Park District Plan Goes to Council, Ahead of Center City Proposal

Thursday, April 13, 2017, 3:03 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The front desk of The Graduate Hotel in Ann Arbor, the hotel chain that has contracted for Convexity's "Building A" in East Lansing, photographed yesterday.

At a meeting that went until almost one o’clock this morning—and ended with a discussion of what to do about meetings going so long on a regular basis—East Lansing’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend DRW/Convexity’s site plan for the blighted Park District to City Council.

Planning Commission also voted 7-2 to defer a decision on the site plan for the Harbor Bay/Balleins’ Center City District Project at least until its next meeting, on April 26.

This means that City Council will very likely be reviewing the Park District site plan and tax increment financing (TIF) plan on April 25, several weeks before it is now likely to deal with the Center City District site plan and tax plan. Consequently, Council looks set to be deciding first on what to allow for the blighted Park District rather than deciding on the Center City District, in spite of earlier scheduling plans that had pushed the Center City District ahead of the Park District in the queue.

That matters because, even though technically these two projects are completely separate, Council is likely to be weighing questions of whether East Lansing’s downtown can handle three very tall residential apartment towers, two simultaneous massive construction sites, and two big new TIF plans without incurring unacceptable risk. The Park District project now looks set to get first dibs on these decisions.

Numerous people came to speak to both projects, some for, some against, and some with questions about details. In the end, the Planning Commission decided that they had conducted enough review of DRW/Convexity’s project to make a decision. This was partly because Planning Commission has been reviewing various versions of plans for the Park District over several years, and proposals specifically from DRW/Convexity for many months.

A large majority of Planning Commissioners felt they still had too many questions about the Center City District proposal to make a coherent recommendation to City Council, especially given the late hour.

The Park District plan was recommended by Planning Commission almost exactly as presented. The developers requested one change, and that was to the terraced third floor on the west side of Building A, overlooking Peoples Church’s Memorial Garden. The plan had been to give residents on that side of the building access to this terrace, but Peoples Church requested that there not be people out on the terrace above their Memorial Garden (in which funerals sometimes occur).

Above: Rendering of Convexity's "Building A."

The developer agreed with the Church and asked Planning Commission to stipulate that there would be no resident access to that raised outdoor space. Planning Commission unanimously agreed. That west terrace was going to have greenery but will now just be a simple graveled roof.

Another added condition formally specified that there be bicycle parking provided in the project for at least 161 bicycles. A third added condition specified that sidewalks be marked with pavers where they cross driveways, so that drivers are aware they are crossing pedestrian pathways.

Under the percent-for-art requirement, the developers are planning to put public art in the public plaza on the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. Commissioner Don Davis suggested that the public art instead be installed on the brick wall facing the Church’s Memorial Garden. (He is a member of Peoples Church.) The developer indicated they would consider that option.

Concerns were raised about what would happen if the developer never does construct Building C, designed as owner-occupied condominiums. This building is supposed to begin construction several years from now, compared to Building A which would be started much sooner. Planning Director Tim Dempsey said that reimbursement to the developer from tax increment financing would be withheld if Building C were not constructed as proposed, and said this has happened in another case where a project has not met the conditions of a development agreement with the City.

Below: Convexity’s rendering of Building C.

Before the Commission voted, the developers explained that they believe they need to move relatively quickly on the project to secure a $10 million state-level tax credit that requires approval of the Michigan Strategic Fund Board, and that can’t happen until all the local approvals and agreements are in place. They say they would jeopardize the credit if they demolish the vacant buildings along Grand River Avenue but that East Lansing’s City Council wants them to do demolition soon, and also said the tax credit depends on Building A being ready for occupancy in May 2021. All of this, they said, means things need to get moving fast.

Before voting in favor, Commission Daniel Bollman said he was pleased to see the project no longer had a parking garage “smack in the middle.” He said the location was a good place for a tall building. Commissioners Chris Wolf and Kathy Boyle agreed that if there had to be a tall building, this was a good place for it.

Chair Laura Goddeeris thanked the developers for working with the public, including with Peoples Church, and for their “flexibility and patience as we’ve taken the time we felt necessary to review changes.” She said the addition of The Graduate Hotel to downtown East Lansing was an exciting prospect. Wolf also said the hotel was “a wonderful thing to have in this building.”

Below: The Graduate Hotel’s lobby in Ann Arbor, photographed yesterday.

Wolf also cited the improved traffic pattern for the area, including new bike lanes, as a public benefit. Commissioner Paul Stokstad agreed with Wolf’s remarks and called it “a very well designed project.” He expressed “gratitude for your responsiveness to community concerns.”

The Commission also had to approve the parking plan for the project, and did so unanimously. The developers thanked the Commission for their unanimous recommendation of the site plan to City Council.

Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors presented to Planning Commission on the Center City District project. He spoke to the announcement today that Target has agreed to be the retailer at that project’s new Grand River Avenue retail space if the project is approved. The City and LEAP both issued press releases about this news today.

Bell told the Commission that having a Target in this location means having a vibrant urban grocery, with fresh produce as well as “dry goods.” He said this would be the kind of store where one would shop for 1-2 days’ worth of groceries and that it would become an attractor of pedestrian shoppers to downtown. Bell also said the project would bring 400 construction jobs.

Ray Vlasin and Betty Nocera presented to the Commission the results of their four years’ study of senior housing preferences, telling the Commission they believe the rental housing for people aged 55 and over planned for the Center City District is exactly the type that will attract “active seniors” aged 55-70.

Above: Rendering of the Center City District proposal, with Albert Avenue in the foreground, showing the tower that would contain the senior rental apartments.

Vlasin and Nocera said they had met the day before with Bell and Greg Ballein, the co-developer, and found that Bell and Ballein had already incorporated into the design much of what they would have recommended for this market group. Nocera said she was ready to move in and had a list of others like her.

Planning Commissioners had questions about how the traffic flow will work on Albert Avenue, whether the “open street” design might be extended across M.A.C. farther down the block on Albert Avenue, how the construction will work in terms of survival of local businesses inevitably impacted by the two years of disruption, how the alleyway will feel and function for pedestrians and delivery personnel, what will happen with the festivals now held on Lot 1 and on that portion of Albert Avenue, what impact the Bus Rapid Transit could have (if it is built) on traffic on Albert Avenue, and more.

Above: New "alleyway perspective" provided by Harbor Bay Real Estate showing the revamped alley behind the Grand River Avenue buildings in the proposed Center City District project.

Goddeeris ultimately said she needs “more time to sit” and think about information that had come in, including some of it just hours before the meeting. Boyle then moved to defer a vote on the project until a later meeting, with Stokstad seconding the motion.

Davis said he felt it had been discussed enough and they should act on it. Commissioner Summer Minnick agreed with him, saying there are “a lot of people who are still going to opine in this process” and Council could listen to them. She said she finds the proposal “dynamic, progressive, exciting.” She said she strongly dislikes surface parking lots downtown and much prefers ramps.

But Goddeeris responded that “this is the biggest proposal we’ve ever seen…and I’m a little uncomfortable.” She told the Commission she would “feel better having everything all in one place,” and to have time to synthesize her thinking on the project. She said the public would want to hear their reasoning for their votes and that she did not think that continuing discussion through to a vote when it was already “12:30 the day after we started this meeting” would leave her in a state to make a coherent decision.

Below: The Center City District project proposal rendered. (For orientation, note that the blighted corner owned by DRW is shown as a green space, bottom left, and MSU's Abbot Road entrance is shown forested, bottom right.)

Commissioner John Cahill agree, saying it is a “huge project” and that waiting two weeks wouldn’t be a problem, especially absent a “compelling reason we need to go forward tonight.” (The developers did not offer one, although Bell said he wanted a decision at the meeting.) Boyle reiterated that she had remaining questions and concerns. Stokstad said he was exhausted and did not feel confident to be articulate or to make “my best decision” but said he really hoped they would decide at the next meeting. The other Commissioners agreed.

At noon today, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) meets to discuss the site plan of the Park District. Immediately following that, the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, which has the same membership as the DDA, will meet to discuss the tax increment financing (TIF) proposal for the Park District.

There was substantial discussion at the Planning Commission meeting of TIF, with Planning Director Tim Dempsey backing up Chair Goddeeris’s reading that it was not the job of the Planning Commission to deal with financing questions.

Update: At today's meetings, the DDA unanimously approved the site plan for the Park District plan. The BRA did not come to an agreement with the developer on a TIF plan, so the BRA voted to hold a special meeting of the BRA next week where they plan to discuss and likely pass a TIF plan for the Park District project. Council is still expected to take up the site plan and TIF plan on April 25.