Poplar project re-emerges on radar

New agreement allows fast-food, but only with council consent

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published September 4, 2012

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A proposed commercial center that raised neighbors’ ire five years ago resurfaced late last month, after developers sought yet another amendment to their conditional rezoning agreement with the city.

Struggling to find tenants for a trio of buildings they’d planned to construct on Mound, south of Hall Road, the partners of Poplar Properties LLC petitioned council to tweak previously instituted restrictions in hopes of making headway.

“We have marketed this property for four years, tried everything imaginable to make this work, and we’re at a dead end,” said Philip Ruggeri, the LLC’s attorney and part-owner of the property.

Residents of the two side streets that bookend the site — Poplar to the north, Higgins to the south — were vocally opposed to the developers’ request in 2007 to conditionally rezone the parcel from RM-2, multiple-family low-rise, to C-1, local convenience business.

The disputes were hashed out at a series of Planning Commission and City Council meetings in 2007-08. After originally denying the rezoning in December 2007, council members later reconsidered, signing off early in 2008 on an agreement that specifically excluded fast-food restaurants and drive-thru operations, while setting forth various other provisions.

When the economic downturn hampered efforts to secure tenants, council granted the LLC extensions in 2009 and 2010 on site plan approval, permit acquisition and construction completion deadlines.

Under the amended terms proposed — and ultimately approved — Aug. 21, Poplar Properties is theoretically able to place drive-thru restaurants in the northern and southern buildings, but must reappear before council prior to moving forward.

Council retains the power to approve or deny fast-food proposals based on the restaurants’ operational characteristics, hours, elevations, size and signage. The developers specifically agreed not to build a Taco Bell, a prospect that particularly rankled neighbors in the past.

The new agreement required zoning ordinance deviations to allow a freestanding fast-food restaurant with drive-thru within 300 feet of residential property and two fast-food restaurants within 500 feet of each other.

Many of the original conditions carry over, including installation of a 6-foot-tall masonry wall and landscaping buffers on the east property line, abutting the neighborhood. Ingress and egress remain limited to Mound; there’s no outlet onto Higgins or Poplar.

Consistent with the city’s noise ordinance, the restaurants cannot emit amplified music or voices discernible at the property line between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The developers can build in phases, but are forbidden from stockpiling topsoil or other materials on undeveloped parts of the property. They must install the masonry wall during phase I and will not receive certificates of occupancy until all landscaping and improvements are complete for a particular phase.

They’ll have 12 months to apply for and obtain site plan approval, and 18 months to apply for and obtain a building permit, with construction to be complete within 30 months.

The extensive conditions offered by the LLC are intended to allay residents’ original and continuing concerns, while giving council “additional controls over some of the most important aspects” of the development, said interim City Planner Don Mende.

Prior to the vote, it was clear that neighbors remained divided over the plan.

Marcia Anklam originally opposed the project in 2007, but later led a group that was amenable to compromise if Ruggeri eliminated the possibility of fast-food, drive-thrus and curb cuts on Higgins and Poplar.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, she said Ruggeri had listened to and worked with the residents in the intervening years to find a new middle ground.

“I think what he has come up with is something that I, as a resident of Higgins, can at least work with him on,” she said.

Several of Anklam’s neighbors said they don’t share her sentiments.

“I understand they have a big investment … but it seems like every time we come to a meeting, you guys give him a little bit more, a little bit more,” said Poplar resident Fiorella Adair, who noted that the subdivision already is addled with traffic. “And the next time, when (Ruggeri) comes back, he’s going to get his drive-thru.”

Harley Pilarski, also a Poplar resident, said the development will “tear the neighborhood up,” and Frances Madalinski lamented potential “degradation” of the area.

“Now I feel that when I’m in my twilight years, I have to compete with fast-food,” said Madalinski, who’s lived in her home on Poplar, within a few feet of the development site, for 39 years.

Ruggeri insisted that he’s stuck. Taco Bell — the main reason he purchased the property initially, and the one establishment to which the residents are unequivocally opposed — is the only company that’s expressed consistent interest over the years, he told council.

As an alternative to the three-building plan, Ruggeri said he contemplated a reversion to multiple-family housing, a senior living facility, a hotel, retail outlets and medical offices. None panned out.

“We have no takers,” he said. “The only feedback we got was Taco Bell, again.”

And no other restaurants will even consider a building without a drive-thru, Ruggeri said, indicating that the “neighborhood-type businesses” he’s courted have included Jimmy John’s, Tim Horton’s, Starbucks and Jersey Mike’s.

Council members bandied the proposal about at length, noting the status of Mound as a major thoroughfare, but acknowledging the potential impact on residents.

“You’re saying that you’ve tried to market this property for four years, and nothing’s happened. You’re not the only person that has a piece of property in the city of Sterling Heights that’s tried to do the same thing,” Councilwoman Barb Ziarko chided Ruggeri. “It hasn’t been the best economic environment.”

“But how are you going to turn the economy around if we don’t have an opportunity to start making things happen?” retorted Ruggeri. “If we wait around and say, ‘Well, it’s a bad economy, everybody’s in the same boat,’ we can all just go home and watch TV all day. We’re here to make this thing work, and we need your help.”

When Ziarko asked Ruggeri whether he’d truly accept council members’ decision if they denied a particular fast-food restaurant, he said yes.

The amendments passed 6-1. Councilman Paul Smith, the dissenting vote, argued that residents should have a reasonable amount of certainty when buying a home that adjacent parcels will be developed as zoned, and that the city is “awash in vacant properties.”

“I think the reality is, there’s only so much food to be eaten in Sterling Heights,” he said.

Ruggeri said he anticipates needing a year to a year and a half to secure viable prospects and develop the site under the new terms.

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