bede property, especially if a sale does not manifest in the near future, Kohn said boarding up the church is a last resort, and they will keep their energy focused on the motivation to sell. 

“Not having a sale at this point is clearly a detriment to Church of the Transfiguration parish — the parish into which St. Bede parish had merged and which would benefit from the sale of the property,” he explained.  “Upkeep of the property is an expense of $150,000 per year, mostly shouldered by a 500-family parish. We’re not going to speculate on what might happen to the property long term if it doesn’t sell. As a sale is in the best interest of the parish, we’ll be focusing on selling the property.”

Kohn also added that it is “yet to be determined” if the cost of the property will be lowered and more accessible to smaller developers that would fit within a less-intense rezoning or stay as a residential and religious zoning. 

Moran said at the Jan. 28 meeting that the failed B-3 rezoning would force the archdiocese “back to the drawing board,” more specifically, re-contacting the list of interested developers who have reached out over the five years the property has been on the market.

Councilman Jeremy Moss, who voted against the B-3 rezoning, hopes to use this experience to address a larger issue at hand; he said that coming out of the Wal-Mart vote, council needs to be part of the solution to the city’s vacant land problem.

“I just couldn’t see the heaviest use that we have at a failing intersection being a viable option for the city, but I’ll be the first person to say that a vacant, blighted, abandoned church is also not an option. This is a wakeup call that we need to be aggressive with our all properties, not just the St. Bede site,” he said. “We need to market our city to attract projects that will fit our city, rather than just entertain projects that developers bring to us.”

During the Jan. 28 vote, Moss called for the creation of an economic development committee that would be on the forefront of working with developers from the beginning of a rezoning process, rather than council just giving input toward the end of the process and potentially wasting months of time and resources expended by both the petitioner and the city.

“We don’t have a council committee that directly addresses our economic needs. … There’s a lot of vacant office space in Southfield, and the city doesn’t directly own these properties. We need an inventory of the land, the property owners, the status of their desire to get it back to proper land use and work with them on development that the city will approve,” Moss said, adding that the committee idea will come up for discussion during the Feb. 11 council meeting.

He also added that residents — many of whom have already begun meeting and brainstorming on ideas for the St. Bede site — are an important player in the future of Southfield’s redevelopment.

“We’d also be foolish if we didn’t reach out to all the residents who came out and said, ‘We want to be active,’” he said. “We need to tap into residents as a resource. I’d like to see a citizens committee working in conjunction with the council as a tangible next step.”

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