Nov. 13 2013 12:00 AM

Churches migrate to commercial zones. But what’s the point of a master plan when City Council votes to ignore it?

For the second month in a row, the Lansing City Council is considering whether to allow a church to move into one of the city’s commercial corridors.

In both cases, the city’s Planning Department and citizen-advisory Planning Board advised denying the requests, largely because the church-oriented plans for commercially zoned buildings aren’t compatible with the city’s master plan. Sporadic church activities aren’t meant for areas of the city that deserve a steady influx of people, planners argue.

We saw the Council unanimously buck the planning recommendations last month when it granted Holt-based Riverview Church a special land use permit to move into the former Cadillac Club in the heart of REO Town.

Now comes the Vietnamese American Buddhist Association of Lansing, which has grown out of its traditionally renovated temple on South Washington Avenue. It wants to move into a former restaurant a half-mile away at 3015 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The location, two blocks north of the West Holmes Road and MLK intersection, is zoned commercial near a mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses. It was formerly the Casa Nova restaurant.

Again, the Council is being told by planning staff and the Planning Board that such a move doesn’t fit the city’s comprehensive vision of the future.

But as with Riverview, the Council may argue once again that a church occupant is better than no occupant. Or it will buy into arguments made by the churches that there will indeed be a steady flow of people throughout the week who will in turn patronize nearby businesses.

Maybe so, but it begs the question: What’s the point of the master plan if we don’t stick to it?

“Good question,” said Planning Board member Josh Hovey. “If the Council’s going to continue to ignore the master plan, it really is pointless. It was built with years of community input and it’s a good template for guiding development in the city.”

Bob Johnson, Lansing’s director of planning and neighborhood development, asks: “Where’s our tenacity” in sticking to it? “If (we don’t), then we get this hodgepodge of things going up.”

To be sure, Johnson points out that the 200-page document can only guide planning decisions, not force them by law. Developing the Design Lansing master plan started in 2008, two years after Johnson took office. The early stages involved thousands of community surveys and multiple workshops. The Council adopted the plan in April 2012 — it was the first time it was updated in 54 years.

“For too many years people in Lansing said the city needs a new master plan,” Johnson said. “Well, we have one and we’re proud of it, very committed to it.”

However, the Council — at least with Riverview — unanimously voted contrary to how the planning staff interprets the plan. First Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington, whose district includes the new Riverview Church in REO Town, pointed to check-cashing and liquor stores surrounding the proposed location for the Buddhist association.

“I don’t see where this building would be a detriment,” she said. “It may be a stabilizer for that neighborhood. I don’t see it as an unfavorable option.”

While Washington called the master plan “a really good idea — and I would certainly like to stay as much as possible to that — I don’t think it needs to be rigid.”

Johnson worries that the work of those who put in the time updating the master plan — his staff, consultants, stakeholders and the community — is being overlooked when the Council, or, say, a church, argues on the contrary.

Several association members told the Council at a public hearing last week that the group has grown out of its space on South Washington Avenue and a lack of parking has caused safety issues. The request was sent back to the Council’s Development and Planning Committee for further discussion.

Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles, whose ward includes the new location for the Buddhist association, doesn’t

“have a problem” with the Buddhist association renovating it and moving in. A church tenant is better than no tenant, she said.

“I think we certainly have a reason for being commercial in areas, but we’re not going to be stagnate,” she said. “In cases where we have a building that is not being utilized, it’s much more important to get a good owner in that will utilize the property. At this point, in our neighborhoods in south Lansing specifically, we have a glut of vacant buildings. It would behoove us to fill them.”

Johnson replied: “If that were the argument, then every vacant building up for sale is fair game.”

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has said he was “ambivalent” toward the Riverview proposal, largely because when churches take over commercial spaces, the buildings come off the tax rolls. He said he would have been less so if the church even paid 50 percent of taxes on the property.

The filling-vacant-space argument was also made in 2010 when Abundant Grace Faith Church spent months before the Council with a special land use permit request to move into a former Farmer Jack grocery store at 5750 S. Cedar St.

The Council — after the Planning Department recommended denial and the Planning Board recommended approval — unanimously approved the request with a series of conditions, including that the church couldn’t object to any nearby businesses, new liquor licenses and, if necessary, that it would pay for traffic signals.

But Hovey, of the Planning Board, said it hasn’t resulted in an influx of commercial activity there.

“I think that’s where we really learned our lesson. The city was sold on the same message that Riverview Church provided,” Hovey said, with proponents emphasizing a constant flow of people and no one else wanting to buy the big-box store. “That clearly isn’t working. It hasn’t really added to the vibrancy of the region. All we can do now is hope that the same mistake wasn’t made again by Council.

“Settling for good enough isn’t always the wisest choice.”

Abundant Grace Faith Church Pastor Louis Dixon could not be reached for comment. But Johnson echoed Hovey’s history lesson.

“History has shown us over the years that there’s a certain flow and level of activity with religious places of worship,” Johnson said. “It is what it is. To contribute to a commercial district, the evidence isn’t there.”