Hamtramck’s Zoning Board of Appeals abruptly reversed itself Monday, allowing a new neighborhood spa to stay open after an initial denial that spurred accusations of discrimination.
The ZBA held a special meeting and voted 6-0 to approve a use variance for Esthi Queen Healing Spa, which is already operating. Nasr Hussain, a member who previously voted no, was not present at the meeting.
The spa, owned by Tiara Boyd, is located at 2456 Florian Street in a structure zoned for residential purposes. Limited commercial uses are allowable, including bars, grocery stores and certain professional offices. Spas and salons, however, are not specifically listed. In order to legally continue operating over the long term, Boyd needed to get approval for a zoning use variance from the ZBA.
After residents complained about parking and safety issues at the previous ZBA meeting on July 14, the board voted to reject the use variance. Boyd, who is Black, questioned the board’s motives:
“It’s a spa. What’s unsafe? What are you going to get from a spa? And the fact that this place is zoned to be a bar or a brewery, or a grocery store [makes it more] ridiculous to me,” Boyd previously told Detour.
She started a petition and held a protest over what she saw as discrimination; other city officials who supported her application echoed her concerns, citing “racially coded” language by opponents of Boyd’s proposal.
Monday’s special meeting was called at the discretion of ZBA chair Thomas Habitz, who said he received word from state Rep. Abraham Ayash that Malek Hussein — a ZBA member who had voted to deny Boyd’s request — was willing to reconsider. The vote allows Boyd to keep the spa open for business in the space she’s leased since March.
ZBA member Eric Anderson, who voted to approve Boyd’s request at both meetings, noted Monday that approving a special use, like a spa in a building that “is very clearly a commercial building even though it is zoned for residential” is part of the ZBA’s core function, particularly while working within the confines of “unique, erroneous zoning from the past.”
“This is the point of the zoning board of appeals, to consider cases where the zoning does not match what I would consider to be a reasonable expectation for the use of a building,” Anderson said.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, one resident of Florian Street identified as Abby reiterated concerns about parking and lamented that race had been made central to the conversation surrounding the denial of a use variance for the spa.
“What upsets me the most is that the business owner and a [ZBA] member brought up race. I believe in equality for everyone, and I assure you that, coming from a neighbor of her business, [race] is not our issue,” she said. “It was taken in the wrong context. What we want is respect…Respect that we have been living here for years, struggling with parking spots, and gaining respect from the buildings around us.”
She concluded, “I hope that after this is resolved we can work together with diversity in unison.”
Bill Meyer, an activist and resident of Hamtramck for the past 25 years, suggested that the Muslim members of the ZBA had been unfairly targeted in the narrative surrounding the rejection of Boyd’s variance request.
“Bringing this up and accusing people of color of being racist is a difficult thing to deal with because Muslims are targets of discrimination also. I’m all for Tiara and her store—I hope it stays open; I support her,” Meyer said. “But I’m also supporting the Muslims in this city who have just finally gotten a voice in some of the councils. To put these three Muslims on the spot and call them racist, humiliate them, and force or convince them they should come here and change their vote—this is not the right way to do it.”
ZBA member Adam Alharbi, who originally voted no on granting the use variance spoke directly to Boyd at tonight’s meeting, saying, “My decision was not based on skin color or who you are.
“Especially in Hamtramck, it’s a very diverse city where everybody is welcome to open a business. I don’t think our board has made any previous decisions based on skin color; our decision was based on hardship. It just happens that the three Muslims didn’t find that hardship was proven.”
The next ZBA meeting will be held in September.