The Hub Project Goes to City Council with DDA's Recommendation

Monday, December 11, 2017, 7:16 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The proposed development as seen from the northwest.

This Tuesday night at a meeting starting at 6 p.m., East Lansing’s City Council will hold a public hearing and possibly make a decision on The Hub, a large student-housing and retail project proposed for private commercial property at the northeast edge of MSU’s campus.

Last Thursday, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) unanimously recommended plans for the project to the Council, following November’s formal recommendation against it in a split 3-3 vote by the Planning Commission.

If approved by at least four members of Council, the 10-story project would be built at the southeast corner of Bogue Street and Grand River Avenue, where a 7-11 and Georgio’s Pizza now stand.

Georgio’s and the 7-11 would be re-established in the ground-floor of The Hub, which is designed to provide a total of 12,220-square-feet of retail space, enough for a few additional retail operations to be added.

The building would also house 347 market-rate apartments, with a capacity for 585 residents in total. The project developer is Core Spaces, a national developer of near-campus, college-student housing. ELi has previously reported that Core Campus has been selling a number of its properties to American Campus Communities, a national landlord for large student housing projects.

This project site is in the area known as the East Village, which is bordered by Bogue Street, Grand River Avenue, Hagadorn Road, and the Red Cedar River.

In 2006, the East Village was rezoned in anticipation of a massive project that would have completely changed the area. (See the City’s website for what was planned.) But that project never came to fruition, and in the last year, after many rounds of governmental review, East Lansing again amended zoning rules for the area.

Zoning for the East Village encourages denser and taller housing than what is generally there currently, and The Hub proposal fits that vision according to David Pierson, a local attorney representing Core Spaces. The area is a challenge to redevelop, Pierson told the DDA last Thursday, because right now, “cash flows very nicely” to retail and rental property owners in the area, making them disinclined to sell or redevelop their properties.

Mayor Mark Meadows, a member of the DDA, said at the meeting that he thought it was important that the new zoning rules for the area no longer call for new projects to have 50% owner-occupied housing. (The previous zoning code had envisioned large areas of owner-occupied condos, mostly near the river.)

Now, Meadows said, property owners can build taller buildings that are designed as rentals, which allows redevelopers to “end up with a much better product” and to have “a much bigger opportunity to redevelop the property.”

At the DDA meeting, discussion centered on what have been the two main concerns about the project: the height of 124 feet and the relatively low number of parking spaces, 158 in total. Some DDA members saw these features as negatives, while others saw them as positives.

On the issue of height, Pierson told the DDA that the zoning code for the site specifically calls for buildings of eight stories at that location and also provides for the option of ten stories with a supermajority vote of Council members (four or more in favor, instead of the usual three or more, for approval).

Pierson said The Hub project had originally been designed at 138 feet but had been redesigned at 124 feet, and that if it were eight stories it could legally go as high as 112 feet under the current code.

Pierson also pointed out that East Lansing’s current zoning code for the East Village requires that the first floor of this building be 17 feet, which adds to the ultimate height. He indicated that the idea was to create a particular sense of big retail along Grand River Avenue.

The East Village form-based code also calls for wide sidewalks, so the Hub is planned having a sidewalk of 22 feet along Grand River Avenue, and 20 feet along Bogue Street.

“It’s going to look different,” Pierson told the DDA, because, according to the current East Village design codes, “it’s supposed to look different.”

During the discussion of the issue of the height, Meadows said that he “would personally see this [project] as a catalyst for additional redevelopment in the area.”

DDA member Lynsey Clayton said when she considered the issue of height, she took into account the fact that the project is not asking any tax-increment financing (TIF).

“They are not asking for tax dollars,” Clayton said, “so there should be some flexibility on that.” She added that she had no problem with tall buildings in downtown East Lansing.

On the issue of the low number of parking spots, Pierson said Core Spaces had ample experience with this kind of campus-edge housing, aimed at drawing students with bikes and mopeds instead of cars. The project provides 400 bike spaces plus in-unit bike storage nooks so that every resident can park a bike in a covered location.

Pierson called this “walkable, bikable, on-campus housing.”

He said, “someone has called this ‘a dormitory you can tax.’ It is nicer quality. It has no cafeteria and is for residents who don’t drive. It is two blocks from your downtown, and the commercial [businesses] along Grand River to the east will benefit as well.” The property is about a quarter-mile from Brookfield Plaza.

Pierson told the DDA that experiences from other university towns show that “people who get used to a town that way [that is, by foot and bike] often stay” past graduation.

DDA member Brad Ballein expressed concern about the small number of parking spaces, saying there was already a significant problem in the Cedar Village area. At the Planning Commission’s public hearing on the project, property owners in the area reported problems with inadequate and illegal parking and objected to plans for The Hub.

At the DDA meeting, Pierson turned to data from Core Space’s project (also called The Hub) in Madison, Wisconsin, to support the contention that it is possible to have a project like this succeed. That project, he said, has space for 850 residents with 150 parking spaces. Only 110 are leased, and a counter on the parking gate indicates there are only about ten trips in and out happening each day using residents’ cars.

“This is not Madison,” Ballein noted, saying that Madison has considerably more downtown parking available compared to East Lansing.

In response to this discussion, DDA member Jim Croom suggested that renters who want to bring cars could rent long-term car parking space at MSU or elsewhere. The parking-to-resident ratio, Croom said, was the problem of the developer, and if developers were willing to risk marketability with plans, that was their decision.

Clayton said she saw the “don’t bring a car” approach as a good housing alternative: “I think it is refreshing to see a place going the opposite way. It’s a nice change in the downtown, to encourage students to have a different kind of lifestyle.”

Pierson said some redesign for the East Lansing project was happening around the question of how to plan a place for safe crossing of Bogue Street for bicyclists and pedestrians going toward campus.

Clayton and Croom asked for more information about moped parking spaces. Clayton said that mopeds are an increasingly popular means of transport for cities like East Lansing, and the City should consider requiring parking spaces for mopeds, specifically.

Clayton moved that the DDA recommend the project to Council, with a second from Croom, and a unanimous vote in favor.

The project, if built, will be subject to East Lansing’s “Percent for Art” requirement, and in response, the developer is proposing two large exterior murals by Chicago-based graphic artist Joe Miller.

Members of the public wishing to comment on the project can do so at the public hearing, which will take place on Tuesday, December 12, at a meeting starting at 6 p.m. in the courtroom of City Hall. Written comments may be sent to council@cityofeastlansing.com.