Council Likely to Decide on Center City Project This Tuesday, May 9

Saturday, May 6, 2017, 8:24 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: the now-possibly-outdated rendering of the Center City District proposal's plan for what is now City Lot #1 on Albert Avenue, across from HopCat.

The controversial Center City District proposal goes to East Lansing's City Council for possible decisions on the site plan and TIF plan this Tuesday, May 9. Council will hear citizens' public comment at that time. 

The developers have announced they will be holding a public pizza party question-and-answer event on Monday to show the public the new version of the plan at that time. Apparently it will not be available to the public before that time. Revisions to the $55 million tax increment financing (TIF) plan will be released to the public on the day of Council's deliberations on it.

Developer Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate tells ELi, “We are having a neighborhood/ community event at Lotsa Pizza from 4:30pm to 7:30pm on Monday evening. It is definitely open to everyone and we are expecting a large turnout. The purpose of the event is to have an informal, easy forum to discuss the project, answer questions, and unveil some design changes that we have implemented following the Planning Commission.”

We have not previously seen major changes to site plans introduced in this way, the day before Council deliberations, at a pizza event. This project is said to be valued at about $132 million and involves the use of public land for private development.

In an unusual move, East Lansing’s Planning Commission recently voted against recommending the project to City Council. Planning Commission is advisory to City Council and cannot stop a project on its own. City Council has on its Tuesday (May 9) agenda a plan to hear public comment and take up the new site plan, special use permit applications,  TIF plan, and development agreement.

The TIF plan calls for diverting $55 million in captured real estate taxes to pay for the project, which includes a new parking garage for the City on what is now Lot #1. That parking garage would increase hourly/daily parking on what is now Lot #1 by a total of 40 spots. The rest of the new parking spaces would be rented to the developers at a substantially discounted rate for tenants of their private buildings.

The project would also bring an urban Target store which the developer says will provide groceries for one or two days, plus rental housing planned for MSU students, senior citizens, and others. The senior rentals will be built above the new parking garage. Retail space would be built by the developer along Albert Avenue for the developer's use. The senior rentals and the retail space would constitute private development on public land, making it controversial.

The developer has declined to say what the rental costs will be for senior citizens, the retail space, and the other rental apartments. Reports provided by the developers that are said to show a market for this project are over 90% redacted, leaving their findings unclear.

The project has been both strongly criticized and strongly praised by various local business owners and residents. LEAP (the Lansing Economic Area Partnership) and leaders of the construction unions have praised the project, saying it will transform the region.

ELi is unable to ascertain what the new site plan will involve. Bell says the plans won’t be ready to share before Monday's pizza "neighborhood party," but word is that the changes to the site plan are significant, with major changes since Planning Commission reviewed the project. Changes are rumored to include major alterations to the Albert Street structure, which has been particularly controversial.

When the Park District Plan from DRW/Convexity was substantially changed, those developers went back to Planning Commission before going to Council for discussion and approval. That project therefore went through the normal rounds of review with Planning Commission. It also meant there was a space of two weeks between when Planning Commission reviewed (and unanimously recommended approval of) the final DRW/Convexity site plan and when Council deliberated.

That gave citizens two weeks to provide comments to Council on the Park District plan. In that case, no one spoke against the version Council approved, and various individuals and groups, including Peoples Church next door, praised DRW/Convexity and their plan.

It appears this normal process won’t be the case with the Harbor Bay/Ballein Center City District Proposal. Rather than the project going back to Planning, this project will go to City Council with the public having about 24 hours to know what’s being proposed (and less if they do not attend the pizza event).

The Center City project calls for the use of what is generally considered to be the City of East Lansing’s most lucrative piece of real estate, parking Lot #1. That lot currently obtains over $600,000 in gross parking revenues per year and is estimated to be worth many millions of dollars.

Without having obtained an appraisal or done a call for proposals, City Council is considering a deal by which the developers will obtain rights to the land for $75,000 per year as part of the complex real estate deal. ELi has asked Mayor Mark Meadows why the City is proceeding without an appraisal or request-for-proposals bid process. Meadows declined to answer. The last call for proposals for this land was about a decade ago, before the recession.

Harbor Bell Real Estate's local partner in this project is the Ballein family business. Meadows has had a long and warm relationship with the Balleins. In promoting this project, Meadows and Bell have repeatedly praised the Balleins for their long-term investments in East Lansing.

Bell says that on Monday evening, “Pizza and refreshments are on Harbor Bay. We'll have updated renderings, as well as our development, construction, design and engineering team there to answer any questions.” The invitation tells citizens they can "ask questions, give support and get a full understanding of the proposed project."

Those wishing to attend the pizza event are asked to RSVP by Monday at noon by calling 517-203-3333 or emailing kelly@m3group.biz.

Council can be addressed during public comment and reached by email at council@cityofeastlansing.com.

To learn more about what the project site plan, click here. To learn more about the tax plan, click here.

 

This article was amended after original publication on May 5, 2017, to provide the latest available information.