Allegan riverfront apartment plan brings debate

Ryan Lewis, Editor

Whether or not Allegan will begin allowing riverfront-level apartments remains to be seen. Discussions until then promise to be passionate, if the city council’s meeting Monday, Oct. 27, is the model.

Currently, the buildings that line the banks of the Kala­mazoo River between the Second Street Bridge and M-89 are zoned C-1, a commercial designation.

Variances have been granted in many cases to allow apartments on second floors, but only uses such as retail shops and offices are allowed on first and riverfront-level floors. (First floors are level with Hubbard and Brady streets.)

The Downtown Develop­ment Authority board met earlier this month and, in a split vote, recommended to the city council changing the zoning to mixed use, allowing apartments on the riverfront level.

Local attorney and DDA board member Mike Villar said the idea was to spur development.

Villar said he had plans to sell his house on Hill Street and remodel the lower level of the building he owns on the riverfront into an apartment for himself; then he found out zoning prohibited that.

He said remodeling on the riverfront to attract a business was much riskier than remodeling into a living space for rent—especially given the large number of vacant buildings downtown. In his case, plans for a redesign of the riverfront area would put a stage in front of his building.

“That cuts off all traffic,” Villar said. “And you want to say I have to put a business there?”

He said the city’s own market study for a restaurant in the former Chicago Title building put an apartment on the riverfront level.

“Even the people who did the study say mixed-use is the way to go,” Villar said. “I’ve remodeled the dance studio, Brandon Jay (salon)... the Red’s Auto building. I’ve never made any building worse. Anything I’d build, it’s not going to be junky.”

Several residents spoke about the risks of permitting more apartments on the riverfront.

Baker Allegan Studios owner Joe Leverence said filling spaces with apartments now undercuts the city’s plans to rejuvenate the riverfront—especially if some of them became low-income housing.

“If I’m a business and want to come in there, where do I go? If there’s trailers and cars out front?” Leverence asked. “I know the free market will work its way through, but why should we tie our hands now before we even start?”

He said the riverfront redevelopment project, to him, meant attracting a variety of specialty shops and retail spaces.

“If you take a picture of where we’re at right now, Mr. Villar’s right. But we’re investing to not be what we are right now.”

For full story, pick up a copy of the Oct. 30 issue of The Allegan County News or subscribe to the e-edition.

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