Developer to explore national historic recognition for 389 St. Clair building

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 26, 2022


GROSSE POINTE CITY — At press time, construction hasn’t started yet on a condominium and apartment project at 389 St. Clair Avenue — site of the former administrative offices of the Grosse Pointe Public School System. 

However, the developers are working on possibly acquiring National Register of Historic Places recognition for the historical building.

In mid-January, Mark Menuck, who runs Curtis Building with his brother, Craig, said they are looking at hiring a local history expert to help them with the lengthy, detailed application that the National Park Service requires for National Register of Historic Places designation.

At an Aug. 16 City Council meeting, City Planner John Jackson, of McKenna Associates, 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 1905-1906 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 GPHS, 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. 

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

During a Nov. 15 City Council meeting, Jackson said Curtis Building responded to concerns expressed by residents and City officials at a meeting Aug. 16 and amended their proposal, reducing the number of apartments they hoped to create inside 389 St. Clair from 23 to 18 and eliminating the smallest apartments, so that now, only one apartment is under 700 square feet, at 680 square feet. Jackson said the average square footage of the apartments is now 985 square feet.

Jackson said the number of on-site parking spots was reduced from 56 in the original plan to 50 in the revised plan, but because there are fewer apartments, the number of spots exceeds City requirements by seven spaces.

“There’s actually a surplus of parking on the site,” Jackson said.

Menuck said reduction of units and the number of parking spaces allowed them to include more green space, something neighbors said they wanted to see. He said the new plan also eliminates on-street parking for the development, which neighbors also wanted.

Although apartment rents will be finalized when the building is ready for tenants, Menuck said he expected most of them to range from $1,600 to $1,700 for a one-bedroom unit to $2,750 a month for a three-bedroom unit.

As to the eight new townhouses on the Notre Dame Street side of the property — all of which would be sold — two of those units were reduced from three bedrooms to two bedrooms, allowing the developer to increase the setback on Notre Dame from 5 feet in the original plan to 9 feet now. Jackson said the townhouses kept their height at 35 feet, which he said is the same as the standard for single-family homes.

“The neighborhood is made up of a lot of different housing styles,” including duplexes, Jackson said.

Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak said that the council had already conducted a public hearing on the proposal in August and wasn’t required to have a public comment during the November meeting, but because this was such a “significant issue,” the council would allow residents to weigh in again.

While a number of residents in the City and other Pointes supported the project, the majority of residents who lived close to the site continued to express opposition, citing concerns including increased traffic and noise from the development. A traffic study done by the Transportation Improvement Association determined that the traffic “to be generated from the proposed site use is less than the traffic generated from the prior site use” by the GPPSS, and concluded that the peak hour traffic flows on the adjacent roads were “far below the hourly capacity” of those roads.

Steve Cavera, a resident of the 400 block of St. Clair, said he “completely disagreed” with the traffic study findings and was concerned the developer would eventually sell the apartment building, possibly to a large corporate entity that wouldn’t have any ties to the community. He also felt the location was poor for an apartment building, saying it shouldn’t be “in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”

“It’s the wrong place — not necessarily the wrong idea,” Cavera said.

Several other neighbors also said they disagreed with the traffic study conclusions.

“A landlord from across town is not good for our community,” wrote Brian Benz, a resident of the 400 block of St. Clair, in a letter to City officials. “More houses for families is what our community needs.”

Thomas Maher, a resident of the 300 block of Notre Dame Street, said the neighbors would prefer to see condos in the school building, not apartments.

“(The developers) want the apartment building for one reason, and that’s greed. … Our biggest concern: No one wants an apartment building,” Maher told the council.

Maher also accused Curtis Building of “not (having) a stellar track record,” saying they received one of the lowest possible ratings in a Dun & Bradstreet report.

Menuck said he wasn’t familiar with that report but said that the company has been successful and solvent for many years, so he didn’t know how or why they would get a poor financial rating.

David Katz, a resident of the 300 block of St. Clair, said in a letter to the council that the developer “has an outstanding track record, and I trust our city administrator’s ability to hold them to account.” Katz also wrote that he felt the development “will add a much needed housing option for our community.”

Fran Benz, a resident of the 400 block of St. Clair, said that 50 years ago, residents protested when a developer wanted to build condos in the area between St. Clair and Neff Road. 

“The great fear of the unknown leapt up,” Fran Benz said. “The opposition was very loud and very intimidating … but in the wisdom of the council, they approved the condominiums, and now we have lovely neighbors. … I think we do need rentals in our community, and times are changing. It will be good for all of us.”

Sitting as the Planning Commission, the City Council unanimously approved recommending conditional rezoning for the nearly 1.4-acre parcel and unanimously approved recommending that the council approve the site plan, as well. The council then unanimously approved conditional rezoning and the site plan, paving the way for Curtis Building to proceed with their plans.

“389 St. Clair is a beautiful building. … It really is a building that contributes to the character of our Grosse Pointe community, and I’m grateful that someone is willing to (redevelop it),” City Councilwoman Maureen Juip said.

City Councilman Terence Thomas said he also walked through the historical school building.

“I think it would be a disgrace to let that building fall,” Thomas said.

The mayor and several City Council members said they visited a similar development by Curtis Building that converted an old school building in Plymouth into apartments, and they praised the results.

“I have complete confidence in our ability to manage this process with the developer and get what we need (from them). … The best practice for old buildings is adaptive reuse,” Tomkowiak said.

Menuck said he wasn’t sure, at press time, when they could start to sell or pre-sell the condos. While they didn’t have a selling price available at press time, he said they would likely sell for “much more” than the $450,000 figure estimated by the City.

“I think the location is dynamite,” Menuck said.

Menuck said construction likely would start in spring or summer of 2022.

City Attorney Chuck Kennedy said the agreement between the builder and the City is structured such that it forces the builder to complete both halves of the project, and even if the company were to falter financially, it would have to finish it. If it fails to meet the benchmarks established by the City, Kennedy said the parcel would revert back to single-family housing zoning.

The agreement mandates that the developer obtain all necessary permits within 12 months of the council’s approval of the project, start construction within six months of issuance of the building permit and receive a certificate of occupancy for all the units in the project within 24 months of the start of construction.

Call Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at (586) 498-1047.