Encore learning a new script in city planning process | requests tabled at latest PC meeting


| 7 min | by Doug Marrin |

Stories with a happy ending tend to first work through difficulties to reach their grand and exciting finale. Such may be the case for Dexter’s cherished Encore Musical Theatre as they continue their bid to create a performing arts center.

It was a tough night at the Dexter Planning Commission on May 4, 2020, meeting held via Zoom. The big agenda item for the evening was the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s plans to remodel the Copeland School property, but the proceedings turned difficult.

The question the Planning Commission wrestled with is whether a commercial theatre (albeit non-profit) in the middle of a residential neighborhood meets the standards for ultimately protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the community. Balancing the desires/needs of a business against the desires/needs of the neighboring residents is difficult, often frustrating both sides.

“In order to recommend approval, the Planning Commission must determine if the applicant has satisfactorily addressed the concerns it cited for the postponement,” stated Community Development Manager Michelle Aniol in her report to the Planning Commission.

Specifically, the Encore was seeking two things from the Planning Commission: 1) Conditional rezoning from residential to Village Commercial to allow for the adaptive reuse, and 2) Special land use permit allowing adaptive reuse of a building larger than 10,000 sq. ft. The Copeland building is 22,040 sq. ft.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is in the process of purchasing the old school building, constructed in 1936, with the intention of converting it into a performing arts center featuring live musical stage productions.

A public hearing for the two requests was held by the Planning Commission at its April 6 meeting. In the ensuing discussion, the Commission elected to postpone a decision on the two requests until its May meeting in order to give Encore time to address eight areas of concern. The item garnering almost all of the discussion is parking.

At last Monday’s follow-up meeting, the subject of parking was as far as things went.

As first discussed in April, the commissioners’ concern with parking is in regards to the side streets of Hudson, Edison, and Fourth where drivers are allowed to park along the shoulder of the roads leaving their vehicles partially in the traffic lane. The concern of the Commission is what impact this constricted traffic flow might have on the neighborhood. This has been the practice of patrons attending events put on by the schools and Dexter Community Players.

In its application, Encore originally stated, “the building will be in use 7 days a week, generally from 10 am through 11 pm for auditioning, casting, rehearsing, building and mounting musical theatre productions and other events. Encore anticipates 250 evening performances each year.”

The increase in events was a concern at the April meeting. In a letter to the Commission responding to the concerns, Encore amended the number of performances to a realistic 125 which is the average over its past 12 years of production. The original 250 was described as an “extreme maximum” as requested on the application.

“In all reality, I’m not sure that The Encore could provide more evenings of entertainment even if we wanted to, given that each production requires a certain amount of money and time to prepare, build and rehearse,” said Encore’s Executive Director Dan Cooney in the letter.

Seating capacity is another issue that is unclear for the Commission. Encore’s pre-application plan desired a maximum seating of 300. The commissioners are unclear from the submitted request as to what the actual maximum seating may be.

In its letter, Encore addressed concern over seating capacity saying “Copeland was rented/used for performances by Dexter Community Schools last year for approximately 181 days, with larger seating arrangements than The Encore will require.”

Also included was one example: “The Dexter High School’s production of Cinderella alone involved 100+student cast and crew members over a period of seven weeks. This means that, for just this one production, there were 100+ people in and out of Copeland on a regular basis for the first six weeks of rehearsal. Once the audience was added to this 275-seat house, there were 375 people occupying the Copeland auditorium every night for a week. Most of the other high school productions were set up to fill 200 – 240 seats.”

“The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s average cast and crew runs closer to 35 people, with average seating per show on the scale of 167 seats,” the letter stated in concluding the point.

While this may well be the case, however, information submitted to planning commissions needs to be vetted and documented in order to be accepted and considered. This process was a difficult lesson for the Encore at the meeting. The lack of verification is what frustrated the Commission.

The City responded to Encore’s claim with, “the applicant has not provided any documentation that would verify the auditoriums existing or proposed seating capacity, such as a dimensioned floor plan layout or photographs of the existing auditorium. Further, the applicant has not amended the conditional rezoning agreement to reflect statements made in the April 13, 2020, correspondence regarding the seating capacity, number of performances, and number of cast and crew members.”

A casual observer to the meeting may have very well thought that on one side you have a non-profit organization that has done wonderful and magnificent work in the City of Dexter for more than a decade. Everybody loves this group and is excited to see them flourish and expand. But as proficient as this group is on stage, they are unfamiliar with due process in the navigation of ordinances and codes.

One the other side is a governmental body responsible to the residents to make sure said ordinances, codes, and processes are properly followed when changing the community. To achieve this involves outside verification for a lot of the information submitted. It is the responsibility of the applicant to vet and document the pertinent and requested information.

Seating capacity drives parking needs. The number of performances determines the impact on the neighborhood.

Plot twist: There is enough parking in and around the Copeland building. The zoning ordinance requires one (1) parking space for every three (3) seats in the theatre.  So, the number of parking spaces for a 300 seat theatre would be 100; a 250 seat theatre would require 83 parking spaces; a 200 seat theatre would require 66 parking spaces, and so on.

In response to the Commission’s concerns regarding parking, Encore stated that there are “128 improved parking spots within a three-minute walk from Copeland’s entrances, comprised of” 1) “78 public parking spots between Inverness and Dover on Dexter-Ann Arbor Road” and 2) “50 additional parking spots in Copeland’s private parking lot”. Additionally, “there are 100-plus semi-improved or unimproved parking spots located all around the building, extending in every direction” and “there is enough parking available for a 684-seat theatre.”

More than enough spots, but that is not the issue for the Commission. The issue is the verification of information being submitted.

“The Alta/ACSM Land Title Survey that Encore submitted verifies there are currently 50 parking spaces available on the Copeland property. Encore also submitted marked-up Google map photos identifying 78 improved parking spots along Ann Arbor Rd. in proximity to the location. No documentation was submitted verifying the 100-plus semi-improved or unimproved parking spots located around the building.”

Another frustration for the Planning Commission was a lack of consistent information regarding maximum seating capacity. The Commission wants to see the dimensioned floor plan layout for the proposed theatre. The plan would also need to include on-street parking that could be used. At the April meeting, the Commission strongly recommended exploring a possible parking arrangement with nearby St. Andrew’s Church. There was no report of having done that.

With the information presented repeatedly described as “incomplete,” Commissioner Jim Carty made the motion to deny Encore their two requests. Jim Smith supported the motion.

Carty shared his thoughts with the Commission saying, “I think this project is fundamentally incompatible with the neighborhood. I think it’s too intensive of a use. I think that the parking has obviously been a problem to all of us from the beginning. I think this response from the applicant did not address it. It was, I have to say fundamentally disappointing. I fully expected to be voting in favor of this. I think it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of our concerns, and what we talked about at the last meeting.”

Commission member Thom Phillips stated his thoughts on the project. “I think that this adaptive reuse for an existing building is a unique opportunity for the city. I think Encore has operated their business in the city for years very successfully without an issue. I think this is an overreaction over the parking. We have public parking for a reason – to be used by businesses.”

While Phillips disagreed with Carty on the impact to the neighborhood, he concurred regarding the inadequate plans. “I am also disappointed about the thoroughness and seriousness of this application. I think the applicant could have done better there with his consultants.”

Chairperson Matt Kowalski echoed what was being said. “I really want to support this project. I think in some ways this is a great fit for that building, almost perfect. But what’s very frustrating here, I think, is the lack of seriousness for any of our issues.”

The Commission’s discussion circled around the lack of necessary documentation for parking, but also for some of the other eight concerns the Commission had from the April 8 meeting. Dan Cooney was also attending the Zoom meeting and was asked if he would like to table the two requests instead of risking a vote of refusal by the Planning Commission.

Before Dan could reply, Paul Cook, cofounder of the Encore spoke impassionately to the Commission. “I just don’t get this. I mean, all we want is for Dexter to succeed. We don’t have any ulterior motives. We’ve become the number one Google entity in Dexter. We’ve become a destination, and I’m watching this go away. I don’t understand some of these ulterior motives.”

Development Manager Aniol, who at times through the evening acted more as a moderator, interjected by saying, “I understand how deeply invested you are, and I don’t mean that only from a financial. There’s an emotional investment here. We recognize that. What I’m asking, and what the Planning Commission needs to know, from Dan is would you like the Planning Commission to table this tonight.”

Dan Cooney told the Commission that he would like to table his requests.

Phillips then made the motion to table the Encore’s requests, Commissioner Karen Roberts, who also expressed disappointment in the lack of preparedness, seconded the motion.

Roberts went on to say, “I fully appreciate their frustration with us … but I don’t really think they understand what our job is. I think all of us want Encore to be here. All of us, along with 98% of the citizenry here. But we have to protect it. We have that interest too.”

Roberts went on to explain that the Encore’s requests are creating “a custom district here,” and the impact upon existing residents have to be considered in these plans. Her reasons for tabling the requests are to hopefully give Encore the chance to think it through in detail more carefully and explore recommendations that have been made.

The motion to table the requests nullified the prior motion to deny the requests. The Commission passed the motion to table the requests by a margin of 6-2. The requests will be revisited at the June meeting.

In spite of the seemingly antagonistic nature of the meeting, Development Manager Aniol stated in an email, “I’m confident the applicant will be able to address the concerns raised by the planning commission.”