By Megan Kelley
Over the past several months, West Construction has moved forward in the process of getting approval for their plan to convert the Ehman Center into apartments and an event space.
Current plans include two developments: the Lofts at West Village and the Flats at West Village.
The Lofts at West Village, located in the Ehman Center building, is expected to feature 30 loft-style apartments as well as an event space where the gymnasium is currently located. The Flats at West Village is an entirely different building that currently is expected to have 59 one and two bedroom apartments.
The total number of expected apartments rounds out to 89 units.
Additionally, the development would also include 142 dedicated parking spaces.
On Oct. 4, the village Planning Commission held a public hearing on the proposed development where 21 residents spoke, a vast majority of which were not in favor of the development for a number of reasons including traffic, infrastructure and population density.
“While I appreciate the Planning Commission’s decision to take on this eyesore, I am in disagreement with the current proposal of 89 units. The population density that is being proposed to this area would be detrimental to all residents of our community as this area cannot handle this load without major infrastructure changes,” said Tammy O’Dea, a member of the Shores of Long Lake Homeowners Association board. “In addition to the already existing 22 residential homes on Elizabeth Street, 89 apartments could lead to an increase in population from 89 to 296 persons – considering the layout of the lofts and the one and two bedroom apartments. So, if all residents were able to drive this could add up to 296 more cars driving through our congested downtown and surrounding subdivisions.”
O’Dea also questioned what the current state of the Ehman Center is considering the last thing residents had heard about the building was that there was an asbestos issue and if that is still the case, wondered how West Construction plans on safely removing the toxic materials. She then doubled down on her stance that the current infrastructure was unlikely to be able to withstand such an increase in population, stating that the Shores of Long Lake subdivision has had issues with sewage back-ups because of their proximity to Buffalo Wild Wings on Lapeer Road and asked if the freshwater lines the village had recently installed would be able to support an increased population as well.
Roughly 15 people shared similar concerns with O’Dea, may of whom were residents of the village thus living in relatively close proximity to the Ehman Center.
“I understand that development isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this community but it’s not a good thing if it isn’t carefully done,” said village resident Birgit McQuiston.
McQuiston echoed the concerns of O’Dea, adding that the impact on those who live near the property should not be ignored and that the village needs to be sure they’re doing their due diligence.
“I want you to understand the impact of what you’re doing here in the community. You’re impacting lives, you’re impacting neighborhoods, yeah, you’re impacting infrastructure and I hope we can bare that,” McQuiston said. “I want to know that you did your due diligence. I want to know that there’s enough parking spaces for the people who will have vehicles there and drive them. I can’t fathom how these roads are going to handle that traffic. I implore you to get traffic engineers and to have that traffic study done, not just for this small area but how that’s going to impact the entire area.”
McQuiston also added that she felt the number of apartments, 89, was too many and that she would like to see that number come down closer to 50.
“If you can make that number (of apartment units) come back to the minimum, which I believe is 50, that would, to me, be the best-case scenario,” McQuiston said. “I’ve heard the word ‘entitlement’ used per-acre in what you’re allowed to use for apartments and just because you can, or there’s an entitlement, doesn’t make it right. You have to make it suit where it is.”
While an overwhelming majority were against the proposed development, there were several residents that spoke in favor of it.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the materials presented to your board by the developer of this project, and I was totally impressed with them. I found they were complete, they were straightforward, they were transparent, they were attractive and quite frankly they were exciting,” said Jeff Sutherland, village resident and Treasurer of the Orion Historical Society. “From a personal standpoint, I would like to urge the board to consider this approval favorable and get this project moving forward. It’s something our community needs.”
Sutherland added that as a “older citizen of this area”, these apartments will allow for people like him to age in place if/when they are unable to take care of their own lawns and subsequent property.
As a member of the Orion Historic Society, Sutherland was happy to see that West Construction incorporated plans to keep the historic aspects of the building, adding that the Historic Society had discussed the project at a special meeting and passed a resolution supporting the proposal.
Another resident who was for the proposal was Tom Traurig, who lives so close to the property that he can see the Ehman Center from his front porch.
Having moved to the area in 2006, Traurig has watched the building exchange hands several times and watched as it evaded development each time for a myriad of reasons.
“Now, West Construction has come along and they have construction experience, they’ve worked with historical preservation, you can go to the Strand Theater in downtown Pontiac for one example. They have adequate funding, they’re not relying on solely on grants and gifts from either the state, federal government or the village (of Lake Orion),” Traurig said. “I commend whoever the West (Construction) folks are for coming to the table with a workable plan and something that will actually benefit this community. My biggest fear since 2006 was that that building would just say in a state of disrepair and continue to have the windows broken, graffiti sprayed on it and having the police show up to chase kids out of the building. I was actually hoping maybe an airplane would crash into it so it would be forced to come down but I think the West Construction plan is a much better alternative.”
Kyle Westberg the president and CEO of West Construction was called up to the podium to answer some of the concerns that residents had, essentially stating that they have been transparent with the process and are following the guidelines and processes put forth. Westburg also noted that infrastructure as far as sewage and water lines are handled by the village DPW.
Village Council President Ken Van Portfliet, who sits on the Planning Commission, informed everyone that development in the downtown is right on the village’s doorstep and that there is a potential for 200-plus apartment units to be built in the next several years.
This revelation did not sit well with a few residents who took to the podium and inform the board that they were betraying the trust of the residents who were trusting them to keep the quaintness of the downtown intact.
Commissioner Robert Reighard responded to these claims stating that the commission was simply doing its job.
“This is what our board does. We look at the facts and if you can bring me a fact saying that if he builds those units, you’re house (value) is going down 10 or 20 percent, then we can say ‘well, maybe he can’t build those units’ but if you just want to bring your opinion in here, that doesn’t hold any water,” Reighard said. “Now, I want to tell you something, this man is going to have about $4 million just buying that property and taking care of the asbestos. I’m sure that if anybody in this audience wants to come up with the $4 million and turn it into a museum or anything else, hey, I’m all for it. But what I’m saying is you have to understand…he has a right to build a certain amount there. Our job is to make sure he stays within the ordinances and that’s our only job, okay? I understand your opinions, I get it. I don’t like the fact that they’re building a place to sell marijuana that’s not too far down from my house but there’s nothing I can do about it. It fits the ordinance and it passed through the voters so you have to understand, that’s how the things work.”
While many residents were still unhappy with the responses they were receiving, the commission moved forward with the vote and passed a motion 6-0 to recommend conditional preliminary approval on the PUD to the village council.