Convexity Plan Now Includes The Graduate Hotel, Screened Parking

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Thursday, March 23, 2017, 10:40 am
Alice Dreger

Above: An artist’s still-in-progress rendering of what DRW/Convexity is hoping to build at the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue.

East Lansing’s Planning Commission heard last night from representatives of DRW/Convexity about their latest plans for the Park District area. The developers say the plans specifically respond to concerns raised by various constituents in East Lansing. At the meeting last night, feedback from citizens and commissioners to the latest designs was generally positive.

If built as is being proposed by DRW/Convexity, the new twelve-story building at the blighted northwest corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue would feature a hotel called The Graduate. This is a hotel chain that specializes in localized boutique hotels in college towns. Existing hotels in The Graduate chain can be found in Ann Arbor, Oxford (Mississippi), Charlottesville, Tempe, Madison (Wisconsin), and Athens (Georgia).

The hotel at DRW/Convexity’s “Building A” would include 162 guest rooms, meeting rooms, a ballroom, and outdoor entertaining space associated with the ballroom. The entry to the hotel would be on Abbot Road under a sheltered overhang. The developers envision that the hotel would be used by visitors to MSU as well as for events like weddings at Peoples Church, next door.

The developers say the hotel would expect to have on the ground level a good restaurant as a key amenity for hotel guests. In their promotional materials, The Graduate hotel chain promotes hotel-attached restaurants and coffee shops as key meeting spots for local residents and guests.

The hotel would be concentrated in a 12-story section on the east (Abbot Road) side of the property. On the west (Peoples Church) side would be another 12-story section housing 121 market-rate rental apartments. Along the north (Albert Avenue) side would be a 12-story section attaching the east and west twelve-story sections, essentially creating a “u” shape. Market-rate rentals would include 26 efficiency, 61 one-bedroom, 24 two-bedroom, and 10 three-bedroom units.

Most of the first floor of Building A would be dedicated to retail space. DRW/Convexity’s representatives say they are trying to land “the holy grail of East Lansing,” an urban grocer, but caution that what this means is the kind of “convenience grocer” that carries relatively simple provisions. (Think more like CVS, and nothing like Trader Joe’s.)

Under the current plan there would be a public plaza space at the main corner. The idea is to create what the designers call an “activated” environment where people feel inclined to use the retail and restaurant spaces on the first floor. There would be a dedicated bike lane all along the southbound traffic lanes on Abbot Road, and bike lanes on both sides of the reconfigured Albert Avenue. Parking for bikes would be included indoors and outdoors for Building A.

The second and third floors of the building would be dedicated to parking for 210 cars, including for hotel guests and some of the residents of the building. Lead architect for the project Jay Longo told Planning Commission there would be “no visible evidence” of the parking decks to passers-by; it would be enclosed in brick, with internal ventilation.

This enclosed parking would provide protection for cars from the elements, “improving the hotel guest experience” according to Longo, although the garage would not be fully climate-controlled (so the temperature would fluctuate with the seasons). Planning Commissioners had very positive reactions to the idea of the parking being invisible as parking from the street.

The following image, provided by Chris Oakley of Convexity, shows how Building A is being envisioned now. Oakley warns this is not the final rendering—that there are still elements being worked out—but provided this image to ELi when we asked to share it with readers as he shared it with Planning Commission last night.

The designers are trying, they told the Commission, to reduce the number of materials being used on the outside of the building in order to give it a more sophisticated look that picks up the brick architectural elements of MSU across the street.

As ELi reported on Monday, DRW/Convexity is also planning another building about a half-block north of Peoples Church. This is called “Building C” and the location is shown in the map below. This would be a residential building including 57 owner-occupied condos, in order to meet the City’s requirement for diversified housing options in major downtown redevelopment projects. There would be 9 efficiency, 26 one-bedroom, 18 two-bedroom, and 4 three-bedroom units.

Building C would be five stories high with two levels of parking for building residents, with the two levels of parking not connected to each other. (Having each of the two parking levels accessible directly from the road eliminates the problem of using up internal space for ramps.) There would be 66 parking spaces on site.

Commissioner Kathy Boyle pressed the developers to consider limiting the condos to people aged 55 and over, but the developers said they do not want to age-limit the occupants in that building from a marketing standpoint. Some of the units are expected to feature balconies to attract potential buyers.

DRW/Convexity’s plan makes suggestions for the publicly-owned properties in the area, although what happens with those depends on what the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and City decide. The suggestion is that the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties that currently include older rental houses be turned into surface parking lots to supply the extra parking the City has indicated is needed on that side of the City. (To see a map of who owns what in the Park District, click here.)

Since the parking in Buildings A and C would be restricted to hotel guests and residents, the expectation is that anyone driving to the retail or restaurant components of the project would park in a City-owned lot.

DRW/Convexity had no renderings of the new Building C plan to share with the Commission last night. The developers’ representatives told the Commission that plans for the whole area have been in rapid revision following MSU’s decision not to participate in the redevelopment and City Council offering a tax deal that the developer called completely unworkable given what the City Council wanted the developer to construct on public properties for the City.

Under the new plan, Albert Avenue would still be realigned to straighten it out as it crosses Abbot Road, and some water and sewer upgrades would still happen. The developer continues to suggest that the portion of Evergreen Avenue between Valley Court Drive and Albert Avenue (between proposed Building C and the DDA properties) be turned into a green space pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians.

David Pierson, attorney for DRW/Convexity on this project, told the Planning Commission last night that much still depends on the question of how the finances can be worked out in terms of providing public improvements. The developers said they expect the City would have their company manage the construction for the public elements, with reimbursement to the developer, rather than having the City manage the construction of the public features.

Pierson talked about meeting with representatives of the Oakwood neighborhood (just to the north) and Peoples Church (just to the west) and said the developers were taking that feedback into account. Planning Commissioner Don Davis, who identified himself last night as a member of Peoples Church, said he found the 12-story building right on the property line next to the Church’s Memorial Garden as very off-putting. He described himself as “disappointed” that there was not a setback between the building and the garden.

But Pierson said he had met with the Church’s designated development committee and that they preferred the wall of building to a noisy, potentially fume-filled driveway next to the garden, which was what was in the last plan. When Dave Ledebuhr, designated representative of Peoples Church, came to the podium to speak, he said the Church’s committee saw significant advantages to this newer design in terms of reduction of noise and fumes.

Ledebuhr said that he thought architecturally the building “could be more pleasing,” especially if it incorporated stone elements reflecting the church’s design. But, he said the plan overall was encouraging to the committee, including in terms of potentially providing more parking to churchgoers in more surface lots. He said that church members, as they are growing older, much prefer surface lots to parking garages.

Ledebuhr then “took off his Church hat” to speak as an owner of a nearby business, namely Musselman Realty on Abbot Road, near City Hall. He suggested, as some have before, that Valley Court Drive be extended all the way to Abbot Road to provide some relief of traffic from Abbot Road.

The project goes before the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA) today for discussion, and will come back in April to Planning Commission for additional discussion before that Commission votes whether to recommend it. The ultimate decision on the site plan and required permits sits with East Lansing’s City Council, but the DDA and BRA will also have to approve the tax financing deal and DDA property usage if the project is to happen.

According to the developer, the project will also depend on the Michigan Strategic Fund approving a $10 million tax credit associated with the Grand River Avenue properties. That can’t happen unless and until the project plan achieves approval of the revised site plan by City Council and agreement with the DDA and BRA. Much will depend on a complicated development agreement that has yet to be worked out.

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