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Special assessment district to help pay for Fisher Road streetscape plan

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 11, 2015

GROSSE POINTE CITY — Efforts to unify and beautify the appearance of the City’s small but important business district along Fisher Road are moving forward.

The Grosse Pointe City Council unanimously approved the creation of a special assessment district Oct. 20 at a cost not to exceed $222.22 per lineal foot over a five-year payback period for property owners to help pay for the project, which is estimated at $611,686, not including project management and engineering costs. 

The special assessment district is contingent on final approval of a grant the City expects to receive from the Michigan Department of Transportation, which, once finalized, is expected to cover 60 percent of the construction cost, City Manager Pete Dame said. The City itself is also assuming some costs, including roughly $26,000 from the water and sewer fund to cover sidewalk repair and restoration following a planned water main replacement project.

City Planner John Jackson, of McKenna Associates, said the goal has been “how to improve the image along Fisher Road.” The City’s most recent master plan calls for a “cohesive streetscape” in the district.

“Fisher Road is an important business district in the City,” Jackson said. “The Village gets a lot of attention and Mack Avenue recently got (streetscape improvements), so we decided it was time to look at Fisher Road.”

Renderings created for the City by McKenna Associates and Russell Design show benches, perennial beds, decorative streetlights, bike racks, masonry screening walls in front of parking areas, and other accents along the street or sidewalk. A handicapped-accessible curb cut and bump-out for a pedestrian crosswalk in the center of the block is also planned to increase safety, especially in light of the district’s location — directly across the street from Grosse Pointe South High School. Officials said safety considerations like this are one of the aspects of the project that made it eligible for an MDOT grant.

There were several factors behind the City’s decision to press forward with a new streetscape plan now for the Fisher business district. Jackson said one of those factors was the forthcoming water main project along Fisher from Maumee to St. Paul avenues that will result in tearing up and replacing the sidewalk in that area anyway. In addition, Fresh Farms Market — which he said occupies about 40 percent of the district — is undergoing a major remodel and expansion.

“I’ve always thought Fisher Road has been neglected,” City Councilman John Stempfle said. “To me, this is the perfect time to do it,” given the water main work and the availability of grant funding.

Jackson said they’ve held four public workshops on this issue, distributed surveys to impacted parties, and solicited input from businesses and the community via visual preference surveys, where they asked everything from what types of landscaping people might like to see to what types of bike racks might be preferred. He said a number of business owners have invested in their buildings in recent years, and the City wanted to make sure that any changes in the district paralleled those investments.

Despite those meetings, some businesses and property owners had reservations about the project.

Vince Locicero, who represents property owner Jim Barker, said the Barker family has owned their portion of the district since 1941.

“It appears the overall plan is acceptable. … The only part that isn’t acceptable is the cost,” Locicero told the council. “While it’s nice that the City is donating (toward the total), we don’t feel there should be any charge at all (to the property owners).”

Besides sidewalk restoration, the City is covering “soft costs,” such as bidding and project management — which are estimated at 8-10 percent of the total project cost, or $48,000-$60,000 — and another $67,000 for certain upgrades, Dame said. Including $17,000 for the grant application and creation of the plan, Stempfle said the City is paying about $158,000-$170,000 toward the project. Dame said the City is assuming maintenance of the new sprinkler system in addition to other regular maintenance — such as for trees and sidewalk snow removal — that is already handled by the City.

Although he ultimately voted in favor of the special assessment district, City Councilman Christopher Boettcher said he felt it was “too expensive of a project” that intruded on the rights of “private property owners (by) telling people what they should do on their property.”

Edward Jeffries, owner of the Fisher Mews building, said he objected to some aspects of the project.

“There wasn’t a third option not to have a bike rack,” he said. “Taking away two parking spaces in my personal parking lot is just not acceptable to me. It doesn’t help my business.”

Jeffries said he appreciated the City’s contributions toward the cost, but he didn’t feel he was getting $15,000 worth of improvements — his share of the special assessment.

“One of the charms of (the district) is that each building is a little different, each front is a little different,” he said. “As far as the block looking bad, I agree. … As soon as Farms Market does their thing, that’ll be fixed.”

William Jennings, whose dental practice, Jennings Dental Associates P.C., is on Fisher, said he favored a five-year payment plan for businesses for the improvements. 

In a notice to business owners, the City showed a three-year payback plan, but Dame said that was only because “you can’t end up with an assessment that’s higher than (the one in) the notice,” so they used the highest number over the shortest time period in the letter sent to property owners.

“Anything that can be done to lower the burden (on the businesses) … would be appreciated,” Jennings told the council.

He also said that businesses like his that have undertaken their own improvements shouldn’t have to subsidize the additional measures needed to upgrade other parts of the district.

“There’s areas of the block that need some work, and there’s areas of the block that have been maintained for years,” Jennings said. “We already stepped up to the plate years ago (on our property).”

Jackson noted that Jennings has a “nice landscaped bed” in front of his business, and the City has met with Jennings and plans to preserve some of his existing planting materials and large boulders, along with making additional improvements.

Larry Najjar, who co-owns Fresh Farms Market with his brother, Steve, said they “like the project.”

“We’d like to see it go forward,” he said. “We respect the opinions of our neighbors. … Everybody has concerns.”

City Councilman Andrew Turnbull said that doing the project in conjunction with the water main is an opportunity to “get the most bang for our buck,” because sidewalk restoration would be needed anyway.

“In a general sense, I think it’s a great improvement to the area, and giving it a nice, consistent look is certainly going to improve property values,” he said.

A start date hadn’t been set at press time.

“We’ll continue to work with our (City) staff (and) all our property owners as we move forward,” Mayor Dale Scrace said.