A proposal by Curtis Building Co. could turn the current Grosse Pointe Public School System administrative building at 389 St. Clair Ave. in Grosse Pointe City into an apartment building aimed at professionals and retirees. The structure consists of two historical school buildings that were joined into one nearly 20 years ago.

A proposal by Curtis Building Co. could turn the current Grosse Pointe Public School System administrative building at 389 St. Clair Ave. in Grosse Pointe City into an apartment building aimed at professionals and retirees. The structure consists of two historical school buildings that were joined into one nearly 20 years ago.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Developers go ‘back to the drawing board’ on plan for 389 St. Clair

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 8, 2021


GROSSE POINTE CITY — To paraphrase the title of a song by the Clash, should it stay or should it go?

That’s the question surrounding the Grosse Pointe Public School System administrative building at 389 St. Clair Avenue, which is slated to be vacated later this year. A developer has proposed keeping the building — with its large, wood-framed windows, marble flooring and other unique details — intact and converting it into an apartment building, plus building new townhomes on the Notre Dame Street side of the property.

While environmentalists, historical preservationists and some residents support adaptive reuse and believe it would fill an unmet community need, some neighbors oppose the idea of apartment housing and feel the change would increase noise and traffic.

The plan brought for review Aug. 16
The Grosse Pointe Public School System, which owns the building, signed a purchase agreement earlier this year with Curtis Building Co. to redevelop the property. Run by brothers Mark and Craig Menuck, Curtis Building submitted a request to the Grosse Pointe City Planning Commission — which is also the Grosse Pointe City Council — for conditional rezoning on its proposal for the nearly 1.4-acre parcel.

During a meeting Aug. 16, the council took its first look at the proposal, which called for 23 apartments in the administrative building and eight new three-bedroom townhomes of 2,000 to 2,100 square feet. Of the dozens of residents who packed council chambers and the adjacent hallway, almost all of the speakers addressed the apartment building concept.

“This is obviously the first time the City has been requested to grant conditional rezoning,” said City Planner John Jackson, of McKenna Associates. “The tool is relatively new in the state. … It’s a tool that gives communities flexibility. … There’s a number of steps in the review process to make sure this flexibility … is used appropriately.”

The proposal would create housing options for young professionals and empty nesters, which Jackson said are objectives in the City’s master plan. He said it would also “blend in with the wide range of uses” in the area, and as an adaptive reuse, it would be more environmentally sound and sustainable, and limit the amount of toxins like asbestos that would otherwise be released.

“Based on the benefits to the community, we believe conditional rezoning is appropriate,” Jackson said.

Jackson added that conditional rezoning should be subject to concessions that the developer has already offered, including not turning the building into a bed-and-breakfast.

City officials emphasized that the City doesn’t own the property — the school district does.

“This body — nobody here (around the council table) — has any control over who they sell it to,” City Councilman Daniel Williams said.

Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak said City officials “were not” involved in every step of the school board’s process to sell the building, although City Manager Pete Dame advised them during this process. She said they only asked the school board if developers — in response to the board’s requests for proposals — could explore preserving the school building.

Because of the building’s age, it contains environmental hazards such as lead paint and asbestos. Mark Menuck said the asbestos, in particular, is almost everywhere — behind chalkboards, under floors and in ceiling tiles. He said what the developers would do is “encapsulate it” to protect future users and visitors from exposure.

Craig Menuck said that trying to prevent these hazards from escaping if the building were demolished isn’t possible.

“It doesn’t go away,” Craig Menuck said of asbestos and other particles. “It floats in the air. … I think tearing it down is an environmental nightmare.”

Tomkowiak said the developer could demolish the administrative building and build eight single-family homes on the property, and the council/Planning Commission “would have no control” over those homes, except to make sure that they followed current zoning regulations. Neighbors would face a longer period of disruption with new homes, and she was also worried about the environmental repercussions.

“We do need to be responsible and explore adaptive reuse,” Tomkowiak said. “And if we can solve a housing need at the same time, this would be a very good plan.”

Craig Menuck said that, because of the chance for an environmental issue with an older building, Curtis Building would operate the building as rental apartments rather than sell them as condos because they didn’t want to impose that liability burden on a condo association.

“As owners, we will (adhere to) a high level of maintenance,” Mark Menuck said. He added that they wouldn’t allow short-term, Airbnb-style rentals, noting that a single-family home can be rented out in this fashion.

The developers undertook a similar project in Plymouth, which they still manage as an apartment building.

Most of the apartments are roughly 800 to 900 square feet, but others are as small as 599 square feet. Craig Menuck said the need to retain the building’s wide corridors impacted apartment sizes.

Craig Menuck said he didn’t yet want to address the cost per square foot for the apartments, but he did estimate that the cost to reconfigure the building would be around $3 million, and rents would need to be commensurate with that.

Mixed reactions
Joseph Muzingo, a resident of the 300 block of University Place, asked what would happen when the housing and rental markets cool off.

“That’s a lot of very small units,” Muzingo said. “I’m vehemently opposed to it. … I think it’s a bad idea.”

Anne Vanker, of the 400 block of Lakeland Street, called the development “excessive” and a “bait and switch” that she felt wasn’t compatible with the neighborhood. Like Muzingo, she was concerned about some of the smaller units.

“We’re setting up for transients,” Vanker said.

The developers denied that assertion. They said this would be an apartment building occupied largely by professionals and retirees.

“The type of tenants (for this type of development) are of high, high quality,” Mark Menuck said, adding that these wouldn’t be low-income apartment units. He said millennials “are coming, (and) they don’t care about square footage,” but they do care about the number of rooms in the unit.

Jane Bertsch, of the 400 block of Notre Dame, said she lives in a three-story condo now, but as she gets older, she might need to downsize. She found the apartment concept appealing.

“I am not low income, and I doubt anyone low income could afford what this developer is offering,” said Bertsch, who also felt the building had a “historical quality” worth preserving.

Kurt Shuck said he’s lived in his home in the 500 block of St. Clair since the 1960s.

“At some point, I’m going to want to stay in this community and live in a (smaller) place that’s accessible to the Village,” Shuck said. “I don’t want the neighborhood to turn into Sterling Heights (or) Canton, with a lot of new, single-family homes.”

Renee Navarro Hutton, a resident of the 600 block of Notre Dame, said that she’s “in love with the community,” but it’s hard to find rental options. She said she was in favor of seeing 389 St. Clair preserved.

“I think we do need some vitality and some other (housing) options,” Navarro Hutton said, adding that she felt smaller units were desirable. “I think (this proposal) would be great for the vitality of the neighborhood.”

As to rumors that the school district will tear down 389 St. Clair and sell it to a developer for an eight single-family home project if this proposal fails, Grosse Pointe Public School System Superintendent Jon Dean said, “That’s premature. We have a signed purchase agreement (with the developer). They’ve committed to us. I have every confidence that the sale’s going to come through.”

Some neighbors said they’d rather see eight new homes than an apartment building.

Thomas Maher, a resident of the 300 block of Notre Dame, said the community hasn’t had enough time to work with the developers on a more palatable plan.

“They want to cram 23 apartments into this building,” Maher said. “We don’t need 23 apartments. I’ve lived next to this building for 23 years. It shuts down at 4 p.m.” on weekdays, and is quiet on weekends.

Another neighbor, Brian Benz, of the 400 block of St. Clair, said he was concerned about increased traffic.

“That’s a lot of new folks right on our street,” said Benz, who estimated that 23 units would come close to doubling the number of people who live in that block of St. Clair.

A traffic study conducted by the Troy-based Transportation Improvement Association concluded that the number of trips generated by the townhouses and apartment units combined would be about half of the number of trips generated now by the comings and goings of school administrators and visitors.

Alain Squindo, who lives in the 300 block of St. Clair, said he wasn’t convinced by the traffic study.

“You can cite all of the data you want,” Squindo said. “The traffic (from the administrative building now) is negligible.”

Developers to reconsider plans
Jackson said the structure has “a lot of character” and a “rich history,” and the Grosse Pointe Historical Society concurred, awarding it a bronze historic building plaque in 2004. The administrative building consists of two schools that were connected in 2002-2003. The older structure is the Cadieux School, built in 1905-06 by the architectural firm of Stratton and Baldwin. It’s one of only two of the school district’s original buildings that are still standing; the other, the Cook Schoolhouse, was moved to Grosse Pointe Woods-owned property adjacent to Woods City Hall in 2006 and is maintained by the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission. The Cadieux School was named for the Cadieux family, who lived in the community; according to the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, Francis Cadieux was the District No. 1 School Inspector for 33 years.     

To accommodate a growing student population, a second building, designed by Joseph E. Mills, was constructed on the north side, at 399 St. Clair, in 1916.

Grosse Pointe Historical Society Board President Leslie Wagner submitted a letter on behalf of the society, urging City leaders to consider adaptive reuse, given that the building “has such significance in the Grosse Pointe story.”

Fran and Edward Benz have lived next door to the administrative building, in a 1908 home, for the last 16 years.

“It will take a lot of reconfiguring … but she’s got good bones,” said Fran Benz. “I think we need (housing) diversity. … I hope that we can keep (this) part of our history.”

City Councilman Christopher Walsh said that the council has gotten a number of comments about the proposal’s lack of green space.

Mark Menuck said that, currently, a parking lot is all that’s between the administrative building and the area where the townhouses would be. He said they plan on planting arborvitae along the north property line, along with putting up a 6-foot fence for screening.

Craig Menuck said they might be able to add green space by installing islands in the parking lot. He said they’re willing to talk about screening options.

The developers said they were open to reducing the number of apartments. Craig Menuck said, “shooting from the hip,” they’d likely need at least 18 apartments to make the project viable. He said they’re limited somewhat in that the wide corridors mean that, to increase unit sizes, they have to make them longer but can’t make them wider.

“We’re willing to invest a lot of money to preserve this building,” Craig Menuck said.

To allow the developers to see what changes they can make to address concerns expressed by residents and officials, the council voted unanimously to table a vote on the proposal. A date for the developers to bring a revised plan back before council hadn’t been set at press time; the earliest possible date would be the council’s next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 in the municipal courtroom.

“We can modify,” Mark Menuck told the council. “We can consider the density. … We want to be good neighbors. We will go back to the drawing board.”

Tomkowiak said the council can’t compel the developers to alter their plans — it can only approve or not approve conditional rezoning.

“It was encouraging to me that (the developers) appeared to be very willing to listen to concerns both from the residents and from the council, and they were willing to make modifications to address those concerns,” Tomkowiak said after the meeting.

As the developers work on a revised plan, the City’s planners will be preparing an independent market study to determine the demand for the proposed apartments and identify potential tenants.

“I would love to see some data about who would fill up a development of this type,” Tomkowiak said.

GPPSS administrators were still working out of 389 St. Clair at press time. A district spokesperson said they likely will be moving into their new home inside Grosse Pointe North High School in November.

At press time, it wasn’t known when this matter would be in front of the Grosse Pointe City Council again, and an agenda for the Sept. 20 council meeting hadn’t been prepared yet. For the latest agendas, visit www.grossepointecity.org.