Royal Oak faces fresh development controversy
Royal Oak — Controversial developments appear to be surfacing in Royal Oak as quickly as city-owned parking spaces disappear.
Developer Anthony Yezbick, a Royal Oak attorney, will go before the Royal Oak Planning Commission on Tuesday seeking major variances on a former gas station site for a five-story, 60-unit apartment building.
His request comes on the heels of vocal opposition to a $67 million downtown development project and its elimination of 225 surface parking spaces on Williams Street near City Hall.
Yezbick wants the site, now zoned business residential, changed to planned unit development to allow construction several stories higher than nearby buildings and for the city to waive a requirement to provide two parking spaces per living unit.
Yezbick covets a 110-space Center Street city lot across an alley just west of the shuttered gas station. Nearly half — 52 — of its spaces are committed to adjacent medical offices and a photography studio by past agreement with the city.
Critics of the apartment project, including former Planning Commission Chairman Tom Hallock and Debbie Campbell, a city activist, say the request to rezone the Main Street property is disturbingly similar to a downtown development project that's the subject of litigation.
To facilitate construction of an office building and parking garage, the city gave the developer $5 million and an existing surface lot without requiring any traffic or impact studies.
The proposed apartment development is raising fresh alarm among residents who fear Royal Oak is swapping small-town charm for big-city sprawl.
“They are trying to pack 10 pounds into a 2-pound bag,” Campbell said. “You already have a lot of traffic, several streets all converging near there. What do they think is going to happen? I’m appalled. It’s going to be Bottleneck Central.”
Since the downtown project got underway, several Main Street bars and restaurants have closed, claiming business had dropped off because customers have nowhere to park. Customers and vendors interviewed by The News believe the popular Farmers Market is in danger because of parking issues.
Opponents of the downtown project sued the city to stop the development, alleging Royal Oak officials violated state law and city ordinances.
The new project proposed at Main Street and Catalpa, about a half mile north of downtown, has been met with some objections from the staff of the city Planning Department, who wrote a memorandum advising the Planning Commission to require traffic, parking and impact studies before making any recommendations to the city commission.
Critics say even if the developer obtains the city lot, it still is short the number of planned spaces that would normally be required under code and would eliminate all the spaces which adjacent businesses, including medical offices and a photo studio, currently rely on for their customers.
Hallock, a retired postal worker who served on the Planning Commission from 2001 to 2005, also believes a scramble for parking is inevitable. He lives on Center Street, north of 11 Mile and watched a five-story apartment building going up across the alley on Main Street last year.
“At least that project was smaller and they put in parking on the first level,” he said.
Hallock said two members of the Planning Commission — the city’s mayor, Michael Fournier and elected Commissioner Sharlan Douglas — should recuse themselves because they have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the petitioner, Yezbick, who is also the owner-operator of Fifth Avenue Billiards, a popular Royal Oak sports bar.
“At the very least, they should recuse themselves from voting on this — both on the planning commission and in the future, any city commission actions,” Hallock said.
Oakland County elections office reports of campaign contributions reviewed by The News show Fournier and Douglas have received donations totaling $7,800 and $2,900, respectively, from Yezbick, his family and associates connected to Fifth Avenue since 2013.
Yezbick did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Asked whether the campaign contributions from Yezbick and associates amount to a conflict of interest, Fournier said he "adhere(s) to the provisions detailed in our ethics ordinance."
"As my record attests, I am a firm believer in transparent government," Fournier said in a statement. "All of our campaign contributions, from hundreds of people, are publicly available online. I adhere to the provisions detailed in our ethics ordinance and it is my expectation that every public official do the same."
Douglas, who is also the city’s mayor pro-tem, said Friday she saw no conflict in her role.
“I received campaign contributions from a lot of people,“ she said. “I’ve received contributions from cycling people and voted on bicycle lanes in the city.
“If I’m unable to accept contributions, I guess I should resign.”
A parking study done for the proposed project also has generated debate.
Fleis & VandenBrink, a Farmington-engineering company contracted by Yezbick, did a review for the lot behind the proposed apartment complex site from late November 2018 to late January 2019.
The results, filed with the Planning Commission on Friday, indicate normal parking demand is 53 percent, which increases to 93 percent in morning hours when two nearby Jazzercise classes overlap.
Fleis & VandenBrink concluded: “There are 113 parking spaces proposed for this development and the adjacent developments to share. ... this development can be adequately accommodated with the available parking in the Center Street parking lot.”
Hallock, who reviewed numerous studies over the years on the Planning Commission and read the Fleis & VandenBrink report, is not as confident.
“Excuse my language but these parking and traffic studies are basically BS,” said Hallock. “The people who do them will make them say whatever the person paying for the study wants it to say.”
Campbell, a member of Royal Oakers for Accountability and Responsibility, a citizens group concerned about development, said having officials decide on projects after getting contributions from the developers smacks of favoritism.
“This is why we have studies, and zoning laws and a master plan,” said Campbell. “But if a developer comes along that they like, all that seems to go out the window.”
Several businesses have been unsuccessful in lawsuits alleging city hall has violated laws and ordinances in reshaping part of the city’s downtown business core.
Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews and the Michigan Court of Appeals have both ruled, most recently Aug. 8, the Main Street businesses have “no standing” in the lawsuits because their business losses were speculative.
The businesses alleged more than 500 parking spaces have been eliminated in the central business district, costing them customers and leading to some business closures. A 500-space parking lot is being built near the project, Henry Ford Hospital outpatient offices, which will reportedly have 700 employees.
Greg Stanalajczo, a plaintiff in the lawsuits, who runs Trillium Teamologies and owns property downtown, said: “When I signed the initial affidavit in 2017, we were contesting that the loss of parking and city center project would cause significant harm to businesses in the area.”
He added: “Unfortunately, a year later in the summer of 2018, our prediction and case were proven, with many businesses in the area suffering upward of a 50 percent loss in business with 11 restaurants and retail shops calling Royal Oak quits.”
Stanalajczo said his customers will no longer come to his office on Main Street due to lack of parking and his elderly and disabled employees are struggling to find convenient handicap parking.
Fournier declined to comment on the case that's been appealed to the Supreme Court, calling it “old news.” He said the issue was decided last year by the Court of Appeals when it confirmed Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews’ 2017 decision. He referred questions to City Attorney David Gillam, who agreed with the mayor's assessment.
“We don’t see how anything has changed in this (complaint),” said Gillam. “The Supreme Court does not hear a majority of complaints brought before it and we expect that will be the case here.
“Judge Matthews told (the plaintiffs) two years ago they had no business in circuit court and sent them packing,” he said. “If the Supreme Court chooses to hear the matter, I expect we will hear the same thing.”
Gillam added: “Election law generally provides for campaign contributions, providing they are given lawfully."
“I think it's always best for an official to seek legal advice and disclosure it (contribution) before a vote that might later be questioned,” Gillam said. “An official also has an option to recuse themselves from a vote which under certain circumstances might be the best way to go. But just receiving a contribution doesn’t mean you have conflict.”