Monday, Oct. 14 — Despite objections from the city’s Planning Department and concerns from the LGBT community, the Lansing City Council unanimously approved a request tonight from a Holt-based church to expand into REO Town.
The several-thousand-member Riverview Church is looking to make a more urban footprint, church officials said tonight, rather than expanding into a suburban mega church. All eight City Council members agreed, despite objections from the city’s Planning Department that it’s not contiguous with its surroundings, nor does it conform with the city’s master plan.
The issue raised questions about how much authority the Council has in adhering to the zoning code and the master plan and whether churches represent “mixed use.”
The church plans to spend upwards of $1.2 million to repurpose the former Cadillac Club on Washington Avenue into a church and banquet center. It intends to form a limited liability company for a portion of the property that, in turn, would come back onto the tax rolls. The church was initially seeking a liquor license, but backed off because any of its alcohol-serving needs could be met with special caterers.
Riverview hopes to break ground in the next week and be moved in by spring.
While tonight’s vote was unanimous and eight members of the public spoke in support of the request (five of whom were church members), the contention between the administration and the Council played out in the Development and Planning Committee before the full Council meeting.
How much should SLU cover?
Committee members Derrick Quinney, Jody Washington and Chairman Brian Jeffries were upset over a memo from Bob Johnson, director of planning and neighborhood development, they had received about an hour before the meeting. In it, the administration said it was “imperative” that the church establish the for-profit entity before the SLU is approved.
Church employee Eddie Cloutier called the administration’s position “spurious.” Pastor Noel Heikkinen later said it would have been a deal-breaker because the church wants the flexibility of having the SLU cover the entire property, in case the church needs to use the for-profit space for church services.
Quinney, suspicious that the administration was playing politics by trying to hold up the project, told Johnson, “You’re full of you fill in the blank.” Washington said she was “thoroughly disgusted,” “dumbfounded” and “so baffled” (not in that particular order) with the administration.
Johnson said it was Mayor Virg Bernero’s request to have the for-profit piece set in stone before the project went forward. “No one on the administration side knows whether this is a deal-breaker,” he said. “To imply we know it is a deal-breaker, I have to take exception.”
Unrelated to how much of the property the SLU would cover, the City Attorney’s Office refused to sign off on tonight’s resolution that said it would be consistent with the city’s zoning code and master plan. The Planning Department and the citizen-advisory Planning Board each said it is inconsistent with both.
Assistant City Attorney Donald Kulhanek said if the Council approved the resolution saying it is consistent with the master plan, it would basically open the Council up to any future determination of what is consistent with the master plan.
In part of its recommendation, a Planning Department staff report says: “A storefront church in such a setting would undermine the efforts to develop a vibrant commercial area.”
However, Council members pointed toward examples of SLUs being granted to other churches downtown and on main commercial corridors, including Crossroads Church on Allegan Street downtown between Biggby and Grand Traverse Pie Co.
Ultimately, Jeffries said the Council is responsible for making its own determination and the planning board and department’s recommendations are just that: a recommendation.
The Church and the Council defended the idea that Riverview will be an economic driver in REO Town, bringing in patrons to nearby establishments and generally creating a destination within the city for churchgoers.
“We believe it is consistent with the master plan,” Jeffries said.
If it had taken the staff’s and attorney’s advice, Cloutier said in committee, “It renders the Council as a rubber-stamp organization. It renders you powerless.”
Stay tuned to how the Council interprets the master plan when it soon considers a special land use request from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The chamber believes its proposal to build a surface parking lot downtown is consistent with the master plan, but faced similar opposition as Riverview from the Planning Department.
Riverview and gay rights
Following tonight’s meeting, Riverview Pastor Noel Heikkinen responded to questions about the church’s position on gay rights. Specifically, a REO Town resident had called out the church in a letter to the Council over a Riverview website that says it helps people “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
“We have Republicans, Democrats, members who are gay and straight, and we’re going to point them all to Jesus,” he said, indicating that the church includes a diverse population.
Asked if it follows the basic premise of: “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” Heikkinen bristled, saying, “I hate that statement.” He pointed to a recent blog post he wrote about the subject. Heikkinen prefers to say, “Love people. Hate sin.”
“A lot of people think it’s a quote from the Bible, but it’s not,” he wrote. “The concepts are there (kinda), but not the quote itself. Now don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot of good in this idea, but what I don’t like is how much it feels like a pointed finger. It’s like what we are really saying is, ‘love THAT sinner and hate HIS sin.’
“But here’s the deal: we are all that sinner and we all sin.”
Meanwhile, the LGBT community eyes a federal judge’s ruling coming Wednesday that could overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. If it were legal in Michigan, would Riverview officiate a same-sex marriage?
“No, we wouldn’t,” Heikkinen said. “We hold to a traditional view on marriage. However, it doesn’t change” who the church welcomes. “We don’t have a belligerent tone, we just will point them toward Jesus.”
At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who led the Council’s effort to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in 2006, stood by those credentials tonight in defense of the church.
Citing discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations (from which the ordinance protects individuals), “You are not doing any of those things,” Dunbar said. “I’m confident moving forward on that front.”
Niowave saga ends
In other development news, the Council unanimously approved a six-year personal property tax exemption for Lansing particle-accelerator company Niowave Inc. You might recall that the company built a 14,000-square-foot pole barn smack dab in the middle of the Walnut Neighborhood and unveiled it to disconcerted neighbors 15 months ago.
It took 14 months of negotiations between the neighborhood, the city and the company to come to an agreement, but the parties finally got there in early September, which includes a redesign of the façade.
Councilman Brian Jeffries wondered where that miniature pole barn resident Dale Schrader built and parked outside Niowave’s headquarters in protest.
Come to think of it, I wonder, too.