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Public, PC discuss proposed Merge plan

Here's a rendering of what the new Merge Studio & Gallery would look like if the Oxford Village Planning Commission recommends approval of the PUD rezoning necessary to relocate the business to the old grain elevator located at 33 Pleasant St. (click for larger version)
July 24, 2013 - Proposed plans to turn a vacant 103-year-old building into art-based business and a piece of vacant public property into a parking lot met with support, opposition, concerns and questions at the July 16 meeting of the Oxford Village Planning Commission.

"I want this as much as you do," said Planning Commission Chairman Bryan Cloutier to Karey and Tim Collins, owners of Merge Studio & Gallery (18 N. Washington St.) in downtown Oxford.

The Collinses are in the process of purchasing the old grain elevator, located at 33 Pleasant St., so they can move their business there and expand it. The 5,000-square-foot space would be extensively renovated to house an art gallery, studio and classroom space, a coffee shop, a small second-floor apartment and some retail space.

"I'm definitely in favor of seeing this project go forward," said Dave Weckle, a local developer and property owner.

Chuck Schneider, another local developer and property owner, was pleased to see the Collinses' plan to fix up the old grain elevator, which he described as a "dump."

"We're going to turn a dump into this – I think that's tremendous," he said.

On June 24, the Collinses signed a $100,000 purchase agreement for the 33 Pleasant St. property. The agreement is only good for 60 days and is contingent on a number of things happening such as the property being rezoned and a parking lot lease agreement with the village being approved.

The Collinses requested to have the property rezoned from industrial (I-1) to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) with an underlying commercial zoning of C-1 Transition.

"I don't think they've changed anything inside (the building) since 1910," said Tim Collins. "It's got a silo right in the middle of it. It's a perfect atmosphere for an art gallery."

But not everyone was enthusiastic.

"I'm not in favor," said Planning Commissioner Dale Wolicki, who lives in the village's northwest quadrant where this project is proposed to happen. "We have plenty of vacant property on Lapeer Rd. We have a downtown (that) we should try to reinforce. To locate this one little development off over here just seems to be contrary to the purpose of having a downtown."

"We have a very strong commercial strip along M-24," Wolicki noted. "Why are we moving commercial into a neighborhood? You live in a residential neighborhood because you kind of want a little peace and quiet. I'm not convinced I want to see commercial back in my neighborhood."

Ultimately, planning commissioners voted unanimously to set aside the issue until its 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6 meeting, so questions can be addressed, specific details worked out and a complete site plan presented to them.

The biggest issue seemed to be the potential lease between the village and the Collinses to turn a municipal-owned 0.431-acre grass-covered, vacant parcel into a paved parking lot.

The vacant lot, which bears the address 27 Pleasant St., is located just south of 33 Pleasant St. Both parcels are adjacent to and separated by the Polly Ann Trail.

If the PUD and lease agreements are approved by the village, the parking lot would consist of 22 spaces that would serve both Merge customers and trail users.

"We see this parking lot as a way to give back and support something we love," said Tim Collins, who noted that both he and his wife are avid trail users.

Construction and maintenance of the parking lot would be paid for by the Collinses. However, the village would still retain ownership of the property. It's proposed that the village would lease the property to the Collinses for $1 per year for 25 years with two 25-year renewal options.

But those who live next door to the vacant village property are requesting that if it's turned into a parking lot, a significant buffer be constructed to separate it from the residential area.

"We respectfully request that it's a 6-foot masonry wall to obscure our home from the parking spaces, any noise, the lighting from the cars, accidental collisions and (Merge's) business traffic," said resident Heidi Boyer, who lives at 25 Pleasant St.

Resident Tanya Heuser, who lives at 34 Lafayette St., was also concerned about the potential negative impact of having a parking lot abutting her property.

"This is a concern," she said. "We have small children. We spend time in our backyard."

"There's already enough riffraff on the (Polly Ann) trail with graffiti, pistols and BB guns," Heuser continued. "The parking lot would just create more riffraff, more abandoned cars sitting there for two and three days. We do request a 6-foot masonry wall as well."

Planning Commissioner John DuVal supported the residents' desire to have a masonry wall, as opposed to other screening options such as a wooden fence or landscaping, because that's what's been used in other areas of the village where commercial properties abut residential properties.

"I agree wholeheartedly," he said. "This is the expectation."

Examples include the masonry wall that divides the residential property at 14 Dennison St. from the commercial property's parking lot next door and the wall that divides the Crittenton Medical Plaza (72 S. Washington St.) from the neighboring residential properties to the east.

"I think we should do everything we possibly can to cushion the development of that parking lot from the bordering properties," DuVal said.

The village zoning ordinance requires a 4-to-6-foot high masonry wall whenever a commercial-zoned property abuts or is adjacent to a residential district. The reason is to provide "a solid, year-round barrier . . . to effectively block noise, light and other impacts between land uses of differing intensities," according to the ordinance.

However, the ordinance also provides that "a greenbelt buffer, berm or evergreen screen may be utilized in place of a wall, subject to the review and approval of the planning commission."

Karey Collins told the planning commission, if the village requires a masonry wall, that's a "deal-breaker" for the project.

"We can't afford it," she said.

Karey explained to this reporter that based on past experience, it could cost an estimated $100,000 to construct the 120-foot long, 6-foot high masonry wall that the village could require. That's as much as she's agreed to pay for the old grain elevator.

Planning Commissioner Tom Kennis indicated he wants to see some figures regarding the cost of a masonry wall.

"If that is a deal-breaker, we need to see why," he said. "I don't understand how a wall is a total deal-breaker."

"Because we're at the top of our budget already," replied Karey Collins.

"We wouldn't be opposed to the (village) paying for the wall, then it wouldn't be a deal-breaker. That would be fabulous," she noted.

Karey later told this reporter that "at this point, Tim and I are looking into possibly putting together some fund-raisers to help offset the village's requirements and unplanned expenses."

DuVal noted he believes the village should be the one developing the municipal-owned land into a parking lot, then leasing the spaces to Merge for its use.

"It just seems (like) an awful lot for you all to bite off quite honestly," he told the Collinses. "I have real concerns about your ability to meet the expense of what that parking lot should cost to develop."

"I just don't fully understand why that is falling on the shoulders of the property owners," DuVal noted. "I feel that we would accomplish that with a lot of more controls (and) a lot quicker (if the village developed the parking lot)."

It was noted by some that having Merge relocate to 33 Pleasant St. would be preferable to having the property used for industrial purposes per its current zoning.

"If you had an industrial building in your neighborhood that would lower your property value versus something (that) . . . brings people and assets to the area," Cloutier said.

"I do think that this is a much better idea and use of this property than a stamping plant," said village resident Major Murray, who lives at 22 Lafayette St.

Even Wolicki, who stated his opposition to the Merge project, warned the surrounding residents that having an industrial user take over the 33 Pleasant St. property is a possibility.

All the property needs to become an active industrial site is to hook up to the village's water and sewer systems and secure some parking spaces, he said.

"The property owner's got a right to do something with that building," Wolicki said.

Although he expressed support for the Merge project, Murray also voiced his concern that development of the village-owned property into a parking lot is going to lower the value of the homes next to it. He believes those homeowners will "bear a burden" for something that's ultimately going to benefit the village in terms of increased property tax revenue.

"Some people's values are going to go down," he said. "We need a plan to compensate those people."

Murray admitted that for some Dayton St. residents, "their property values might go up (if Merge moves in) because they're not next to a derelict building anymore."

"Others are going to go down," he said, referring to those houses that would abut the proposed parking lot. "I think that should be addressed and those people should be compensated for that situation."

Not everyone shared that view.

"I think it would only increase the property values," Cloutier said.

"My opinion is that the renovation of this (vacant) structure and improvement of a currently blighted structure that attracts things like graffiti, kids sneaking in, will raise property values in the area," said village Planner Chris Khorey, an associate with the Northville-based McKenna Associates. "I think that the positive impacts of that are probably greater than any negative impact from converting a vacant lot into a parking lot."

Schneider agreed. "All the concerns of the homeowners need to be addressed, but when it's all said and done, this is a plus. It certainly isn't a minus," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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