ISHPEMING - A potential housing project at the site of the former C.L. Phelps Middle School has gained some support since an Ishpeming Planning Commission meeting last month, but concerns still remain for area residents and the Ishpeming City Council, with the council voting to adjourn the subject until a special meeting scheduled for later this month.
The room at Wednesday's regular council meeting was filled to capacity with a number of area residents speaking in favor of and against the rezoning of the block that houses the former school. A special use permit would allow a change for the school from general residential to multi-family residential.
Downstate developer G.A. Haan has expressed interest in purchasing the building from the Ishpeming Public Schools and developing it into 24 low-to-moderate income apartments. With the project, rents would be kept affordable through state low-income housing tax credits. The project was designed by U.P. Engineers and Architects' Lisa Black.
"Something that is important about this is that it is a reuse of an existing building that could be in the very soon future a blighted building in your city," Black said. "I live here in the city and I saw it as an opportunity."
The project would create 24 apartments in the building, preserving the kitchen and gymnasium space for community rentals.
Concerns about the project from neighbors have ranged from parking to the potential for increased crime in the neighborhood.
"I understand your concerns," said Ben Ide of G.A. Haan, who was present at the meeting to provide further details about the potential project. "The folks that live in these units have to qualify to live here, just like any other apartment. They have to have a job. They pay their own rent. It's not a government subsidy where the government pays the rent."
Ide said the units would be professionally managed by a part-time on-site manager. The income limit for a single person living in the apartment is $22,400 and $32,000 for a family of four.
"I think when you put it in perspective, the tag 'low income' maybe isn't appropriate. I would call it more income restricted," Ide said.
If the council had approved the zoning change, it would have changed the zoning permanently to multiple-family, meaning any developer could purchase the building and complete whatever housing project they wanted. Although the city and the planning commission is not able to place conditions on the rezoning, the building owner or developer could come forward voluntarily with a set of conditions so that if the project does not proceed as planned, the zoning change would revert back to its current zoning status.
The council voted to adjourn the project to a special meeting at 9 a.m. on May 25 in the city hall conference room, giving the council time to consider the project and the developer time to discuss having an option on the building with the school board, which would give them the right of first refusal to purchase the building.
"My concern is we're looking at rezoning property you may or may not purchase. And we're rezoning it permanently," Mayor Pat Scanlon said, addressing Ide during the meeting. "I'm not going to open that building up for somebody to come down the road for $50,000 in a year or two when it is dilapidated and say 'I'll buy that.' And then we end up with another bag of dirtballs.
"I think your plan is wonderful. I support it 100 percent. But things aren't locked in."
Scanlon said if it were a sure thing for the planned development to go through, he would be more comfortable supporting the project.
As at the April Planning Commission meeting where the rezoning and potential project were discussed, a number of Ishpeming residents who live near the school spoke out against the project.
"One of the reasons we're speaking out tonight is fear. Fear of what kind of people we're going to have in our neighborhood. That's been alleviated somewhat. Parking is going to be a problem," said Paul Luohmann, a resident of the neighborhood around the school.
Several area residents spoke about finding alternate uses for the building, particularly senior citizen housing or an assisted living facility.
"Let's try to get a better project. Senior housing is a possibility," Luohmann said. "What I'm asking of this body is time. Please don't change the zoning until we have totally exhausted the options.
"It could be a great thing. It might not be," he said.
Others, however, spoke in favor of the project.
"What I wanted to let the council members know tonight is that Ishpeming does need safe, affordable housing," said Evelyn Valente-Heikkila, executive director for the Ishpeming Housing Commission. She said there are waiting lists of more than 30 people for both senior citizen housing and family housing complexes in the city. "When you talk about low income, you can't categorize these people ... The majority of the people there are working their way through college, working two or three part-time jobs.
"We have decent people."
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.