Farmington officials ‘land bank’ Grand River, Thomas St. houses

Farmington officials on Monday voted to purchase back-to-back houses in the downtown business district, executing options that have been in place for more than a year.

Since 2015, officials have paid $51,800 and $40,000, respectively, for exclusive rights to purchase 33104 Grand River and 33107 Thomas Street. Purchase prices are $259,000 and $200,000.

The Queen Anne on Grand River, currently home to All About Women’s Health, is one of four houses that preservationists have fought to keep in place.

All About Women's Health
This image, courtesy Preservation Farmington, shows the location of a house on Grand River that city officials voted to purchase.

City manager David Murphy said while the city has “no specific plans” for the two properties, the purchase would provide “maximum flexibility” for developing the former Maxfield Training Center (MTC), also on Thomas Street.

AC Acquisitions wants to build a multi-story apartment complex on that 3-acre property. Plans have ranged from 155 to 189 units and remain “in flux” as the developer responds to community concerns, said Kevin Christiansen, the city’s economic development director.

Downtown Area Plan shows the two houses could be demolished to funnel pedestrians and vehicles from the MTC property to Grand River. But officials would have to approve any changes, Murphy said.

Councilmember Jeff Scott considered the purchases “pretty straightforward” and quickly offered a motion to approve them.

“I think it’s in keeping with our published vision plans,” he said.

Councilmember Greg Cowley, who seconded the motion, talked about the city’s financial woes and said increased density in select areas will generate revenues without raising taxes.

“Any land banking we can do to make that a more acceptable project to anybody who lives in Farmington as well as the developer… I think that’s good strategy,” he said. 

Shiawassee Park connection

A better connection between downtown and Shiawassee Park has been “a consistent request from people” in the 13 or 14 years council member Steven Schneemann has been involved in city planning. He said that vision is “not something I’m willing to give up on.”

However, Historical Commission president Laura Myers said during public comment that the location of the houses “would require a development on the Maxfield Training Center site that would permit you to walk through the middle of it” to get to the park.

“We’re not going to get this,” she said. “And it’s quite clear we’re not going to get this… It’s as though we’re asked to throw good money after bad. Once they’re bought, there’ll be no turning back. The plan, even if it was a good one, is not going to come to fruition.”

Maria Taylor, a co-founder of Preservation Farmington and city council candidate, said the purchase “throws open the door to destroying more of the historic fabric of our downtown.”

‘Look at the bigger picture’

While local preservationists turned out in large numbers for previous discussions about the Queen Anne houses, most of Monday night’s speakers supported the purchases.

Rachel Gallagher and Todd Kraft, representing the Farmington Downtown Development Authority, talked about the need to generate more tax dollars. Kraft said creating a passage could resolve two of the biggest problems with the current MTC redevelopment proposal: parking and traffic flow.

Also, he said, “this is one project of many we need. This is one little piece of a big, big process… I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture.”

Tom Hamilton thanked officials for embracing change.

“If you sit on the sideline, you end up like some of the communities around us, pretty much dead,” he said.

Terry Johnson, a Farmington Public Schools Board of Education trustee, said the city won’t be the only beneficiary of the MTC development.

“Schools need the money,” he said. “We need residents back in here. I’m a thousand percent behind you folks. The status quo… just isn’t working.”

Mayor Bill Galvin ticked off a number of city projects that have faced opposition, including the downtown streetscape and purchase of a fire engine.

“Council works hard at coalescing our conversations and dialogue… I think we’ve done a great job of that on this topic,” he said. “Through civic engagement processes, we have found a way to synthesize all of our citizens’ concerns and bring them together.”