A knee wall separates the parking lot of CVS Pharmacy on Harper Avenue from the sidewalk.

A knee wall separates the parking lot of CVS Pharmacy on Harper Avenue from the sidewalk.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

St. Clair Shores City Council discusses ordinance requiring knee walls

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 9, 2018

ST. CLAIR SHORES — City Council is discussing the merits of an ordinance that requires businesses to have knee walls along parking lots in the Harper Overlay District, as well as along the lake, where the Central Lakefront District follows the same rules.

“We have a knee wall requirement that’s in the ordinance,” Councilman John Caron said. 

Site standards for off-street parking in the Harper Overlay District state that “a brick wall with stone or precast cap shall be placed along the right-of-way line of off-street parking areas except in the location of access drives or walks.”

Caron said businesses come before City Council prior to heading to the Zoning Board of Appeals, however, so “a lot of them, we were approving the site plans without knee walls, (but they) were being denied by ZBA because they couldn’t show a hardship.”

That, Caron said, has led to a mixed set of site plans where some businesses are required to have the knee walls and other businesses are not.

“To me, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think we would probably get a better result if we could leave a lot of options up to the business,” he said. “They’re trying to fix up maybe a 2,000-square-foot building and find out they have to put up a 10-foot, 20-foot section” of wall. 

Councilman Peter Rubino agreed that there is inconsistency about which businesses have to put walls up. 

“One of the things at ZBA that you can’t use as a hardship is finances,” he said. “Anyone who’s been a small business owner knows that your No. 1 hardship, most of the time, is finances. 

“We’re putting an undue burden on businesses.”

Rubino brought up the example of Butter Run Saloon, which was required by the Macomb County Health Department to install a new outdoor cooler. That, Rubino said, triggered other requirements from the city of St. Clair Shores, including striping the parking lot and installing a knee wall along 11 Mile Road. 

“That’s somebody who’s put a lot of money into a building trying to fix the place up. Now we’re telling him he has to spend more money,” he said. 

Conforming to current ordinances is a requirement for site plan revisions, which means that existing buildings could be required to add knee walls even if they are doing work on their parking lots. 

Instead, Caron suggested that alternative methods of separating parking lots from the sidewalk, such as decorative fences or landscaping, be offered.

“I think we can spell that out in terms of the site plan approval,” he said. 

Councilman Chris Vitale, though, said that he thinks there is still a need for knee walls in certain instances, like where vehicles can park and potentially overhang sidewalks. 

“I feel safer walking along the road that somebody isn’t going to open up a car door,” Vitale said. 

He said offering a 6-inch grass and curb easement could accomplish the same thing, however. 

Brick walls run about $100-$135 per foot, Councilman Peter Accica said. 

“It’s not that much of a hardship for businesses to give it the look,” he said. 

“There are a lot of options. I would like to make those available, but I would like that property owner to make that decision, not government,” Rubino said.

City Manager Mike Smith told council members that city administrators needed direction on what alternatives would be acceptable to be offered so that they could begin the work of revising the ordinance. 

He said Feb. 5 that if council members submitted their alternates within the next two weeks, a proposal could be brought back the first week of March. A revised ordinance would then be sent to the Planning Commission for a public hearing and then would return to City Council for approval.