Major Changes Proposed in Convexity’s Revised Plans

Monday, April 10, 2017, 7:23 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: Artist’s rendering of Convexity’s new proposed “Building A” as seen from the southwest (as if you were standing near MSU across from Peoples Church).

East Lansing’s Planning Commission will be taking up review of DRW/Convexity’s new plans for the downtown blighted area at its meeting this Wednesday. As ELi reported, DRW/Convexity’s last plan fell apart after City Council approved the site plan for a major public-private redevelopment partnership but at the same time approved a tax plan that the developer said was unworkable based on what Council was asking to have built by the developer for the City.

Having reviewed the new materials submitted and obtained clarification on certain points from the developer, ELi can now report the following details. In sum, Convexity’s new proposal includes:

  • constructing a 13-story building at the blighted corner, to include a hotel, retail space, fully-screened parking, and rental apartments;
  • constructing a second building with owner-occupied condos near Valley Court Park, north of Peoples Church; and
  • tearing down a series of four older rental houses owned by East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority and replacing them with surface parking lots. (This plan does not call for a new parking garage, as the last plan did.)

The project area under consideration is shown in the map below. As shown, includes the blighted corner where Abbot Road meets Grand River Avenue, and extends north from there. (Note that this is a completely separate project from the Center City District proposal.) You can click here to see a larger, clearer version of this map.

The map gives some sense of the complicated public-private cooperation that will be required for this redevelopment to happen. More details on that are provided below.

What’s proposed for Building A:

DRW/Convexity is proposing a 13-story building for the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. The staff report in various places refers to this structure as an 11-story building, but that does not count the two floors of parking.

This building, currently known as “Building A,” would be 140 feet tall in terms of the occupied space, with another 10 feet on top for mechanical equipment. At 150 feet at its tallest point, it would be 25 feet taller than the Sky Vue apartment building being constructed on the south side of the Frandor shopping center along Michigan Avenue.

In terms of its footprint, the building would extend from Grand River Avenue to Albert Avenue in terms of north-south, and, in terms of east-west, would extend from Abbot Road west all the way to the Memorial Garden of Peoples Church. Building A would therefore subsume a series of Grand River Avenue-fronted properties owned by the developer as well as the southern portion of Evergreen Avenue. The following image shows the span of Building A along Grand River Avenue:

A public plaza space is still planned for the main corner. This plaza is designed to make the building feel less imposing and, in the words of the designer, to “activate” the space outside the proposed ground-level retail. The developer indicates in the new application that a work of public art will be provided in the public plaza, to satisfy the City’s “percent for art” requirement for large new developments. Here is how the designer portrays Building A when looking roughly from the MSU Union:

According to the staff report on the project, “The developer has communicated to City staff that the additional building height is necessary due to the use of space for the public plaza which reduces the typical floor plate. In order to achieve the hotel room and dwelling unit counts and area necessary for the development, additional floors are required to compensate for the lost area. In addition, accessory parking for the hotel guests and residents is being satisfied on site and within the building which adds approximately 20 feet to the total building height.”

The first floor of Building A would include retail space, including probably a restaurant. The developer has talked about wanting to attract an “urban grocer,” but nothing concrete is in the works for the retail space.

The second and third floors of Building A would be dedicated to parking for hotel guests and building residents. The parking would be screened with brick, so that it would not look like a parking garage from the outside. There would be onsite parking 212 cars and 115 bicycles.

The floors above the two parking levels would be used for a hotel and rental apartments. This is the latest image provided by Convexity, looking down on Building A from the southwest, as if you were floating above MSU across from Peoples Church. (In the upper right of the image, the designer has drawn in what would be built under the separate Center City proposal, including a new parking ramp where Lot #1 now is plus a new 12-story building. Adding in these proposed buildings makes Convexity’s project look comparatively less tall.)

As shown in this rendering, above the first three floors (retail and parking), Building A would have a kind of U-shape. Along the Abbot Road (east) side, it would include The Graduate hotel, a hotel chain dedicated to developing “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).

It is anticipated that the hotel would have a ground-level restaurant associated with it, and the plans call for a bar/lounge near the top level of the hotel. (You can see the outside space for this bar/lounge in the drawing immediately above, in the cutout rectangular space near the roofline.) The hotel would have 150 guest rooms, plus a fitness room, a ballroom, meeting rooms, and a terrace for guests’ use.

Along the Peoples Church (west) side, levels 4 through 13 of Building A would be occupied by 197 market-rate rental apartments. These would include 93 studio apartments, 38 one-bedrooms, 45 two-bedrooms, and 21-three-bedrooms. (You can see two-dimensional elevation images of this structure by clicking here.)

Some members of Peoples Church had been concerned about a very tall building being erected essentially right on the line of the church’s Memorial Garden. The new plan calls for the building to be stepped back above the third floor on that side, as shown in this rendering looking at Building A from the southwest, with Peoples Church’s garden to the left:

For a schematic that shows the relative sizes between Peoples Church and Building A, and that shows the step-back on the Peoples Church side of Building A, click here.

Building A as designed would require that some publicly-owned properties be transferred to private ownership. These include part of 303 Abbot Road, what used to be the “little bank building” that was demolished a few months ago, and the southern portion of Evergreen Avenue, where it meets Grand River Avenue. What compensation, if anything specific, the City or East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority will receive for these properties has yet to be established.

What’s proposed for Building C:

The current City Council passed an ordinance requiring any big new downtown development with housing components to have at least 25% of that housing be for something other than likely student rentals. “Building C” is Convexity’s way of satisfying that requirement in this proposal. It is planned as a five-story building containing 66 owner-occupied condo apartments. 68 on-site car parking spots for residents, and 46 bicycle parking spots for residents.

Building C would be constructed where the brick Evergreen Arms Apartments used to stand. (They were demolished a few months ago by the developer, which owns that property.) The building would be 72-feet tall, with the two bottom levels being dedicated to bike and car parking for residents of the building.

The front of the building would face the east end of Valley Court Park. Here’s how the developer’s designer portrays the plan for Building C, seen from the northwest, as if you were roughly above the park’s tennis courts.

In this drawing, at the upper-right is Peoples Church, and in the foreground is Valley Court Drive, with the lower-left showing a portion of Valley Court Park. The plans for this building call for 27 studio apartments, 17 one-bedroom units, 18 two-bedroom units, and 4 three-bedroom units. As shown, there is a rooftop terrace designed for use by residents.

The developer had talked at one point about having this building pick up architectural elements from the historic Oakwood Neighborhood, located just to the north, but as shown above and below, the new design calls for a more modern look:

The image above shows Building C as if one is looking northwest, as if you were standing about a half-block north of Peoples Church. It shows a proposed pedestrian/bicycle pathway to the right (east) of Building C. This path would replace what is now Evergreen Avenue (a road) in that location. For this whole redevelopment to happen, major sewer work would have to occur in this location, essentially raising the height of what is now Evergreen Avenue. The proposed greenway path would cover that rebuilt sewer system.

Whether there is a market for owner-occupied condos at this location remains an open question. Building C’s planned amenities, including proximity to the park, to downtown, to Peoples Church, and to MSU, as well as the rooftop space, balconies, and onsite parking, are aimed at increasing marketability of owner-occupied condos, including potentially to MSU alumni who return to campus several times a year for events such as games and shows.

The developer would seek to pre-sell a number of units before it would proceed with construction of Building C. Building A would be constructed first. What would happen to the Building C location if not enough condos pre-sold is unclear.

New parking lots where older houses now stand:

Years ago, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) bought up a number of properties in this project area in an attempt to support the redevelopment proposal known as City Center II. The hill on the east side of Evergreen Avenue where these DDA-owned properties are located has long been envisioned by the DDA as the site of a future City parking ramp. As we’ve previously explained, these DDA-owned properties are now worth only about half of the approximately $6 million owed on them, creating a serious economic problem for the DDA and thus for the taxpayers of East Lansing.

Under the current proposal by Convexity, the properties now currently occupied by older rental houses (328, 334, and 340-344 Evergreen Avenue) would be turned into surface parking lots. It looks as if the plan will be to use tax increment financing to pay off the DDA’s debt, demolish the houses, and turn the land into surface parking lots. The DDA has had preliminary discussion about putting out a Request for Proposals for redevelopment of these surface parking lots after major downtown projects now under consideration are completed, so surface parking is in all likelihood seen as a relatively short-term use of this land.

This is how the properties that would be demolished and replaced by surface parking look today:

Under the new plan, another one of the DDA-owned structures along Evergreen Avenue would remain standing. This is the modern mixed-use (commercial/apartment) building, constructed in brick, at 314 Evergreen Avenue. This image shows that building today, looking from across Evergreen Avenue. (Dublin Square is behind this building, and the blighted “big bank building” where Building A would go can be seen to the right.)

According to David Pierson, lawyer for DRW/Convexity, the plan is to keep this property as is in part because it is still in good condition and in part because it returns a reasonable economic return to the DDA. This is not the case with the four older rental houses that would be demolished under this plan.

Members of Peoples Church have repeatedly expressed concern about there being insufficient parking in this area. The church often hosts large events, including weddings and funerals with many hundreds of attendants. With the planned realignment of Albert Avenue plus these new surface lots, the area would gain a total of 34 surface parking spots in the public lots. Street parking would not change according to the staff report. (Click here to see how the parking and area streets would look under the current proposal.)

Pierson says that the current plan does not increase the number of parking spots in Peoples Church’s lot, as the previous plan did. He tells ELi that the City is aware of Peoples Church’s parking problems, and says discussions are continuing about ways to obtain more parking for the church.

Layers of approval, with the developer wanting to move fast:

This proposed project would require a public-private partnership because some of the land required by the redevelopment is publicly owned, either by the City of East Lansing or by East Lansing’s DDA. The project would also require a tax increment financing (TIF) plan as newly generated taxes from the redevelopment would need to be used to pay for things like street realignments and infrastructure improvements to the water and sewer systems in the area. (We don’t yet have draft TIF plan for this proposal.)

This means that besides going through Planning Commission review, the project will be requiring approval of the DDA, the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and the City Council, and it will require a complicated development agreement among the various parties involved. The developers want to see all of this happen quickly in part because they are trying to secure a $10 million tax credit for the project from the State, and the window for that is limited.

According to the developer, that State tax credit is why they haven’t yet demolished the vacant, blighted buildings they own along Grand River Avenue. They say that, because of legal technicalities, demolition of the vacant buildings before State-level approval of the credit could jeopardize the credit—and State-level approval can’t be finally decided until all the approvals and agreements in East Lansing are worked out.

The developer has said they will move to demolish the remaining vacant buildings as soon as possible, but that that requires local and state-level approvals first. So far, City Council has agreed to work with the developer on this timeline.

Two big redevelopment proposals being reviewed at once:

It’s worth noting that while the Center City District proposal and this proposal from DRW/Convexity are technically completely separate, in fact it is likely they are in competition for limited resources. That means what happens with one could impact whether the other gets built. Right now, City Council has set the schedule to look to approve the Center City District proposal first. You can read more about how and why that came to be and about the issue of limited resources in our special report.

Timeline for this, and how to weigh in:

The DRW/Convexity project comes for review at Planning Commission this Wednesday, April 12. You can speak at that meeting, and you can also write to Planning Commission by emailing Director of Planning Tim Dempsey. (Indicate that you want your message conveyed to the Commission.)

The DRW/Convexity project will also come before the DDA and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), possibly as early as this Thursday. You can attend and speak at the DDA and BRA meetings and you can write to those authorities (which have the same membership) by emailing East Lansing’s Community and Economic Development Administrator Lori Mullins. (Indicate that you want your message conveyed to the DDA and BRA.)

Major decisions will happen on this project by the City Council, probably later this month. You can speak to City Council on this project at any of its meetings, and you can write to City Council by email.

 

You may also be interested in:

Two Big Projects, Treated Differently (Center City District and Park District)

MSU Unlikely to Be Part of Downtown Developments

The Evergreen Problem in the Park District

Is the Current City Council Stalling Downtown Redevelopment?

Council Approves a Park District Plan, But Developer Calls It Unworkable