Ford House plans approved by Shores City Council

Conditions include limiting use of overflow parking area

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 1, 2017

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GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Despite plans to build a new, larger visitor center and consolidate staffers in a new administrative building, officials at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House insist there are no plans to ramp up the schedule of activities at the historic estate.

An agreement with the city in which the Ford House would agree to limit use of its vacant green space — across the street from the estate property — for overflow parking to no more than 25 days per year had a number of residents living near the property worried about a sharp increase in traffic, congestion and noise in the area. But Ford House officials attempted to reassure residents that the tranquil area they’ve come to love isn’t turning into the equivalent of a mall parking lot on Christmas Eve anytime soon.

During a Feb. 21 Grosse Pointe Shores City Council meeting, officials from the city and the Ford House discussed the proposal with nearby residents.

The issue that seemed to generate the most debate was over the 25 days being allowed for overflow parking on the green space located across Lake Shore Road from the estate parcel, on the south side of Lake Shore.

Jonathan Walton, an attorney representing Shores residents Harry and Lynn Kurtz — whose home is the only one to directly abut the estate itself — said he calculated that 25 days per year could equate to every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which would be a marked increase from current use for the overflow parking area.

“Harry and Lynn have no objection to the construction of new facilities at the Ford House,” Walton said. “It looks like it’s going to be a first-rate development.”

But, he said his clients didn’t want to see a spike in events on the property as a result of the expansion.

“The last thing Grosse Pointe Shores needs is another divisive public controversy regarding development in the city,” said Walton, calling on officials to preserve the “quiet, peaceful” nature of the almost exclusively residential Shores.

Ford House officials reiterated that they don’t intend to increase the number of events that require overflow parking, saying that their schedule of activities would remain much as it has for years. That includes popular annual events staged by non-Ford House entities, such as the Michigan Humane Society’s annual Mutt March and EyesOn Design, a car show fundraiser for the nonprofit Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, as well as Ford House traditions such as Easter and Mother’s Day brunches.

As to whether weddings would suddenly become a regular occurrence on the property, Ford House President Kathleen Mullins emphatically rejected that assertion. In the last four years, she said, there have been only four weddings on the property, and two of them were for members of the Ford family.

“They are very hard on the site,” Mullins said of weddings, adding that the Ford House has no intention of going after the wedding market, especially given the proximity of other venues for nuptials nearby, such as the War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Nicholas Scavone Jr., of Bodman, one of the attorneys representing the Ford House, said Shores officials asked them to agree to increasingly restrictive terms, all of which they did. He said that during the negotiations, they went from an initial agreement that would have limited the Ford House to 30 events with overflow parking to 25 events with overflow parking to 25 days of overflow parking; some special events last for more than one day or require overflow parking for more than just a day.

“Today, there is no restriction on the number of events the Ford House can have with overflow parking,” Scavone said. “We were asked to agree to a restriction.”

Working with the city to address some of the concerns voiced by residents, Scavone said the Ford House agreed to provide the city with its schedule of events, and it agreed to limit events and activities to ones consistent with the Ford House’s 501(c)(3) nature, which prevents for-profit events on the property.

“That is a fairly significant restriction on our use,” said Scavone, adding that the property couldn’t be sold to a for-profit entity and operated for profit, either, without approval from the City Council.

Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski said the number of days the Ford House is allowed to have overflow parking on its green space includes use of that green space by Shores residents who live nearby and want to use it for parking for events at their homes, such as political fundraisers.

“We were trying to focus on the needs of surrounding neighbors,” Kedzierski said.

Mullins said that the number of days also includes days when Grosse Pointe Woods — whose Lake Front Park is next to the estate, in St. Clair Shores — needs additional parking.

“It’s not 25 events — it’s 25 uses,” Mullins said of the terms of the agreement with the city. “We’re not going to add 25 events to our calendar.”

Shores Planning Commission Chair Mary Matuja said there were “no objections” to the site plan during a special commission meeting Jan. 10 at the Ford House, and the commission voted unanimously in favor of the plan and a special land use request during that meeting.

The new buildings and parking lot will occupy the same spot where the single-story activities building and its parking lot are located now, but because the new buildings will both be two stories, they’ll take up roughly the same footprint, Ford House officials said. The new visitor center is going to be roughly 40,000 square feet, while the administrative building will be approximately 17,000 square feet.

The visitor center will offer an education wing with two classrooms, an area for special exhibitions, a larger Cotswold Café with 50 percent more seating and room for outdoor dining as well, an orientation area where visitors can learn about the Ford family, a second floor event area with balconies and lake views, and a larger gift shop.

The administrative building will enable all Ford House staffers to work out of the same building. There will be rooms for meetings and a resource library, along with space for gatherings and lectures.

Mullins said the decision to construct an administrative building alongside a new visitors center was prompted by their mission of stewardship for the historic estate. Now, administrators use a section of the main house for their offices, while other staffers maintain offices in the powerhouse and other areas on the property because of a lack of space.

“We’re far more damaging to the historic structure and the historic core than any visitors,” said Mullins of administrative use of the historic buildings. After learning this, she said, the Ford House board felt it would be best to move administrative functions out of the house so that it could be better protected from that kind of daily wear and tear.

“Stewardship is really what started this whole conversation for us,” Mullins said.

As to a larger single parking lot adjacent to the visitors center and administrative building, Mullins said that is because parking is scattered all over the estate now, with some staffers parking by the powerhouse and some parking next to the main house. The area next to the main house that many administrators now use for parking used to be where household staffers for the Ford family hung out clean clothes to dry on a clothesline. Mullins said that by removing cars from that area, it can be restored to that use and they can “tell those stories” to visitors.

City Manager Mark Wollenweber said the Ford House agreed to revised conditions based on input from the Planning Commission, the city and Shores residents. He said Ford House officials have “always been willing to listen to concerns” from the city, including issues related to public safety or public works.

“The Ford House has been a good neighbor to the city,” Wollenweber said. “We frequently hear from them about (their) activities. … We have no objections to the use itself.”

The Shores City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Ford House’s special land use request, which includes conditions limiting the use of overflow parking to 25 days per year and restricts usage of the property to nonprofit endeavors. City Council members Bruce Bisballe and Tina Ellis were absent from the meeting, making the vote 5-0 in favor of the special land use.

Mullins thanked the council after the vote, vowing that Shores residents would be among the first ones to get a look at the new buildings when construction is completed. She said they’re looking into offering a reduced Ford House membership fee for Shores residents as well.

“It means a great deal to the Ford family to have the relationship with (Shores officials) be a strong one,” Mullins told the council.

At press time, construction was slated to start this August, with completion of the visitor center by November 2018 and completion of the administrative building by February 2019. The Cotswold Café, located in the activities building, is scheduled to close this July for the construction period. The café and the gift shop are the only areas scheduled to be closed during construction, as regular tours and other activities are expected to still take place at the house and on the grounds.

For more about Ford House programs or activities, visit www.fordhouse.org or call (313) 884-4222.

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