Center City Design Morphs, with Developers Wanting Approval Soon

Thursday, March 23, 2017, 3:50 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The current design for the Center City District proposal, looking down at the Abbot Road/Grand River Avenue intersection from the southwest (above Mayo Hall).

Responding to concerns raised at the last East Lansing Planning Commission meeting, the developers for the Center City District proposal brought new designs and information for the project to the Commission last night. Commissioners indicated they found some of the changes favorable but named additional questions and concerns, even as the developers said they hope to obtain approval at the next Commission meeting.

The proposed project includes a 12-story structure fronting Grand River Avenue in the 100-200 block, stretching from about where Charlie Kang’s now is to the Verizon store. (See ELi’s Reader Guide for more info.)

For residents of the building’s 271 market-rate rental apartments, the previous design had included an amenity deck behind the building, along the alley. But responding to concerns, the new design pulls the amenity deck to the front, giving it access to sunlight and reducing the feeling of a very large structure along Grand River Avenue.

Here is an ELi-annotated rendering of the new design. (Click here for a larger, clearer view.)

Last night, the developers told the Commission the amenities deck along Grand River Avenue would be lined with five feet of landscaped space to prevent any mischief on the balcony from impacting people on the street and to provide a pleasant feature. The first two floors of the building are designed to have retail space, including a medium-box retailer.

The developer said last night that the retail tenant for the 22,000-square-foot space in the proposed Grand River Avenue building has not been identified at this time, although as we’ll report in a forthcoming article, today the developer told the City’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority that the project needs to be completed in 2018 to avoid losing the retail tenant they’ve identified.

The project also calls for a new building to be constructed on City Parking Lot #1, the lot across from HopCat. On the ground floor of this new building would be 20,000 of retail space facing Albert Avenue and storage and mechanical rooms behind that, along the back alley. On floors 2-6 would be a new City-owned parking ramp.

The eastern half of the parking ramp would be topped by six stories of a developer-owned tower, so that floors 7-12 in that location would provide 93 market-rate rental apartments restricted to people aged 55 and older. Here is a new rendering of what the project would look like along Albert Avenue, as shown from the northwest (as if you are over Black Cat Bistro).

Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate did the bulk of presenting last night. His company has partnered with the local Ballein Family company, which is a major retail-space landlord in town, to bring forward this project.

Bell told the Commission that the parking garage along Albert Avenue would be screened with “metal tubes,” and that Albert Avenue would become a welcoming “complete street” space that could be used for festivals. He provided this updated rendering of what the redesigned Albert Avenue would look like:

A number of people commenting on the project have raised concerns about the loss of City Parking Lot #1 as festival space. It ordinarily houses the big dance tent for the Folk Festival and many smaller tents and a food area for other festivals. There is no space of Lot #1’s dimensions in the new design, although Brad Ballein tells ELi the City could decide to use the upper deck of the new parking garage or some other location in the City.

Earlier in the meeting in public comment, local landlord/developer David Krause told the Commission that he’s known the Ballein family for a long time and knows they have done a lot for East Lansing. But, he said, he had serious concerns about the effects the proposed project would have on his recently-constructed building, “The Residences,” and the HopCat restaurant on the ground floor of that structure.

Krause said he was concerned his building and those near it “will be constantly in the shadow” of the proposed Albert Street 12-story structure.  The developer offered shadow studies of the project at last night’s meeting, but the results presented were too small to be legible. Commissioners asked for a legible shadow study.

Krause also said he was worried that construction could result in “a nightmare” in terms of the City’s infrastructural issues in the area. The developer’s construction manager said he would work with all the local businesses to accommodate their needs during construction, but confirmed when asked that he had not yet talked with any local business owners.

Ballein said he had had “many long phone conversations” with business owners in the area. Correspondence received by Planning Commission shows that the owner of one of the next-door properties, which currently houses Urban Outfitters, Rally House, and Lotsa Pizza, has had his lawyer contact the City to raise “major, yet reasonable and rational, concerns regarding the proposed Project.”

In public comment, Vicki Graham who co-owns a condo apartment in the City Center project above CVS and Omi Sushi reminded the Commission that the comprehensive plan called for this location to have much shorter buildings than this one, proposed to be 140 feet tall. Graham has also raised concerns that owners in her building along M.A.C. Avenue will now be facing a windowless wall 12-stories high.

The rendering below shows how the project would look from the southeast, and shows the eastern wall that the current condo owners on levels 2 and 3 of the City Center building would be facing. (Right now they have a view down Grand River Avenue and toward MSU.) Responding to questions about why the wall has no windows, co-developer Brad Ballein explained that because it is on the property line, it can’t have windows in case something is built next to it.

Graham and others also raised the question of what the alley will look like between the 12-story structure built along Grand River Avenue and the 12-story structure built along Albert Avenue. Planning Commissioners asked for a rendering of that alley, which would be 24 feet wide between the two 12-story buildings, and would be used for delivery trucks and trash pick-up.

The developers plan calls for a covered pathway stretching from the ground floor on Albert Street to the back door of the medium-box retail store on Grand River Avenue, although they emphasized that this would be City-owned so the City would have to decide what it would look like and how it would be maintained. The design they presented is shown here:

In reality, the covered pathway would meet the alley, so that pedestrians going from Albert Avenue to the Grand River Avenue store would have to cross the open alley, used for deliveries and trash pick-up, to get to the back door of the store.

Already several hours into the meeting by the time this proposal came up on the agenda, Planning Commissioners were handed large notebooks containing updated information from the developer, while a summary was presented on screens around the room. This meant the Commission and the public had no chance in advance to study the substantial amount of material, including what the developer called a “heavily redacted” market study that Bell says supports their belief that the market-rate apartments will rent out to a diverse populace.

Dave Ledebuhr of Musselman Realty came to the podium to say he owns several properties in the project area and has never been contacted about concerns he has about the construction and the finished product. He also said he is a major real estate agent in the area and yet was not contacted for the market study.

Ledebuhr said that while the Convexity project proposed for the blighted area offers a needed hotel, he questions whether there is any real public good in this project. He said he was “flabbergasted” that no one from the development team had engaged him in discussions of the project or engaged Peoples Church (on whose development committee he serves), given how many Peoples Church members use Lot #1. Bell then offered to meet with Ledebuhr in the hallway after the meeting.

Representatives of several trade unions came to the Commission to strongly support the project, saying it will create critically important jobs for local trades workers at prevailing wage. They praised the developer for working with the unions.

Steve Willobee of LEAP (the Lansing Economic Area Partnership) also praised the proposal, including for how “incredibly quick” it is moving forward. He said this would be one of the most important economic development projects in all of Michigan.

Bell said he hoped Planning Commission would vote to approve the project at its next meeting. He personally thanked the Ballein Family for their partnership and praised the local labor groups. He said again that the project would be transformative for the City of East Lansing.

Bell also told the Commission he wants them to think carefully about how many parking spots the garage needs to have, since part of the revenue to pay for the project is proposed to come from new parking revenue, as well as newly-generated taxes, water and sewer fees, and the developer’s lease of air rights over what is now Lot #1.

I asked Brad Ballein after the meeting about the “no-recourse bond” that the developers want to see used to pay for the City’s parking structure and other public infrastructure improvements that this project would require. Ballein explained that his company with Harbor Bay is creating a new limited liability company (LLC) and that that LLC will be responsible for the bond. When I asked him what would happen to the City’s financial situation if the public revenues fell short and the LLC went bankrupt, he rejected the idea that such a thing would occur.

The developers want to start construction in July of this year and have it completed by July 2019.