The city Planning Commission has already voted 4-0 to approve the ordinance with Commissioner Arne Olson, an executive with Comerica Bank, abstaining. Last Tuesday, the measure was quietly placed on the City Council's "consent" portion of its agenda for another smooth vote of approval, until Councilman Jerry Thorne blew the whistle. Much to Mayor Jennifer Hosterman's dismay, Thorne insisted that the vote be postponed until he had a better understanding of its ramifications. Three council members agreed and the measure will be decided on April 3.
What concerns the PDA and downtown retailers is that banks don't attract shoppers. Bankers' hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and often on Saturday mornings are much shorter than those with retail shops and restaurants. Drive along Main Street any night or weekend and you'll see considerable dead space at the banks. They're also considered destinations for those who bank with them, not places where shoppers stop between buying downtown merchandise or dining. But they do have one main attraction: Banks are long-term tenants who pay their rent on time and seldom move out.
The ordinance amendment under consideration, although aimed at the Opus application to take over the Past Time Pool building at 511 Main St., would essentially allow the city to make an informed decision about the placement of banks, not ban them outright. The change does not prohibit banks downtown but simply allows some evaluation so that shopping, dining and entertainment-related uses such as restaurants and retail are not permanently eliminated from the downtown. Banks are vitally important, but the exact location is also a relevant consideration. The change would provide time for that type of deliberation.
Councilman Thorne questions the goal. While he agrees that downtown retailers need a boost to generate more business and profits, curtailing one type of business could be risky. He asked Tuesday night if those backing the new ordinance believe it is the city government's right to single out banks from the downtown district while not addressing other businesses, such as a growing number of spas and salons. By requiring financial institutions, including finance companies, credit unions and savings and loan offices as well as banks, to first seek approval from city staff and then the Planning Commission, the ordinance would create a process that could take six months. After paying all of the costs of seeking those approvals, the financial business could still be rejected. Thorne thinks that while not banning new downtown banks outright, the new rule will make it so difficult for them to locate here that they'll likely go elsewhere.
Peter MacDonald, a downtown attorney who is active in the PDA, opposes the new ordinance. In an email to the Planning Commission on Feb. 21, he warned that the immediate impact of this new ordinance will be "zoning blight." In this case, the bank prohibition will probably cause the Past Time Pool building to remain "unrehabilitated," a typical example of those who advance self-serving measures to drive out the good. Historically, he points out, higher vacancy rates are a frequent outcome of mandatory first floor retail ordinances. But the government never helps make mortgage payments on the resulting vacant buildings. Anytime a potential business is subject to a conditional use permit requirement, it is bad news for the business. It adds an automatic six months to the time required to open.
At Thorne's request and because of the interest of the PDA and some officials to get the new ordinance on the books before Opus closes on its purchase of the Past Time Pool building, the new ordinance will be part of the City Council's full agenda at its next meeting on April 3. It should be a lively one.