Answers to Questions about the New Development Proposal

Friday, February 24, 2017, 6:38 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: artist's rendering of the project as seen looking southwest down Albert Avenue, showing the parking garage (with retail on ground floor streetside) where surface lot #1 now is.

Here are some quick answers to questions we’re getting from readers about the new development proposal. Apologies that these are not all as fully sourced as we would ordinarily provide, but we are being flooded with questions.

What is it called? In materials submitted for the East Lansing Planning Commission this week, the developers called it the Downtown Lifestyle District project. By Friday at the meeting of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the developers were calling it the Center City District project. It’s common for these projects to change names.

What’s happening to the businesses along Grand River Avenue where the 12-story tower would be built? According to Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors, the company proposing the project in conjunction with the Ballein family business, “arrangements have been made with all the tenants who are being displaced.”

Bell told the DDA yesterday that Charlie Kang’s is moving to the northeast corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue, where Conrad’s Grill was until recently. He says that Noodles & Company is also moving into that building, as is Verizon. Ned’s Bookstore and Pancheros restaurant are already closed, so they do not need to be moved. That leaves Clever Clover. Greg Ballein told the DDA yesterday, “We’re working with them right now. We don’t believe anybody will be displaced by the project.”

Wait, how can Charlie Kang’s, Noodles & Company, and Verizon all be accommodated in the old corner building, space-wise? Okay, I’ll admit that was my question after I left the DDA when I went and looked at the corner building. My guess, not yet confirmed, is that they’re going to move P.T. O’Malley’s out of that location to somewhere else. Why is that my guess? Because the DDA, on which Brad Ballein serves, has recently worked on trying to protect the economic grandfathering P.T. O’Malley’s has under the 50/50 rule. To learn more about that, read this recent State News report by Riley Murdock. [Editor's Note: since publication of this article we have learned that P.T. O'Malley's is not moving from its present location.]We regret the error.]

So the project won’t be sited along Abbot Road? No, the project is several hundred feet east of Abbot Road. The old “Conrad’s Grill” corner building stays, along with the Beggar’s Banquet/College Manor building, along with the building that holds Lotsa Pizza and Urban Outfitters. Greg Ballein told me they couldn’t get the owner of the property holding Lotsa Pizza and Urban Outfitters to sell, so the project is limited to property the Balleins own—that’s from the old Pancheros restaurant to the current Verizon store—and to the public properties Mayor Meadows wants to see used for the project—surface parking lot #1 and the alleyway behind the businesses parallel to Grand River Avenue.

What happens to the businesses on the west side of M.A.C.? They stay. That includes the Riv, Twitchell’s Cleaners, and Mackerel Sky, as well as Pinball Pete’s (which is on Albert Avenue just west of M.A.C.). The rendering doesn’t show this because the pair of 12-story high towers just to their west makes it impossible to see those buildings in the drawings shown from the west.

What happens with parking lot #1? Surface parking lot #1—the gated lot behind Urban Outfitters, across Albert Avenue from Harper’s and HopCat—would be turned into a six-story public parking lot with 715 spaces and, Bell told the DDA, spots for parking 300 bicycles.

The developers say this parking garage is needed to accommodate the residents and shoppers who would use the new buildings; for that, Bell told the DDA about 300 parking spots are needed. Another 150 of the spots replace what is now in lot #1, leaving 250 spots more than currently at that location. Bell told the DDA about this garage, “We believe it will be a significant revenue generator for the City of East Lansing.” He talked about the income from the garage, but did not talk about what the garage would cost to build and maintain, so the income/expense numbers aren’t clear at this point.

What would happen with parking over there during construction? Mayor Mark Meadows told me on Wednesday that it would be critically important to maintain parking availability as much as possible during construction because of the income lot #1 provides to the City.

So lot #1 couldn’t be used for festivals anymore? Right. At the DDA meeting, Bell told the DDA the City could close down Albert Avenue for festivals and use all of Albert Avenue from M.A.C. to Abbot Road. Apparently he’s not aware that’s already done. The project calls for a very deep sidewalk/plaza space on the north side of Albert Avenue, which would appear to provide extra space for festivals, but it would not be as deep an open space as Lot #1 now is. Bell also suggested the space could be used for a farmers’ market.

Access to the parking garage would be off Albert just east of College Manor, so Albert Avenue could not actually be closed all the way to Abbot Road, as it is now for festivals, unless they emptied the parking garage and closed it off for several days, the way they now do with lot #1 for festivals. This parking garage also means that what happens now for some festivals – using Albert Avenue along with a chunk of Abbot Road, from Grand River Avenue to north of City Hall – could no longer happen, unless they empty out and close off the parking garage for several days, the way they do with lot #1 now. It’s difficult to imagine that the tenants of the new building would put up with that, particularly the new “medium box” retailer on Grand River Avenue.

Will people be able to get from the parking lot to the retailer on Grand River Avenue? Yes, the developers are planning a walkway that makes it easy to get from the parking garage to the major retailer they hope to have on Grand River Avenue.

Will the alleyway remain? Yes, the alleyway that runs parallel to Grand River Avenue would remain. Bell told the DDA it is critically important for servicing the businesses (making deliveries of goods and removing trash).

What is the “amenity deck” to which the developer is referring? The announcements about this project have referred to a second-floor “amenity deck courtyard.” Yesterday at the DDA, the developer explained that would be what is shown on the following drawing with the arrow. (In this drawing, you’re looking southeast from the northwest, as if you were hovering in the air above Black Cat Bistro. The road in the foreground is Albert Avenue, and MSU’s campus is off in the distance. For an annotated explanation of this somewhat confusing rendering, click here.)

At the DDA meeting yesterday, Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate, the company proposing the project in conjunction with the Ballein family business, said this will be a space for amenities for the tenants of the rental apartments. Greg Ballein, who was also at the meeting, said that’s where the pool would go, but Bell told the meeting that’s too expensive. The tone was one of joking around, so it seems like they aren’t yet sure what’s going to be at the “amenity deck.”

Won’t there be a huge traffic problem if this and the Park District project get built? Or even if one gets built? The DDA is commissioning a traffic study.

Will the voters get to decide on this project? It doesn’t look like it. The plan is not to sell any of the public land, which means the public gets no vote on a land sale. It’s unlikely East Lansing’s City Council will seek to use bonds for this, so there will be no public vote on bonds. That means the vote for this will be up to City Council. A minimum of three votes among the five City Councilmembers will be needed to approve this project.

Will this project prolong the blight in the Park District? Read our special report on how these projects relate to each other.