Business development bumps heads with Mother Nature in Kalamazoo

Can a busy, commercial development coexist next to a pristine, quiet nature preserve?

People are waiting to see, as plans are being shaped for a mixed-use business/retail center on the western border of the city of Kalamazoo. An Indiana-based developer plans to craft space for a car wash and other businesses in some of what is now 17 acres of primarily wooded land off the southeast corner of Stadium Drive and Drake Road. That is just north of the Asylum Lake Land Preserve.

Drive & Shine car wash developer Haji Tehrani, of South Bend, Ind., has said his operations recycle water and use much less water than typical car washes. He has said his car wash here will be approximately 110 feet away from Big Asylum Lake and will use systems to safeguard the land preserve from effluents from the car wash.

Concerned area citizens are working to try to make sure the project does not negatively impact the neighboring 274-acre preserve, which is a refuge for birds and small wildlife, and a greenspace for public enjoyment.

And the spill from a washout at the BTR II site across Drake Road from the Preserve resulted in a plume of silt which entered the lake on June 20 has citizens on alert. This event, which is under investigation by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has increased observers' worry about the damage to the lake and the preserve that could come from the removal of trees and the bulldozing that would be necessary for a commercial development to be built on the lake's north shore.  

“We’re going to do whatever we can to minimize the impact of the development – to maintain the environmental integrity of the preserve,” says John Kreuzer, co-chairman of the Asylum Lake Preservation Association. “That’s our focus. That’s our mission.”

The organization, which got its start in 1990, has used social media in recent months to rally people to standing-room-only gatherings on the topic at Kalamazoo City Hall.

“I think everyone’s holding their breath,” says Lauri Holmes, who co-chairs the Asylum Lake Preservation Association with Kreuzer. “I think everybody is holding their breath to see what’s going to happen.”

Lauri Holmes, co-chairperson of the Asylum Lake Preservation Association.All are waiting for DNS Stadium Drive LLC, an investment group led by Tehrani, to submit official plans to convert some of the local land it has acquired into commercial space. It is expected to house one of Tehrani’s growing chain of Drive & Shine car washes. There are more than a half-dozen locations in northern Indiana. Meanwhile, space that previously housed the former Davenport University location at 4123 W. Main St. has been demolished and is poised to become home of yet another Drive & Shine car wash, operated by Tehrani. It is located in Kalamazoo Township.

On Stadium, a restaurant and rental housing have also been mentioned as potential tenants for the property as it is developed in three phases.

Preservationists worry that the development of all but the northernmost portion of the property on Stadium Drive near Drake Road will remove trees and natural landscape that shelter Asylum Lake from the noise and congestion of Stadium Drive. Over the past five years, that traffic artery has become very fertile ground for new retail stores, restaurants and banking institutions. The catalyst was the redevelopment of more than 40 acres of mostly wooded land off the northwest corner of Stadium Drive and Drake Road. It was cleared to become home to a retail center with the area’s first Costco Warehouse Membership Club store.

Holmes says the potential for a negative impact on the Asylum Lake Land Preserve can be seen as a result of the across-the-street development anchored by Costco. It sits on the west side of Drake Road, adjacent to U.S. 131.

“They’ve taken down the trees,” Holmes says. “They’ve burned them up. And now you can hear the traffic from U.S. 131 more than you used to be able to.”

Speaking of the proposed car wash project, which is expected to face Stadium Drive, she says, “When those trees on Stadium go down, you’ll hear the Stadium Drive traffic. Man will be pushing his presence into the preserve. Animals will go away. Birds will go away.”

Kreuzer says greenspace is vital to the city and he sees the city’s ability to manage this development project as an opportunity “to be in touch with what is really real – water, trees, grass. That’s my interest.”

Repeated attempts to contact Tehrani, the attorney representing DNS Stadium Drive LLC, or a spokesperson for the organization were not successful.

A site plan by Tehrani will face review not only by the Kalamazoo Planning Commission, it may be the first large project considered by a new Natural Features Protection Review Board.

On May 20, the Kalamazoo City Commission approved a Natural Features Protection Overlay District. It maps areas that have natural features – such as grasslands, wetlands and natural slopes -- that should be maintained or considered when new development is proposed. On June 3, the commission approved a seven-member Natural Features Protection Review Board to review such projects.

Beyond that, site plans for any new development in the city need a recommendation from city staff members before they are forwarded to the Kalamazoo City Commission for approval. In the case of the Drive & Shine car wash project at Stadium and Drake, it appears that a zoning change will also be necessary. The property is presently zoned for residential uses. It needs to be approved for commercial uses if the car wash project is to proceed.

Through Tuesday, June. 25, those filings had not been made.
The Asylum Lake Preserve is a 274-acre property owned by Western Michigan University. The university was deeded the land years ago on the grounds that it be maintained as a natural land preserve.

“There are varying opinions on what should and should not occur there,” Bob Miller says of the car wash project at Stadium and Drake, “and it will ultimately be up to the city because -- for any project to move forward -- it will need approval from the Natural Features Protection Review Board.”

Miller is associate vice president of community outreach for WMU.

Asked what it would take to make the developer, the preservationists, the public and WMU happy, he says, “There are many, many steps that need to play out before a project emerges.”

“From the university’s perspective, No. 1, we are absolutely committed to the health and the future of the Asylum Lake Preserve and at this point, that’s the end of the story. Whether the proposed development will have to go through site plan approval or a potential ordinance change, all of that will need to be decided by the city. And so the university, other than the general statement of wanting to be supportive, we’re just staying neutral.”

Kreuzer says he would like Kalamazoo to be a city that has greenspace there on its western border (Drake Road). “I think it presents a great opportunity for the community, for the city, … to say how this is a wonderful resource.” He also described Asylum Lake as an important gateway to the city.­­­­

Asked what it would take to make all parties happy, Jamie McCarthy, development project coordinator for the city of Kalamazoo, says she cannot answer that question from her perspective.

“The city’s rule always is allowing and listening to the public and at the same time, the city has rules for development and state statutes that we have to follow,” she says.

The city allows and encourages individuals and companies to develop and improve properties and it has statutes that set rules and guidelines for how that can be accomplished to protect the interests of the people of Kalamazoo. Her office will do what its constituents want, according to the guidelines that are set.

Holmes urges anyone who wants to be involved in the discussion to write a letter or send an email to the Kalamazoo Planning Commission “to let them know they want this (the Asylum Lake area) to be as natural as possible.”

She says city officials and others who want to do things right “need a constituency. They need us.”

She says if the car wash development goes forward, she would like to see the footprint of the site plan reduced so that it would be “a very narrow strip along Stadium Drive of quiet, low-rise buildings.”

“We’re not fighting city hall,” Holmes says. “City hall has been helpful. … I cannot say enough about how really talented and dedicated the commission, the planning people, the government people (have been). That’s why they need us. They really need to know that we’re there with them.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.