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February 19, 2014

Local school administration building could become condos

Planning Commission approves initial plans for 36-lot development

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

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Last year, Royal Oak Schools entered a purchase agreement with a developer to buy its current administration and Board of Education building at 1123 Lexington Blvd. The developer wants to build condominiums on the site.

ROYAL OAK — If everything goes smoothly for developers, the current Royal Oak Schools administrative office and Board of Education building, at 1123 Lexington Blvd., is slated to be razed and replaced with condominiums.

The Planning Commission approved the preliminary site plan to subdivide the district property into 36 detached, single-family condominiums at the southwest corner of Lexington Boulevard and Marais Avenue.

The vote was 7-2, with Planning Commissioners Dan Godek and Anne Vaara voting against the plan. The city’s Planning Department also opposed the development. The developers have six months to present the Planning Commission with a final site plan.

Proponents of the development said it will broaden the tax base by increasing the city’s housing stock and prevent other, more traffic-inducing uses from moving into the space.

“It’s not a perfect plan, and nothing will be perfect,” said Mayor Jim Ellison during the planning meeting. “But I think it’s a plan that a vast majority of the people in this community can live with.”

Those against it said it doesn’t match the city’s master plan or the surrounding properties — Royal Oak High School, parks and recreational facilities. The Planning Commission turned down a similar plan by the same developer in August. Planning member Godek questioned whether the commission would have reconsidered its prior decision, had the plan not involved the school district.

“To me, it seems like minds were made up, and we’re not discussing this openly in a forum where we are deciding based on the merits of a good plan,” Godek said.

Since the district consolidated its high schools and middle schools in the mid-2000s, it has been selling closed schools and extraneous office space to developers.

The school district entered into a purchase agreement for the administration building with developer Robertson Brothers last year for $1.6 million, according to the school district. The sale is contingent on governmental approval for the project.

Robertson Brothers has worked with the district in the past. It bought and is continuing to develop homes upon the former site of Whittier Elementary.

The school district will be moving its offices to Churchill Community Education Center over the summer and leaving the administration building vacant.

The city’s master plan calls for the site to remain an institution — the umbrella term for government and public building, church or school.

With the sites surrounding the district building falling under the criteria, City Planner Timothy Thwing said that the development “would be an isolated island in a nonresidential area.”

Shawn Lewis-Lakin, the school district’s superintendent, said that if the city followed such a narrow
criteria, the site might never be developed.

“My nightmare is that we continue this process, continue to run that narrow gauntlet that I don’t know is frankly realistic, and we end up with an empty, blighted building sitting on the site that is not good for anybody and is a real safety concern moving forward,” said Lewis-Lakin.

Charles Semchena, an attorney representing the developers, argued that there is nothing more harmonious than having houses near schools and parks.

“I find it hard to imagine that having families next to recreational facilities that families will use and that
children will use would be out of character or not harmonious,” Semchena said. “That was my experience as a kid that it was harmonious. We loved it. We liked being close to the schools.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robert Guttersohn at rguttersohn@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5006.