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Black activist denied permission to build restaurant, banquet hall

African-American activist Steve Huston was again turned down Tuesday in his effort to win permission to construct a restaurant and banquet hall on the site of a former restaurant that burned down in 1989.

The city Zoning Board of Appeals defeated Huston's variance request, 4-1. Board member Kevin McCabe said, "We have criteria we have to abide by, whether it's Mr. Huston or anybody else, and it's black and white."

Huston agreed with that, but in terms of skin color, not words on paper.

"This variance board has a chance to make history tonight. They're choosing to keep the old history going of oppression and denial," Huston said. "Everybody can form their own opinion."

Huston, who said before the public hearing that he knew his chances were "slim and none," said he's not done yet.

"I've got to go through the process so I can appeal to the [Common] Council," he said.

The Council can't grant a variance, but it can issue a special use permit if the Planning Board recommends it, according to Chief Building Inspector James P. McCann. Huston tried that route in 2004, but the proposal failed on a tie vote by the Planning Board.

The Zoning Board shot Huston's idea down in 2001, and it did so again Tuesday for the same reasons. Chairman Richard Blackley said Huston's plan simply doesn't meet the criteria to win a variance.

Among them was that the hardship can't be self-created. "He bought this property knowing he couldn't put a restaurant there," Blackley said.

McCann said the former Windmill Terrace, 376 Michigan St., was a pre-existing nonconforming use of the land, which is zoned multifamily residential. Two years after it burned down, the owners won a variance allowing them to construct four four-unit apartment buildings, but they never did. The city foreclosed on the property for nonpayment of taxes in 1999, and Huston bought the lot for $5,200.

Huston said, "I had a [for sale] sign up for a couple of years. Nobody's interested in investing out there."

McCann said the 1991 variance is still in force, because a variance remains in force after the land is sold. That's not the case with a special use permit, which is not transferable and must be renewed annually.

Another requirement is that a variance not change the character of the neighborhood. "If you had a banquet hall, it would have a liquor license. That would change the character of the neighborhood," board member Peter B. Whitmore told Huston.

"You can stay open until 3 a.m. You can play music as loud as you want," member Michael S. Hare chimed in.

Huston noted that none of the neighbors came to the hearing, indicating to him that they don't object to his proposed 40-by-60-foot building. Alderwoman Flora M. McKenzie, the city's first African-American Council member, agreed with that view.

"They're going by their rules," McKenzie, who represents the affected area, said of the Zoning Board. "It's a very confusing situation."

McKenzie wouldn't commit to supporting Huston's request, saying she was still learning how the process works. She's been in office for two months.


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