Is ELFD Prepared for Tall Buildings? And Who Will Pay?

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019, 8:17 am
Jessy Gregg and Alice Dreger

ELi has recently received several inquiries asking whether the East Lansing Fire Department (ELFD) can effectively manage a fire in one of the new “high-rise” buildings.

This recent communication from an ELi reader sums up the general direction of the questions we’ve been getting about this issue:

“Does the East Lansing fire company have a ladder truck capable of reaching the top floors of all the high-rise buildings being built downtown and near downtown? If not, is the city planning on buying one, and how will that be financed? Is the East Lansing building department requiring all of these new high-rise structures to be equipped with fire alarm systems? Entire building sprinkler and/or other fire suppression systems?”

First, which projects are we talking about?

There are three construction projects currently underway that involve buildings taller than anything that has previously been built off-campus in East Lansing:

  • Habor Bay and Ballein Managements’ Center City District project, which involves a 12-story general-rental building on Grand River Avenue across from the MSU Union, plus separate senior rental housing, capping out at 10 stories, on Albert Avenue;
  • The Hub, Core Space’s 10-story student-rental building at the corner of Bogue Street and Grand River Avenue;
  • DRW Convexity’s “Building A,” which will rise to 13 stories at the northwest corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road. DRW Convexity’s project also involves a 10-story hotel just east of Peoples Church.

So, all three of these projects are set to have buildings that come to about 140 feet in height.

In addition, there’s another project moving through the review process – the Royal Vlahakis Park Place proposal – which would involve a building that would be 15 stories and 169 feet tall (even though City documents call it 14 stories and 159 feet in height).

Will ELFD’s trucks be able to reach the upper stories of these buildings?

The answer is definitely “no.” ELFD has two ladder trucks, one with a 78-foot reach and one with a 105-foot reach (which is approximately eight stories). These buildings are set to be taller than that, as noted above.

According to ELFD Chief Randall Talifarro (photo above), 105 feet “is the maximum length built by fire apparatus makers for ladder trucks at this time.”

He points out that the building codes for these buildings take that into account by using “fire resistive materials and construction practices” with “very elaborate suppression and detection systems. This is consistent with industry standards and requirements.”

More on fire alarms and suppression systems:

Modern fire codes require fire suppression systems in all new commercial buildings like these. Building plans are supposed to be subjected to a review by East Lansing’s fire marshal as part of the approval processes (and we’ve tried to find out if they are), and buildings are inspected for fire code compliance before a Certificate of Occupancy is issued at the end of the project.

Here’s an image captured from building plans for The Landmark’s lobby. That’s the 12-story apartment Center City District building being constructed for Harbor Bay and Ballein Management on Grand River Avenue across from the MSU Union. This shows the kind of firefighting plans built in. You can see plans for a fire command center, fire pump, etc.

While these building plans – viewed via the Freedom of Information Act – did not show a sign-off from the fire marshal (see below), what we’ve seen from other projects, including the Bailey Center, for example, is that fire code compliance is at least checked and required when the Certificate of Occupancy is being issued.

Will East Lansing be hiring additional firefighters, to manage having these larger structures?

In a presentation last year related to the City’s financial crisis, Talifarro presented information from the National Fire Protection Association that indicated that a fire in a high-rise apartment building would require at least 42 firefighters.

ELFD just hired four new firefighter-paramedics, including two to fill positions that had been defunded before the East Lansing income tax was passed. That means that, today, East Lansing employs just over 50 firefighters-paramedics, but they are not all available for firefighting at the same time.

Responding to questions from ELi, Talifarro explained, “The City of East Lansing would have to rely on mutual aid to assist on a major high-rise incident. This would be true for all area departments (including Lansing) and most departments across the country.”

Will the developers pay for the costs of emergency services for their buildings?

In response to our readers’ questions, we asked Talifarro: If it’s determined that new development would necessitate additional public safety resources, could development agreements made between the City and developers require the developers to subsidize the cost of additional equipment and personnel?

Talifarro pointed to some states, Florida being one, where government can assess costs to the developer through “impact fees.” But Talifarro told us this isn’t part of the Michigan tax model.

He pointed out that “These types of projects [in East Lansing] do bring in new taxes generating new revenue for local governments.”

Although it is true that all new development will be assessed for taxable value by East Lansing’s assessor and then taxed at the standard local property tax rate, tax increment financing (TIF) deals direct eligible new tax revenue away from the general fund – which pays for emergency services – to instead pay for development-related expenses.

In the case of the DRW Convexity project, that means diversion of 100% of eligible new local taxes for about nine years.

In the case of the Harbor Bay and Ballein Management Center City development (below), including The Landmark and Newman Lofts, that means diversion of 100% of eligible local taxes for thirty years.

Other forms of income from the Center City deal, including primarily the ground lease on the public land, will make up for some of the diverted tax funds. But those other sources of income likely won’t be enough to pay for all the public services used by the project. (Read more.)

These buildings, now under construction, won’t by any means be the first to divert captured taxes away from the general fund. The Avondale Square project, for example, has also been diverting funds away from paying for emergency services and other public service costs, in order to pay for that project through TIF. (Avondale Square cost taxpayers $5 million more than originally intended.)

The project first called The Gateway and later called 300 Grand (below) has been diverting taxes to pay for private parking. The hotel now under construction on Trowbridge Road will see a diversion of about $1 million in new taxes. The building at 565 East Grand River (the one that houses the Broad Art Lab) involves a TIF plan for about $1.4 million

These are just some of the possible examples of TIF plans that divert new tax funds away from the City's general fund to pay for project-specific costs in East Lansing. Not all of the tax money diverted would otherwise come to East Lansing. Some would go to other local taxing authorities, including Ingham County, Lansing Community College, and CATA. (Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann has said a benefit he sees of TIF is that it redirects many streams of local tax revenue toward East Lansing.)

City Council has been making a point of increasingly limiting TIF plans to paying for public infrastructure and environmental clean-up costs. (Center City’s TIF is paying mostly for the new public parking garage, although it is also paying the developers’ associates, something Mayor Mark Meadows has said he is “absolutely” comfortable with.) But even in those cases, that diversion means paying for something other than emergency services for years.

There are some big projects set to pay taxes that won’t get diverted.

The Hub, at Bogue Street and Grand River Avenue (below, seen from the southwest), is a good example. That Core Spaces student housing project, once complete, is expected to have a taxable value of about $7 million, which means it will provide hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to East Lansing – a figure so large, the Finance Director has specifically named it as helping East Lansing’s immediate financial problems.

But for the projects where tax revenues will be diverted, the rest of the East Lansing’s tax base will be covering emergency service costs for years. In East Lansing, that means homeowners are subsidizing the cost of emergency services for many big private commercial projects.

If you have a question you’d like to see answered in a future Ask ELi column, you can send it in through the contact form on our website.

Update: On January 30, Kyle Melinn reported for City Pulse that a bill passed in the lame duck session will be bringing $1.5 million per year more from the state for fire services in East Lansing. Read more. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info