About 70 people came to listen and speak during Planning Commission deliberations about the Discount Drug Mart proposal
The moments before the Lakewood Planning Commission voted on Discount Drug Mart’s zoning issues July 5 felt like a game of chicken. The developers seemed to be threatening that if they didn’t get permission to spread their asphalt parking lot onto residential property to make room for a bigger store and more cars, they’d take their marbles and go home.
Pitted against the developers were the very articulate and informed Grace Avenue residents, who said they welcomed not only commercial development, but Discount Drug Mart itself—as long as they would build something that didn’t tear into their quiet street.
While the vote loomed, questions and comments from the planning commission seemed to indicate an interest in preserving the neighborhood. The planning commission is a group of appointed volunteers charged with weighing zoning issues, among other things. They decide whether developers’ plans are permissible within the city’s zoning codes, and therefore have to weigh the quality of residential neighborhoods against the municipal need to build its commercial tax base. Their comments motivated planning director Dru Siley to argue on behalf of the parking proposal, against specific points made by residents of Grace Avenue, and for a while it seemed it could go either way.
The planning commission ultimately voted to deny Drug Mart’s request for conditional use of two residential properties to convert them to parking. Now the question is whether the developers will modify their proposal to fit the commercial space they were permitted to consolidate (an entire block of Detroit) — or whether they will in fact walk away from a market that offers them almost 10,000 customers per square mile.
The vacant Ganley site at Detroit and Grace
In case you’ve missed this: The proposal is another Lakewood battle between commercial developers who want to use residential land vs. residents who like their quiet, walkable neighborhoods. In this case the Discount Drug Mart owners want to build a new, bigger store on the former Ganley car lot to replace their older, smaller store, located on the north side of Detroit a few blocks to the East. The company bought the former car lot. They also bought the adjacent apartment building on Grace, and the house next to that, too—all speculatively, on the assumption that the planning commission would grant permission to use those residentially zoned lots as commercial parking. They even evicted tenants of the fully occupied apartment building before they knew the answer to their request.
Drug Mart officials figure that replacing the current store on the East end of Detroit with a larger 28,000 square foot store on the Ganley site will require at least 79 parking spaces. The larger store will enable them to add some apparently very attractive cold cuts and a deli counter to the store’s wares. In order to have enough parking to make it all work, they said the apartment building would have to go.
I personally do not believe I have ever seen 79 people in a Discount Drug Mart all at once, and I wonder how often anywhere near that number show up in the store at the same time. If the shopping stars did align to draw that number of customers simultaneously into a Lakewood Drug Mart store, I wonder how many of them would have walked or arrived on bikes.
Leafy Grace Avenue
This kind of battle has become a familiar story around the city, as drug stores and discount stores jockey for position on our busy main street. Lakewood is a great market for inexpensive, basic day-to-day items, and for prescription drugs–as places like Marc’s (recently expanded) CVS (recently expanded) and Discount Drug Mart (looking to expand in two locations) and Family Dollar (looking to open a new store) all know well. The city is not at all hurting for that kind of development.
Inevitably those retailers want bigger stores to sell greater variety of stuff, and bigger parking lots for more cars. Inevitably the neighbors want the character of their neighborhoods maintained.
This particular battle happens to have been fought near a couple of the city’s handsomest streets. That Grace Ave. apartment building makes a graceful transition between the commercial corridor and some fine houses. Together with its counterpart on the other side of the street, it serves as a kind of gateway, holding out the noise and commotion of Detroit
Still standing watch at the border of residential and commercial
Avenue. This kind of architectural thoughtfulness defines the character of the city. It’s a common pattern. Small to mid-sized brick apartment buildings, typically handsome, three and four-story structures—punctuate the streets with their formality. On the one side, one- and two-family homes. On the other, Main Street commerce. It’s the kind of infrastructure detail that makes the city beautiful.
Discount Drug Mart and other retail developers do not care about that. Their interest is not in living here. It’s about making money off the people who do. They behave as if investing in the demolition of these properties is doing us a favor. We should be happy they are spending money here, they will occasionally come right out and say.
In fact these investments are not done as favors, or to benefit the city in any way. The only reason they are interested is because a lot of people live and spend money in Lakewood, and the retail developers believe they can get a slice of that. If a nice old building stands in the way, that’s just an inconvenience to them.
Of course the city needs tax money. But generating more commercial tax dollars is not why we live here.
Easily hundreds and more likely thousands of Lakewood residents who live close to the central commercial corridors have been a part of the same kind of argument in the last five or ten years. I live three doors from Detroit, and for the dozen years my family has owned the house, we’ve steadily heard interest and proposals to knock down the houses next door for parking.
But all of us tend to pay attention to these issues when they directly relate to our own homes, and much less so if they happen down the street—even when our neighbors are dealing with virtually the same concerns we’ve had.
This flurry of Commercial Corridor redevelopment makes me wonder, what would happen if all the Lakewood residents who have dealt with commercial encroachment on their neighborhoods banded together? What if Lakewood had a home-owners association to represent the interests of residents –including when they face encroachment of large commercial development into their residential neighborhoods?
Lakewood Observer publisher Jim O’Bryan has mentioned this idea in conversation several times. Commercial developers have plenty of advocacy in town. There’s the Chamber of Commerce. There’s Lakewood Alive.
Even though city government and all those entities acknowledge that our 28,000 units of housing are the city’s economic strength, homeowners have no advocacy organization in their corner, when it comes to maintaining the integrity of our neighborhoods. This might be a good time to change that.
Three commercial lots, an entire block of Detroit, consolidated into one
Whether Drug Mart’s proposal goes away or not, Lakewood remains a dense, middle class market of more than 50,000. Which means we’ll see these proposals come again and again. If Drug Mart officials decide to walk, another proposal will indeed come along—just as I-HOP came along not long after residents turned away a 24-hour Denny’s proposed at the corner of Detroit and Ethel. No one should fear that Drug Mart’s 28,000-square-feet-and-79-parking-spaces-or-nothing proposal will be the last that will come along for that lot. Whatever gets built on these lots will affect the quality of life of those neighborhoods for decades to come.
For 100 years, Lakewood has had a quality of life that is very much dependent on the scale of its commercial corridors. It’s comfortable to have houses immediately adjacent to small apartments, small commercial storefronts, or mixed use buildings. It is not so comfortable to have houses adjacent to medium-box retailers that occupy entire city blocks and extend up the residential streets.
Thanks to a string of recent developments that pushed homeowners’ buttons, a whole lot of Lakewood residents have become well versed on the “Conditional use parking” section of the code, and on dealing with the other quality of life impacts these larger – footprint retailers bring. What if they banded together to protect the integrity of neighborhoods across the city? If quality housing close to pedestrian-scale commerce are a key economic strength for the city, a group of neighbors working to protect that could be a very good thing.
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