May 16, 2013CITY OF GROSSE POINTE — A divided city council this week denied a key element of St. John Providence Health System's $5.4 million proposal to establish medical offices in the former Borders Books & Music building in the Village.
The single-story, 19,053-square-foot building on Kercheval has been vacant since Borders closed in bankruptcy nearly three years ago.
Most councilmembers opposed St. John's plan because it provided 1/3 less space fronting Kercheval for retail usage than required by zoning ordinances.
City codes mandate 60 percent of ground-floor space fronting Kercheval be retail. The remaining rear portion can be offices.
St. John applied for a variance to those rules.
Its proposal contains retail space for a depth of only 21 percent of the 161-foot deep building.
The remaining 79 percent is offices, primary care rooms, labs, a diagnostic center and physical therapy center and more, according to a site plan.
Hospital representatives said the high cost of complying with the retail ordinance represents a practical difficulty, thereby qualifying for a variance.
St. John officials rejected suggestions to locate medical offices on the second floor of Kercheval Place, which would comply with ordinances, as too costly and difficult for patient access.
"The issue is not what percentage is appropriate," said John Jackson, the city's planning consultant. "It's whether the applicant has managed to justify a practical difficulty. In our review of what constitutes practical difficulty, they haven't met that test."
He recommended the variance request be turned down.
Councilwoman Jean Weipert said the percentage discrepancy was so big "it shoots a cannon through our zoning ordinance."
She told hospital officials, "Your practical difficulty seems to be a financial difficulty."
Voting Monday, May 13, to deny the variance were Mayor Dale Scrace, Weipert and councilmen John Stempfle and Donald Parthum Jr.
Councilmen Christopher Boettcher and Andrew Turnbull supported the variance.
The 5-2 outcome signaled constructive criticism more than dead-set rejection.
Prior to the vote, St. John officials sensed the majority opinion. They requested the decision be delayed one month while plans are redrawn for consideration at the June council meeting.
"We would prefer to have it tabled rather than voted down," said William Gilbride, attorney representing the health system. "We want this site. We're willing to invest a lot of money."
Weipert said she's "amenable" to resolving matters by updating city codes, not issuing variances.
"If there's an issue, it should be dealt with in our zoning ordinance," she said. "By tabling it, we're not resolving that."
St. John plans to purchase the building.
"We are excited to become part of the Village while providing primary healthcare services in a convenient setting to Grosse Pointe residents," said David Brooks, president of St. John Hospital and a resident of Grosse Pointe Farms. "We will stay there for the long term."
The facility would have 30 employees and average 75 patients per day, Brooks added.
"It will be an attractive community feature for young families and seniors alike, with the amenity of getting medical services possibly within walking distances of their community," he said.
St. John isn't required to pay property taxes, but will make payments to the city in lieu of taxes, hospital officials said.
"Residents of Grosse Pointe want a retail-oriented Village with a variety of retail uses," Jackson said. "Our Kercheval frontage is finite. The concept of our ordinance it to preserve that space for retail uses."
More than a dozen City residents, some announcing ties to St. John, addressed the council.
Speakers were split 50-50 for and against.
Cathy Mitchell, a City resident, opposed.
"We have enough medical," she said, alluding to Beaumont Hospital Grosse Pointe in the City, Henry Ford Cottage Hospital in the Farms and St. John Hospital at Mack and Moross in Detroit. "I'd like it to stay retail."
"If there's such a push for retail, why is it empty?" countered a doctor identifying herself as a St. John board member.