Planning Commission Hoping for Compromise on Sunday Hours at Coolidge Court

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Coolidge Court businesses could be open on Sundays if the City Council eventually grants the owners the site plan modification they’re asking.

But many people who own homes in the Pinecrest neighborhood around that commercial property aren’t happy with the idea. They want to see Coolidge Court remain what is apparently the only retail strip in East Lansing with a prohibition on Sunday hours.

Members of East Lansing’s Planning Commission are hoping a compromise can be reached before they send the matter on to City Council.

Commercial real estate broker Van Martin, the developer and still owner of Coolidge Court, filed an application with the City of East Lansing to lift a restriction on Sunday hours that’s been in effect since the project was approved in 1986.

Back in 1986, Martin agreed to a condition of approval that “no Sunday hours of operation [would] be permitted in the center.”

The businesses now in the strip mall include Country Stitches, Wild Birds Unlimited, Baryames Cleaners, Goodwill, and Donna’s Nails. Four additional storefronts sit empty.

The current proposal is to allow Sunday hours from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (if businesses there want to be open during that period).

The restriction in the original site plan approval grew out of opposition from nearby residents who didn’t want land abutting the Pinecrest neighborhood to develop into something that would disrupt quality of life and property values.

A sort of middle ground was reached, and the property was zoned B5 with the Sunday hours restriction attached to the site plan approval.

The property also took on a deed restriction that prohibits “commercial cooking or baking of food for consumption or sale either on or off premises. This shall include, but not be limited to, a prohibition of any ‘fast food’ type restaurant such as McDonald’s or Burger King.”

That use restriction on cooking can only be changed if a majority of property owners in the Ramblewood subdivision vote to change it. (ELi has obtained the use restriction agreement and you can see it here.)

Gary Caldwell for ELi.

The current application (made in the name of the corporate owner, Marcorr Properties, LLC) asking to allow Sunday hours isn’t the first time Martin has tried to get the restriction lifted. Attempts in 1987, 1989, and 1995 were rebuffed.

This particular group of Planning Commissioners has often tried to solve problems before sending applications on to City Council, and this time is no exception. At last Wednesday’s meeting, several commissioners signaled a hope to find a kind of compromise between the developer and most of the opposed residents.

Opposition focuses on the quiet nature of the Pinecrest neighborhood and the belief that the Sunday hours restriction is integral to that.

“They made a promise to the neighborhood and they keep coming back trying to break it,” Abbie Tykocki, President of the Pinecrest Neighborhood Association, told Planning Commission at the June 24 meeting.

A letter from Susan and Vince Melfi expressed concern about the hours change and also that the developer might try to change the food-based restriction, too, although the developer has not sought at this time to change that latter restriction and can’t without permission from a majority of property owners in the Ramblewood subdivision, as noted above.

“Removing the conditions might make it easier for the owners to rent vacant spaces,” the Melfis’ letter reads, “but at a high cost to the residents of the neighborhood.”

A letter from residents Joseph and Elaine Reynolds argues the city has “valid reasons” to deny the current modification application because the condition was offered by the developer in the first place in the ‘80s.

Mary Holoweiko also wrote asking why the restrictions aren’t considered permanent. 

“The zoning for this development was successfully established only after specific requirements were inserted into the site plan,” Holoweiko wrote. “So, now that Coolidge Court exists, the developer can seek to change those provisions ad nauseam? That strikes me as deceptive, in other words a ‘bait and switch’ tactic.”

A minority of residents writing in do support the inclusion of Sunday hours and some eateries.

Susan Angel said it would be pleasant to have places to walk or bike to for a meal. She currently needs to drive or cross busy roads like Saginaw Street or Lake Lansing Road, she wrote. To have a closer option would add value to the neighborhood, she argued.  

Jamie Fitzpatrick also cited walkability in support of eateries like a coffee shop or smoothie bar and opening on Sunday. (A non-baking coffee shop or a smoothie bar would not violate the deed restriction on cooking.)

A resident of the Pinecrest Neighborhood, Fitzpatrick wrote that the neighborhood association is steered by the board’s decisions that don’t properly account for consequences. She finished her letter by saying a “boarded up strip mall would be far worse.” 

During the public hearing Tykocki urged commissioners to at least limit hours for trash pickup, landscaping, and snowplowing, were they to recommend Council approve the site plan amendment. She also said that the majority of people she spoke to were not in favor of something like a coffee shop or a smoothie bar going in.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Attorney George Brookover spoke on behalf of Martin and Marcorr at Wednesday’s meeting. He made the argument that the condition on Sunday hours is inconsistent with not just B-5 zoning in East Lansing, but with all other properties of this type in the city.

“I can find no other similar commercial site in East Lansing which has been denied the right of Sunday hours,” Brookover said, and commissioners agreed.

Sunday hours are also consistent with nearby businesses, Brookover said. He noted that the area had radically changed since 1986, with the growth of commercial properties with Sunday hours all around, including Meijer across Lake Lansing Road.

He also clarified Marcorr’s stance on changing the food restrictions, saying “in no manner, way, shape or form are we asking for a change in the no-fast-food component.”

Commissioner Chris Wolf asked Brookover about the possibility of restrictions on trash pick-up times and general business hours, to avoid nighttime noise. Brookover indicated Marcorr was open to that.

Brookover cited an instance last winter where a neighbor had called after being disturbed by early snowplowing. He said the neighbor was right — it was a new plow service and the owner told them to come later in the future.

“That’s an appealing solution to this problem,” Wolf said, in response to the idea of limiting service hours to when people are unlikely to be trying to sleep at night.

Commission Vice Chair Kathy Boyle recalled the original conversations around the development. The current compromise was reached because the retail lot abuts a single-family residential zone, which is relatively unusual in East Lansing. Tykocki had reinforced this point.

Screenshot from the Jun 24, 2020, virtual meeting of the Planning Commission.

Boyle agreed with Wolf that a new compromise might resolve the issue. Commissioner Jack Cahill also said he hoped a compromise could be amenable to all parties. 

Commissioner Joseph Sullivan saw the hours restriction as a “competitive disadvantage” with nearby competitors having hours on Sunday. He worried the owner and tenants might not have much control over trash pickup and snowplowing times.

Commissioner Jeff Kusler stated forcefully that he believes it is a disadvantage for businesses in the strip mall to be required to be closed Sundays. He was strongly in favor of eliminating that restriction, saying about no-Sunday-retail, “This is counterintuitive. It’s backwards thinking.”

Kusler made clear he would vote in favor of the application.

Still, it appears a majority of the Planning Commission is hoping a compromise might resolve this issue before the next meeting on July 8, when the Commission is likely to vote on whether to recommend Council approve the amendment.

Their view seems to be akin to what Pinecrest Neighborhood resident Paul Rubin outlined in his letter.

“I understand that the property manager of Coolidge Court may wish to lease to a coffee shop or smoothie shop,” Rubin wrote, “and that this is opposed by some residents. For what it is worth, I would have no opposition to either of those businesses, provided that they conformed to the business hours specified in the Reynolds’s letter and did not include commercial kitchens.”

Citizens wishing to weigh in on the matter can write to Planning staff member David Haywood. City Council makes the ultimate decision, and that body can also be reached by email.

Note: This article was updated at 11:10 a.m. to include the information about the prohibition on cooking from the use restriction agreement. We also added a link to the use restriction agreement, which we obtained this morning. At 12:15, we corrected our pronoun usage for Jamie Fitzpatrick.

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