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parking wars
There was a meeting of the Corktown Citizens District Council on Monday afternoon. Citizens District Councils were created in order to give neighborhoods a voice in advising City Council on land use issues. The subject of Monday's meeting was whether to support the conditional use of a residential lot--2260 Wabash--for the parking of vehicles by Downtown Mobil, an auto repair shop at 2035 Michigan Avenue owned by Sam Zammit. He owns all of the property on the south side of Michigan Avenue between Vermont and Wabash Streets, as well as 2249 Vermont, as JZ Properties Inc.

The photo below shows Sam's property outlined in green. (The house with the cars parked behind it on Vermont Street has reportedly been rezoned as commercial.) The potential parking lot in question, outlined in orange, is city-owned, but Sam is in the process of purchasing it. As you can see, he is already parking cars there.



Sam was born and raised in Corktown and is very well-liked and well-respected by everyone in the neighborhood. He owns the house that Dale and Ang rent, among several others. My neighbor Joyce said that he even considered buying my old place on Wabash (and it's too bad he didn't). Years ago Sam moved to a downriver suburb for the sake of his kids' schooling.

This parking lot situation has become problematic. On the one hand Sam is a friendly neighbor running a legitimate business, and he wants to put a city-owned lot back on the tax rolls. But on the other hand, there is this:


CLICK IMAGE FOR A LARGER VERSION


These are the parking lots that already exist in Corktown. There are some grassy lots that may have been used for parking in the past, but if it doesn't seem like they've been used for that purpose in years, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Many of these parking lots remain from the days of Tiger Stadium, and they have been every bit as detrimental to the neighborhood as the construction of the Lodge Expressway, the Fisher Freeway, and the West Side Industrial District. Corktown has some lovely, dense, tree-lined blocks, but far too much of it is a disheartening wasteland of asphalt, concrete, gravel and dirt. It reminds me of what Jim Kunstler said about his own town: "Saratoga, like virtually every other town in America, has become one big automobile storage depot that incidentally contains other things."

Corktown's rebound will require a lot of infill construction on its many vacant lots, and the Citizens District Council was created in order to ensure that local property is used for the best long-term interests of neighborhood residents. But I am disappointed to say that the CDC voted in favor of supporting the parking lot plan, and a letter of support will be written. I don't mean to make this out to be a tragedy--we're talking about five parking spaces here. But when members of the CDC say that that particular area is not realistically attractive for infill housing, I feel like that is a cynical justification.

Things got a little testy at the CDC meeting. Everyone talked about how great it was to debate the issue, but to me it just felt contentious and awkward. But most human interaction is awkward for me, so maybe that accounts for it.

One well-respected, longtime resident of that block felt that any improvement was good. In my opinion this is the most challenged block in Corktown, due mainly to the presence of a very well-known drug dealer who moved in around 2008. The neighbor from this block strongly felt that life would be better if Sam owned property on both sides of that alley, which the drug dealers use for deliveries. (Of course, Sam already parks cars on that lot, and the drug dealers continue to use the alley anyway.) In her defense, the extreme stress of living on that block and being threatened by that sociopath would make any reasonable person desperate for any perceivable improvement and direct their frustration onto anyone who opposes such progress.

Still, there was something this individual said--or maybe it was the way she said it--that irritated me. She repeatedly brought up lots owned by the Archdiocese of Detroit (presumably the former sites of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Boniface Churches) and complained that "the Catholics" were profiting from parking lots in a residential area. These comments, made more than once, appeared to be directed toward Scott and Becky, who are Catholic and against new parking lots. Heated debates about a parking lot and linking anyone who disagrees with you with drug dealers and criminals is one thing, but did inter-religious hostility really have to rear its head in this discussion? Or am I just being paranoid? I can't read people.

The strongest point made by those in favor of the parking lot was that residential and commercial properties have always been very intimate in this neighborhood. Houses and businesses have been mixed together throughout this city's history, with various districts coming about emergently before zoning laws. The oldest commercial buildings originally constructed in residential parts of the neighborhood are the Warren Capsule Factory at 1935 Marantette, built in 1891; the John Whittaker lumber mill at 1551 Church (now Downtown Self Storage), built in 1894; and of course the Gamble Meat Market at 1401 Bagley (now architect Brian Hurtienne's residence), built in 1887.

Another good point they could have made (but didn't) was that Sam's lack of space is due to the widening of Michigan Avenue in the 1930s. The project entailed the condemnation of the front 54 feet of all of the lots on the south side of Michigan Avenue in Corktown. People complained at the time that the resulting stubs of lots aren't large enough for conducting a business, and they were right. The south side of Michigan Avenue has been largely desolate and undeveloped ever since.


The 2000 block of Michigan Ave. in the 1921 and 1950 Sanborn maps.


The CDC's approval is not the final step. Sam still needs to make his case at city hall. If he is successful, I do hope that his work will improve that block.


wabash2260-demolished
The house that stood at 2260 Wabash in 1976. It burned around 2005.

I think you are right on many accounts, however... I think that, as stated, since he is already using the lot... That kinda changes everything.

1) Thanks for the maps! I'm not sure why, but when Joe was telling me which lot both verbally and over facebook message... i couldn't get it in my head... I'm just such a visual person. haha...

2) What I said to Joe was that if it was ON Michigan, it was a bummer and I didn't think it would be right. However, this lot is actually not ON Michigan and again, that makes a big difference to me. Visually, it just doesn't make as much of a difference.

3) Here's the thing... He's basically offering to do the right thing ON HIS OWN. Clearly, he could use the lot without permission and no one would probably care. And, you are right. He doesn't really have enough room. But, this way... He's buying the lot, and will be a responsible taxpayer that will probably add value to the land and the pieces around it just by caring for it. This is also not insignificant. But honestly, this is behavior that I feel should be rewarded.

4) Joe had a good point about the land not being able to be used for something else if chemicals got into the ground. However, I'm not sure that that particular lot is in much danger of being used or bought. I personally would never buy a lot next to an alley and surrounded by car lots and a mechanic shop, even if the rest of the block was perfect. Not to mention, you would still have to BUILD a house on it. I think for now, and for the foreseeable future, this might actually be the best use. Plus, if it boosts Sam's business, we know that he will continue to invest his money in the city and the neighborhood, because he has for so long.

I'm definitely not saying that I'm stoked about another lot of ugly cars... But if it's not in a totally unsightly place... the good thing is that it will at least be in a complementary place that most likely wouldn't be beneficial to a business in the neighborhood, and most likely to the neighborhood as a whole. No, it won't stop drug dealers from being jerks/trouble makers. But, it could improve the block in a way that could encourage others to follow suit- pay for what you are using, and improve what you own is not a lesson that we DON'T need spread.

Just my opinion.

Also, I LOVE your new background. =)

Thank you for chiming in! I was hoping you'd have an opinion on the matter. Even though I come down on being against another parking lot, I'm not 100% on either side of the issue.

I don't want to ask for your opinion and then immediately argue against it, but you do bring up valid points that deserve discussion:

•Regarding the location--the lot in question is not actually on Michigan Avenue, but one of Sam's parcels in that row is on Michigan Avenue, unscreened, and filled with junk cars. This photo was taken yesterday:



Section 17-1-2 of the city's municipal code requres fences enclosing junkyards or lots of cars awaiting repair to be opaque. I hope that Sam screens this fence, or else stores these vehicles in another lot far away from businesses and residents.

•Regarding the desirability of that lot for infill housing--you got something against houses that are right on alleys? ;) I like my alley-house, since it means I don't have a lawn to mow. And just across the alley is a car wash, which probably isn't as loud as a mechanic's shop, but not intolerable. If my house burned down, I would absolutely have the insurance company build a new house on my lot rather than write me a payout check. And if one my neighbor's houses burned down and someone started parking cars on that lot, I'd be upset.

There are a lot of other nice houses on alleys in the neighborhood: the four duplexes on 11th between Church and Leverette, the Kinnucan Duplex at 1423-25 Sixth Street, the houses at 2018 and 2030 11th, and my old neighbor Marianna's house on Marantette Street (which isn't photogenic at the moment, but is undergoing a renovation).


Whatever happens on this block, it seems that all its problems stem from the drug dealer. He's the reason the houses on either side of him are boarded up, and why I personally would not want to live on that block. I don't know how law enforcement works, or why he is allowed to continue his operation out of that house, but I hope it ends soon.

Here's the thing... At this point, all points get pretty objective and speculative. You are right. The real problem is the drug dealing house, and Sam is def the good guy. Personally, I'm more about responding positively to the positive forces that I CAN react to, and fighting against the negative. If there is no terrifying result of supporting the positive side of things around here... I vote yes for the most part... Not that I usually get a vote. =)

Also, you are right. Lol... I'm not a fan of houses on alleys. They can be completely beautiful! I just wouldn't want to own a house without a yard, as we have talked about before. Haha...

I unfortunately missed the meeting, but, for the record, what follows are the comments I emailed to the CDC later that evening:

My understanding is that this issue has been decided and that my vote would not have changed the favor, but I have some comments on the issue.

Parking lots and junk car lots are among the lowest uses for land. I like Sam and am happy he is running a business in the neighborhood, but he has not taken care to make the other two lots he has aesthetically pleasing. Conditional to the permission to use this residential lot for junk cars should be not only consideration of the aesthetics of that particular lot, but also that of the one on Michigan and Vermont as well as what may be visible of the Vermont St. lot.

My understanding is that a hedge would be planted to block the view of the cars from Wabash. I'm in favor of this, but I am against the removal of any mature trees that are not sick or causing danger to buildings or infrastructure. Since the aesthetics of this lot are under discussion, I feel that in exchange for using this residential lot for a low-value land use, that the aesthetics of the other lots should be under discussion as well. If Sam doesn't have a good aesthetic sense for improving the appearance of these lots with landscaping or otherwise, perhaps the business community could assist. I know the Cooley family has worked outside of just Slows, such as in Dean Savage Park, to make things look better and could consult with Sam.

Paving and landscaping this lot may turn out to be a perceived improvement compared to its current use: junk cars parked on a muddy lot full of tire tracks. But what provision are we putting in place to encourage the eventual development of this lot its appropriate use as infill housing? Will not Sam having permission to derive value from a low use make him less likely to sell for a low price should a developer come along? Or a successor of Sam? Informally using a city lot for junk cars is significantly different than Sam owning the lot with indefinite permission to use it for that purpose.

In other words, I don't necessarily seek to rescind this decision, but it is still one that supports a very low-value land use, and therefore should come with numerous strings attached in order to benefit the long-term improvement in the neighborhood, in particular the eventual redevelopment of this section of the neighborhood with renovation and infill housing. What will these be?

Joe

A related aside, I think that long term some of the alleys need to be closed and the parcels combined. I latched on to this comment:

People complained at the time that the resulting stubs of lots aren't large enough for conducting a business, and they were right. The south side of Michigan Avenue has been largely desolate and undeveloped ever since.

Some of the buildings that are still standing are only 45 feet deep. It'd be fun to go through a parcel map and see what could be combined and what kind of actually developable space one could come up with.

?

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