Old Whitehills Beats Medical Center Again
Above: Genevieve Fischre speaking to Council about the rezoning application.
Residents of East Lansing’s Old Whitehills neighborhood have won another round against neurosurgeon-developer Christopher Abood’s attempts to expand parking for his medical center, formerly known as The Spine Center and now known as Compass Rehabilitation Center, on Saginaw Street.
Abood told City Council at its meeting last Tuesday that he was withdrawing his rezoning application for an empty lot that he had hoped to turn into more parking for his medical center. Abood said he didn’t want to deal with citizens coming to bad-mouth his company.
“I prefer not to hear our neighbors have to come out and say negative things about us, because we feel we are a pretty positive influence in the community,” he told City Council as he made his formal request.
Residents of Old Whitehills had organized to oppose the latest attempt to rezone a quarter-acre parcel near the northwest corner of Saginaw Street and White Pond Road. The property is currently zoned residential, and Abood wanted to rezone it in order to add 21 parking spots.
Abood indicated his application would “probably be back” but that, for now, “We don’t want all these good people to have to say negative things.” He told Council that his practice is the only neurosurgical practice in the area, and that his company also offers acupuncture and massage.
Abood said that everyone in the room depended on these surgeons when they get into a car, and said the success of the business – which is good for East Lansing – necessitated more parking.
Mayor Mark Meadows said he thought the business “has been a net positive in the community,” but, he said, the developers understood when they built there that the intention was to leave the lot in question residential, to limit the development's impact on Old Whitehills.
Meadows also took Abood’s company to task for having established a mobile MRI machine in a large truck in the parking lot without proper approval from City Council years earlier.
“That is not acceptable,” he told Abood.
In April 2015, Council gave approval after Abood finally made the proper application for the MRI. But Meadows questioned last week whether a “mobile” MRI is supposed to be operating year-round in a parking lot.
Council Member Ruth Beier, who has on other occasions named neighborhood sentiments as a reason for votes she casts, backed up the residents’ concerns again in this case by asking City planning staff now to look into whether the Compass Health building is in compliance with its site plan.
She asked staff to look into a rear door that was on the plan and appears not to be there, to look into the issue of the MRI and whether it has the proper screening, and to look into the landscaping plan.
On the issue of the lack of landscaping screening, a sore point for the neighborhood, Abood (below) told Council that “what we plant won’t grow.” He said “the small trees don’t grow and the big trees die.”
Abood noted to City Council that City planners had recommended, in a draft of the new Comprehensive Plan, marking the parcel in question for commercial development in the “future land use” map. But by the time the plan was approved by Council, the “future land use” intention for that property had reverted back to residential zoning, following concerns of the neighborhood.
In advance of Council’s consideration of the application last week, East Lansing’s Planning Commission had sided with Old Whitehills residents, voting 7-2 against recommending that Council approve Abood’s latest request.
Old Whitehills homeowner Barbara Hollstein came to the Council podium on Tuesday “to thank the people who have listened to us and our frustrations.” She said residents appreciate what the doctors of Compass Rehabilitation Center have brought to the community, but, she said, this rezoning issue had required the neighborhood to “pool our resources to protect the rights we have.”
Genevieve Fischre also spoke to Council, saying she is 32 years old and grew up in the Old Whitehills home where her parents still live. She said that “the neighborhood has suffered” from the actions of the spine center and that the business had disturbed “the sanctity of the neighborhood.”
She and others have named as problems that the business causes cut-through traffic because Compass Health customers and employees can’t easily turn left (west) on Saginaw Street out of the parking lot, so they instead turn right onto White Pond Road and cut through the neighborhood to get head west.
Fischre read into the record a statement from her mother, Cheryl Fischre, who has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years. Cheryl Fischre named as the reasons for living there “the beautiful streetscapes, the expansive front lawns, mature trees,” close proximity to the library, parks, and schools, “and of course the stately homes.” She said the neighborhood needs and deserves to be safeguarded from the negative impact of commercial development.
After Abood said he was withdrawing the application, Meadows asked City Attorney Tom Yeadon what formal action Council should take. Yeadon told Meadows Council should vote to accept withdrawal of the application and also vote to deny the application’s request.
Council voted 5-0 in favor of one motion accepting the applicant’s withdrawal and also denying the application.
While it is not clear how Council could vote to deny an application that it also voted to withdraw, according to East Lansing zoning administrator David Haywood, regardless, if Abood wants to try again, he’ll have to start all over.
Before the vote, Council Member Shanna Draheim made a verbal disclosure required under the Council’s ethics ordinance that she had received a campaign contribution of $500 from Christopher Abood.
In her remarks to Council, resident Barbara Hollstein told Council there had been one unexpected benefit of the stress of needing to organize politically in Old Whitehills: “we found a new reason to have block parties.”
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