Op-Ed: What’s a “Special Project” in the City of Rochester?

Op-Ed: What’s a “Special Project” in the City of Rochester?

By Sue Ann Douglas for Rochester Media

That’s a good question, I hear questions and complaints on a regular basis, and I couldn’t answer that question and why things seem to be happening that threaten our historic and quaint downtown.

Rochester, Where You Live

Rochester, Where You Live

Therefore, here’s what I’ve found out. The City’s goal through their new Master Plan is density. You heard me right but I’ll say it louder DENSITY. They tell me that’s what everyone wants. However, when you look at the Master Plan you will see zoning districts with heights no higher than three stories not the 5 to 6 stories that are being considered and approved.

The City created what are called “Special Project” areas in the Master Plan. These areas appear include all of the pre 1980 existing apartments in the City, all of East Street, All of Walnut Street, all of the industrial area on Diversion, parts of Downtown Pine street and South Street and all of the East side of Letica from Romeo to Second Street.

The area is massive and if developers can get their hands on the land, anything up to six stories is possible. The City has approved a five story building (mostly senior citizen assisted living and independent living) for the corner of Letica and Parkdale. A three-story building will soon be erected at the location of the Hollywood Gas Station on the NE corner of Main Street and Romeo Road and a three story building has been approved on the property just south of the WWII War Memorial. Our skyline will be rapidly changing.

Rendering provided by Designhaus Architecture

Rendering provided by Designhaus Architecture

The “Special Project” method being used by the Planning Commission and City Council doesn’t give the community much of a chance to be heard. Since our city structured this change to the Zoning Ordinance with only one Public Hearing, which is held at the Planning Commission (a council appointed body) and it requires NO public hearing before our elected body – the City Council.

The “Special Project” ordinance mandates that the underlying zoning not be changed. Therefore, the residential building on Parkdale and Letica will go up on one of our 52 industrial sites in the City.

It really doesn’t matter what the Planning Commission says, either. The City Council can do whatever it wants to do as the assistant City Manager pointed out at a recent meeting. That means that the council can do whatever it wants to do with no Public Hearing or notification of property owners within 300 feet. This is a highlight of what I find to be the most offensive parts of the “Special Project” overlay.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. It uses the “Special Exception” notification and Public Hearing process which is an entirely different type of zoning change. Almost all districts have additional uses that are listed as a Special Exception. For example, schools and churches are a special exception use in a residential district with Planning Commission approval.

A “Special Project” is like a big black hole on our zoning map where the City Council can do anything it wants to do up to six stories high.

You find the entire “Special Project” ordinance under in the Zoning Ordinance at Muni Code under the City of Rochester, MI:


Is this what you envisioned for City of Rochester’s future?

Correction: The buildings that will be going up on Main & Romeo and the one on Pine Street south of the war memorial are not in Special Project district. The height in both areas is allow to be 35 feet to the mid-line of the roof and 3 stories can fit into that maximum height. However, these buildings do demonstrate the density push by the City.



  1. Nancy Boughner says

    With the new development at the corner of North Main St. and Romeo St., the city council is making a bad intersection even worse.

  2. Sue Ann Douglas says

    You’re probably right, Nancy.

  3. Sue Ann Douglas says

    Correction: The buildings that will be going up on Main & Romeo and the one on Pine Street south of the war memorial are not in Special Project district. The height in both areas is allow to be 35 feet to the midline of the roof and 3 stories can fit into that maximum space. However, they do demonstrate the density push by the City.

  4. Sue, where is the WWII memorial you mentioned?

  5. I’m fine with it. Rochester needs to stay vibrant and grow with the times. I love history and to reminisce about “they way things were”, but I also accept positive progress. Our city leaders are doing the right thing. If they’re not then vote them out, but I don’t hear anyone clamoring to do that.
    I live in a tight subdivision downtown that has recently experienced a surge in redevelopment with larger footprint homes. It increases the value of my home, which is my only source of retirement. I plan to sell once the value reaches $1 million and then I’m heading off to a small town somewhere in the desert.

  6. Marty Stephens says

    1) It seems to me that there should be LESS traffic in and out of this site than there is now – residents who leave for work in the morning & return in the evening, with fewer people coming & going randomly throughout the day.
    2) I don’t think that this building will be any taller than St. Phillips, across the street.
    3) I don’t think that there are any residences on the west side of Main whose sightlines will be significantly affected, and no residences on the east that will be shadowed by the new building.
    4) I’m not too concerned about the developments along Letica, as I don’t believe that they’ll have a major impact on the sightlines from the housing to the north and west: those homes an townhouses are either on higher ground, or screened by trees (the homes to the north are already buffered from Parkdale Rd.)
    5) All that being said – I AM curious about the notion of “density”. Sue Ann’s remarks imply that “density” is desired by the City Council, and I don’t know what that means. If it means packing more residents within the city borders by changing single-family zoning to multiple (apts, condos, etc.) well, I don’t know that I like that. If it means converting industrial/commercial to multi-family residential – that might not be so bad.
    A big thanks to Sue Ann for highlighting this, and I do believe that it’s time that I attend a couple Council meetings.

    • Sue Ann Douglas says

      Please do attend some City Council meetings and Planning Commission meetings. Also, check out the City’s Master Plan. There is a link to it in the side bar on the left side of the City’s home page on their website.
      The special project law is in the Rochester Zoning Ordinance on Muni Code, a website that lists city codes, zoning ordinances and charters used by most municipalipaties.

    • Sue Ann Douglas says

      Density means packing more residential, commercial and mixes use into the city. The area’s marked ‘Special Project” on the Zoning maps that show future uses in the master plan are allowed to have up to 6 stories. The code for the ‘Special Project’ area is listed above the zoning district color codes. As you can see, it is a huge area.

      • Sue Ann Douglas says

        The building on the corner of Romeo and Main will have a dental office and other offices on the first floor and somewhere around 80 on-site parking spaces were required with ingress and egress on Romeo. I doubt that the intersection congestion will decrease.

  7. Sue Ann Douglas says

    Typo above – it will have around 40 (forty) parking spaces. I’m sorry for mis-type.

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