Commission tells developer meet with residents before land sale talks continue

A plot of land adjacent to the former Leon Theater is being negotiated for sale by the City Commission.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Negotiations for the sale of a small city-owned plot of land on West Tennessee Street is on pause until after the Frenchtown Neighborhood Association meets with developers who want to buy the property.

Chicago-based Peerless Developers presented their plan for a mixed use structure to the City Commission last Wednesday. It was met with opposition from residents who spoke before the commission voted 3-2 to wait for the outcome of a meeting between Frenchtown residents and Peerless representatives.

The developers plan to build 300 residential units, with about 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the land that runs from Macomb Street to the location of Chubby’s Chicken on Tennessee Street. The city-owned portion sits between Chubby’s and the former Leon Theater that was last used as Haven of Rest. The project, if approved, can only begin once a professional and thorough survey has been carried out by servicemen similar to expert boundary surveyors to determine the exact proportions of the property that is planned on being used.

However, commissioners hedged on approving the plans after Joseph Patrick spoke for the developers. Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox insisted that the plans can’t move forward without forming a Community Action Team to arrange the meeting.

If the meeting results in an agreement between residents and the developer Williams-Cox said money from the sale should go to affordable housing or housing for the homeless.

“What I am in favor of is some housing that will help us with some affordable housing, help us with some homeless housing,” Williams-Cox said.

Patrick answered affirmatively when he was asked if he favored having the meeting.

Peerless “absolutely wants to sit at the table and engage with the local community; hear what they need (and) hear what they desire,” he said.

City staff informed the commissioners that the quarter acre land hasn’t been appraised. No other offer was made public for the purchase.

Patrick said negotiations have been ongoing for purchase of the lots where Furrin Auto and Chubby’s Chicken are located. Adding the portion owned by the city could give developers the space they need for the plan, Patrick said.

If it turns out that the land is sold with the intent of using money from the sale for affordable housing, it will have to be earmarked specifically for use in Frenchtown. Normally money realized from sale of city-owned property goes into its Deficiency Fund.

Commissioners Jeremy Matlow and Jack Porter, who voted against the board’s decision, expressed concerned that there was no bidding nor appraisal done for the property. Matlow also expressed doubt that the developers will oblige the will of Frenchtown residents.

“We are setting it up for failure,” Matlow said, before voting against the sale. “We are setting up for a conversation that’s not going to be delivered on for the Frenchtown neighborhood.”

Part of his pessimism stems from the fact that the city has a policy that allows sale of property without bidding. He and several of the speakers pointed to the sale off of Gaines Street for $4 million, without bidding.

“We are using the exception as the rule,” Porter said. “I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to continue to proceed with selling off public land. Even as the policy stated, there is no way for us to determine today if it’s in the best interest of the city. We are not even discussing a dollar amount.”

At the heart of the reaction expressed by Frenchtown residents is the fact that the property is included in the Frenchtown First Neighborhood plan. That plan was approved by the commission in September, with $2 million in start-up funds.

“We simply ask that you pause,” Kenny Barber, a member of the neighborhood association, told commissioners. “Give us an opportunity to engage with the developer with your staff to determine if their synergies within our plan opportunities for collaboration or at least to discuss what the community benefits may be.”