Analysis: Farmington courthouse property no easy sell

Farmington Mayor Bill Galvin looked at the paperwork in his hand, then up at his fellow council members*.

“There are parts of both I really like and significant parts of both I really don’t like,” he said.

The topic of discussion during the July 24 special council meeting: Proposals to purchase and build housing on a 3.8-acre property along 10 Mile Road between Raphael and Elizabeth Court, which has been vacant since the 47th District Court moved 12 years ago.

After more than four years of active marketing, the parcel stands at yet another crossroads, with two very different plans for redevelopment.

Courthouse property

Multiple offers

This discussion is probably starting to sound a little too familiar. Four years ago, officials rejected several lowball offers before Balfour Senior Living came forward with an offer of $425,000 and plans for a $12 million memory care facility. The company pulled out of the deal more than a year later.

Blueduck Holdings in late 2015 offered the same price, with a plan for 24 condo units. Officials rejected the offer, citing concerns about the proposal and lack of solid financing.

Last spring, local developer SDC Ventures proposed a neighborhood of 14 single-family homes, later revised to include up to 19 attached condos. In November, owner Roger Scherr bowed out, telling officials, “It was my expectation that the neighboring school property would become available in a timely manner to combine the two properties in the site plan approval process.”

And that is the challenge of developing this critical piece of property: Nobody really knows what’s going to happen around it.

The vision

The Downtown Farmington Area Plan, an outgrowth of the city’s 2013 Vision Plan, imagines nearly the entire area west of Raphael between 10 Mile Road and Shiawassee as a mix of housing. A rendering shows 1-2 story townhomes in the north and 2-3 story homes on the south side – along with preservation of a wildly popular sledding hill and wooded area.

Downtown Farmington Area Plan

Neither of the proposals in this round – Cervi Construction’s 12 duplexes (24 units) and Yaldo Construction’s nine, three-story townhome buildings (43 units) – fit particularly well with the vision. Cervi recently completed a small apartment complex project in downtown Farmington, and the duplexes would also be rentals. Yaldo’s townhomes would be owner-occupied.

Only council member Sara Bowman expressed support for rental housing. Galvin pointed out there are no apartments in the 10 Mile/Power Road area. The closest complexes are Farmington Plaza on Shiawassee and Farmington West on Grand River east of downtown Farmington. Farmington West was built in 1964, Farmington Plaza doesn’t look much younger.

One might argue this indicates a need for new rental housing in the area, but city officials have long shown a preference for owner-occupied homes. Council member Greg Cowley flatly said at the July 24 meeting that rental units aren’t going to happen on the courthouse property.

Low purchase price

Both current proposals offer almost 50 percent below the city’s asking price of $450,000. Developers say they need the additional capital to build a quality product. Though city officials aren’t happy about it, they seem willing to make the trade-off.

But at this point, is something, anything, better than nothing? The property’s condition – with an aging, vacant building, and crumbling asphalt  – will only worsen as time passes. Twelve years is a long time for anything to sit empty, much less land that could be generating property taxes for a city and school district in need of funds.

However, as Galvin pointed out, what happens on the courthouse property will likely impact the sale and development of the Farmington Public Schools property – one way or another.

“It will set the tone,” he said. “Other developers will see this and have more interest in the 10 acres, or not.”

He may be thinking too small. In the Downtown Farmington Area Plan, this development links to the heart of Farmington. People who move into homes on the hill will, by design, walk through Shiawassee Park and into downtown Farmington, past the Maxfield Training Center property, where a 163-unit apartment complex has been proposed.

Perhaps what happens on the courthouse property should be considered in the context of the entire plan. How will it fit with what’s happening in downtown Farmington? With what’s proposed at the Training Center?

No easy solutions

And what of the school administration property? At this point, no one knows exactly when it will land on the market. Until that decision is made, until the land is actually for sale, working with the unknowns may scare off other developers.

No matter who eventually buys the land, what comes next is no picnic. Getting a development through the approvals process requires patience and a thick hide as neighbors and other interested parties weigh in. The best we can probably hope for as a community is a project that nobody really loves but everyone is willing to accept.

For now, city staffers will continue to negotiate with developers. And we’ll see another discussion of their offers on a future council agenda.

Worth noting: Council member Steven Schneeman recused himself from the July 24 discussion and will probably remain absent in future discussions. A Farmington-based architect, he drew up the plans for the Cervi Construction project and so has a conflict of interest. Galvin expressed some frustration that not all council members were present for the discussion and suggested that Schneeman and council member Jeff Scott, also an architect, develop “key design points” that city staffers can use when working with developers.

Other coverage: Density an issue as council considers court property projectsFarmington Observer