Royal Oak Planning Commission sinks developer's apartment plan
Royal Oak — A controversial plan for an apartment building in Royal Oak failed to win over planning commissioners Tuesday night.
The panel voted down the project that required rezoning the former site of a gas station by a 4-2 vote.
The developer, Anthony Yezbick, a Royal Oak attorney and businessman who sits on the city’s Downtown Development Authority, had asked for major variances in zoning on the northwest corner of Main Street at Catalpa.
Yezbick said he is "tortured" every time he drives past the site and sees the "eyesore" and said his investors were prepared to spend $15 million on the project.
The proposal, though, raised alarm for residents, who said they worried that Royal Oak's small-town charm was eroding as bigger developments move in, bringing traffic congestion and parking issues for established businesses.
And those who attended the meeting made sure commissioners heard them. More than a dozen residents voiced concerns at the hearing.
Former Planning Commission Chairman Tom Hallock described the plan as “absurd.”
"I spent 14 years on the Planning Commission and never saw such a ludicrous plan in my life," said Hallock, who like others had urged commissioners to deny Yezbick's petition.
Yezbick, however, pondered whether to modify the proposal enough to win over enough commissioners.
"I thought it was something good, I still think it's a good project that would be good for the city," said Yezbick after the vote. "The city only gets about $10,000 a year from the parking lot compared to $350,000 a year in property tax that would come from the apartment building.
"I don't know what happens next. A couple commissioners seemed to like what they heard. Maybe we will modify the proposal and come back. Maybe we won't."
Yezbick had proposed using, possibly leasing or buying, a nearby city-owned, 110-space surface parking lot to help meet about 120 parking spaces needed for the apartments. About half of the spaces are committed to adjacent medical offices and a photo studio in agreement with the city.
Yezbick proposed 10 parking spaces on the site of the building, which would have been three or four stories taller than most of the buildings along Main Street in that area. The city planning staff had recommended traffic and parking studies.
A Yezbick-contracted parking study filed with the city found that the city lot is under-utilized and adequate, with the exception of peak hours, when patrons of a Jazzercise class fill up the lot.
Use of the lot would require a lease agreement with the City Commission. But Tuesday's rejection means Yezbick would have to propose something significantly different.
In the downtown development project, Boji Associates received $5 million from the city and the lot for $1. Boji also will build a new city hall and police station two blocks east near the Farmers Market and the district court.
Hallock told the six-member panel Tuesday night that two members of the group — Mayor Michael Fournier, who was not present, and City Commissioner Sharlan Douglas — should recuse themselves because they have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Yezbick, who also is 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.
Fournier and Douglas told The News that they are aware of campaign contribution laws and have no conflicts of interest. City attorney David Gillam said state 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 (the 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.”
Yezbick said after the meeting he was "insulted" by Hallock's comments.
"I'm proud of my city officials and I'm proud to support them for creating a good business climate in Royal Oak," said Yezbick.
Like others, resident Debbie Campbell, who is a member of ROAR, or Royal Oakers for Accountability and Responsibility, urged the Planning Commission to be more selective and consider a "smaller, more appropriate" use of the gas station site. She claimed city officials seem to ignore city codes, ordinances and master plan whenever “it involves a developer they like.”
Christine Rampanos, who owns the building where Jazzercise classes are held, said she was happy by the vote but remains cautious.
"For some reason I don't feel this is the last of it."