Development, social district lead joint Houghton meeting

HOUGHTON — The Houghton City Council, Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority met Wednesday to hear updates on potential sites for development and a possible new social district in downtown.

Houghton is certified as a Redevelopment Ready Community through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., opening it up to additional resources and technical assistance through MEDC. Dan Leonard, community assistance specialist with MEDC, spoke Wednesday about ways to help find developers for projects that fill needs identified in the community.

“Most of the time, it’s setting the table and getting properties teed up for the private sector to see what your plans are, what you want that property to become, and then kind of get out of the way and let the private sector do it’s thing, but it’s modeled off the vision you’ve created,” he said.

The city owns several underutilized properties that could be sold off and help offset the cost of the bond for the Lakeshore Drive corridor rehabilitation project, Waara said.

Spots that could be redeveloped include the City Center building, the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce building and the city’s RV Park.

Before the council approves a sale, there would have to be a development plan in plan where the developer outlines what it does with the property. One area of need is relieving the area’s housing crunch, Waara said.

“If the city wants to see something happen, like apartments/condos … we’ve got active retirees, we’ve got young professionals, and we need to take some steps beyond just talking,” he said. “And that’s where MEDC could help on some projects.”

Wednesday’s conversation did not include the Lakeshore Drive parking deck site, which Waara said would be part of a much longer process.

The chamber site would include about a half-acre of space; the building has a first-floor office with apartment space on the second. The owner of the neighboring property is also interested in selling to the city, Waara said.

“That bundled property now is well over an acre, right at the head of downtown right off of Franklin Square with a fantastic view of the ski hill,” he said. “There’s probably a mixed use development that would fit there perfectly.”

The four-story, 30,000-square-foot city center is one of the few buildings in Houghton with an elevator. About half the space is vacant. The city offices and police department use the ground floor; Midwest Loan, which had formerly occupied the top floors, moved to another location, freeing up office space. The city would need a new appraisal for the building, last done four years ago, Waara said.

The RV park, next to the Kestner Waterfront Park, is just under 2 acres with about 700 feet of waterfront. That could be converted to nine or 10 large houses or one large parcel, Waara said.

Selling it would maximize the benefit to taxpayers, Waara said. While Houghton makes a net profit of $50,000 to $70,000 annually on the RV Park, it has to spend about $100,000 a year. A development on the site could bring in an estimated $60,000 a year in property tax revenue, he said.

A snowmobile/ATV trail runs through the property, though it may be possible to reroute that around the development, Waara said.

With the deck coming down and a new pier creating a gathering spot downtown, the city is also considering a new social district. Soon after the start of the pandemic, Michigan began allowing municipalities to create the districts, within which people can buy alcoholic drinks in a cup and then consume them off-site. The cups would be marked both with the social district and to denote which business sold it.

As of last summer, Michigan had about 90 districts. Waara expects that number to double this year.

“Why do we want one?” Waara said. “Because it’s a sales opportunity for our hospitality business. And it gives people another reason to be here.”

The council would have to pass a resolution setting the boundaries of the district and the commons area where people could consume drinks. Businesses would also apply to the city and to the Liquor Control Commission for a social district permit.

Waara showed a map of a possible district boundary, which spanned the lakeshore to Montezuma Avenue, and from the Portage Lake Lift Bridge to Franklin Square. The commons area, where people could drink outside, was confined to areas north of Shelden Avenue, including the pier.

Waara had run the idea by Police Chief John Donnelly, who said it would be workable, Waara said.

Attendees also had questions about liability and how the district would be enforced.

Waara said he wanted to get a general sense of approval from the city groups before getting things underway. Members at the meeting were in favor of the idea.

Planning Commission member Ben Ciavola said with the pier being so new, many people who come to the downtown pier are still figuring out what to do down there.

“It seems like a really cool way of getting folks to start using that downtown space,” he said.

Waara gave a status update on the city’s master plan, which lays out the city’s collective vision for areas such as housing, development and recycling. Planning Commission subcommittees are tackling chapters of the plan, which is revised every five years. The plan should be ready for review and comment this fall, making it ready to be adopted by the end of the year.

Waara also provided updates on the parking deck demolition. Instead of starting from Lakeshore Drive and working north, contractors will now be working their way in, starting at the northeast corner by the library. At a certain point, they will stop and go surgically towards the Lakeshore Drive buildings.

“They said it’ll actually go faster if they do it that way,” Waara said. “And we said ‘Anything you can do to make it faster, please do.'”

He showed a rendering of the planned pedestrian crossing on Pewabic Street, which will include green space and a series of switchbacks extending from Lakeshore Drive to Shelden Avenue. People can also get up through a staircase or a steeper sidewalk.

For a project timeline and renderings, go to cityofhoughton.com/lakeshore-drive-redevelopment


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