Officials Looking at Allowing Taller Buildings in More of Downtown

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019, 7:09 am
Chris Root and Alice Dreger

Above: The approved DRW Convexity project (A, C, D) rendered here as if from above the MSU Union looking northwest. Building A's construction has just started. If approved, the Royal Vlahakis project would add a pair of tall buildings just north of  Buildings D and A.

Should the area where tall buildings are allowed in East Lansing’s downtown be expanded? Should even taller buildings than we’re seeing built now be encouraged? And should the public be specifically invited to engage in City-organized, open dialogues dedicated to these issues?

These questions are emerging as East Lansing’s City Council, Planning Commission, and Downtown Development Authority are all actively considering zoning changes that would allow for increased building heights in a wider swath of downtown.

Last week, Council voted 3-2 to approve one major height-related ordinance, expanding the area downtown where 140-foot-tall buildings can be constructed, including land along the southern borders of the Oakwood and Bailey residential neighborhoods. Now another ordinance is under consideration, and it would allow 160-foot-tall buildings in a large area of downtown. (More on these votes below.)

Decide now, or decide later?

The immediate impetus for this discussion is the Park Place redevelopment project from Royal Properties and Vlahakis Development, a proposal now under review for land on and around Dublin Square. But the decisions being made in conjunction with the Royal Vlahakis proposal will have wider implications.

There are already a series of tall buildings approved for East Lansing’s downtown area, all with full-Council approval:

  • The Center City District project, now under construction by Harbor Bay Real Estate and Ballein Management, is topping off at just under 140 feet along Grand River Avenue across from the MSU Union. (The project’s Albert Avenue-side building will be 117-feet-high.)
  • The DRW Convexity project is set also to have "Building A" rise to 140 feet (plus unspecified-height “rooftop mechanical” housing) at the blighted corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. That project also includes a 120-foot-high hotel ("Building D") just east of Peoples Church.
  • Farther east, The Hub, at Bogue Street and Grand River Avenue, will be 124-feet-high at the surface of the rooftop pool’s terrace and 144-feet-high at the top of the elevator shaft.

This map shows the locations of those projects. (Green indicates the area designated as within the Downtown Development Authority's purview.)

Council learned in December that the Royal Vlahakis project includes plans for an even bigger building along Abbot Road – one that would be 169 feet tall, including a 9-foot-high penthouse fitness center for residents of the building – plus a 135-foot-tall building just west of that, fronting on Evergreen Avenue. In the map above, the Royal Vlahakis project location is marked with a purple star.

So, if approved, the Royal Vlahakis project would mean a building about 30 feet taller than the 12-story buildings being constructed nearby, plus a new tall building farther northwest (near Valley Court Park, in part in the Oakwood neighborhood) than has been previously allowed or envisioned. For the project to be approved as designed, zoning rules would have to be changed.

In public discussions, three members of Council – Mayor Mark Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier – have generally indicated they favor allowing for the possibility of increased height in a broader area.

Council Members Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens have said they are not against increased height per se, but want to see these decisions made as part of a dedicated, wider community conversation about what big redevelopment in East Lansing should look like.

Where do things stand right now?

Council has just passed Ordinance 1443, which expands where tall buildings can be built, on a 3-2 vote:

On February 12, in a 3-2 vote, Council adopted Ordinance 1443, which allows building heights of up to 140 feet throughout the B3 “City Center Commercial” district. The staff report on the ordinance provides a map showing in red existing or likely areas of B3 zoning. The blue line shows where 140-foot-buildings were limited to before the passage of Ordinance 1443.

As shown with the map’s blue line, before passage of this ordinance, the part of the B3 district in which 140-foot buildings were allowed did not include the south side of Albert Avenue between Linden Street and Division Street on the east, or the DDA-owned properties along Evergreen Avenue on the west.

That meant the 135-foot tall “Park Place West” building proposed by Royal Vlahakis for this location could not be approved without this ordinance. (Approving that project will also require formally rezoning properties along Evergreen Avenue to B3.)

The Planning Commission had recommended to Council that it not enact Ordinance 1443, by a 2-6 vote at its December 12 meeting. Dan Bollman, Chair of the Commission, pointed out at the time that this change would differ significantly from the future land use at the west end of downtown that is contained in the City’s Master Plan adopted in July 2018.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Kathy Boyle also argued that a considerable amount of community input and work had gone into the Master Plan and that it should guide use of this property, just north of Peoples Church.

The Master Plan, adopted in July 2018, set a maximum height of 84 feet for the land along the east side of Evergreen Avenue, as part of a vision to “step down” building heights from what is becoming the tall, dense, west end of downtown to Valley Court Park and the Oakwood neighborhood.

One part of that “stepping down” concept, the DRW Convexity project includes a 52-feet, five-story building to be built on the west side of Evergreen Avenue with “affordable, moderate-income” apartments. That building, shown below, steps down further, immediately adjacent to the park.

In contrast to the Planning Commission, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) voted unanimously at its December 13 meeting to recommend increasing the area where 140-foot buildings are allowed. The referral letter from the DDA said they “support[ed] density in these areas as they are adjacent to the downtown and current large redevelopment projects.”

Below: The Royal Vlahakis project envisioned between Evergreen Avenue and Abbot Road, seen from the back of Peoples Church.

Council first voted on Ordinance 1443 on January 22. On that round, Beier was absent, and the ordinance failed to pass, with Meadows and Altmann expressing support and Draheim and Stephens voting against.

When, at its February 12 meeting, the City Council again voted on Ordinance 1443, Beier was present, and she voted in favor with Meadows and Altmann, passing the measure 3-2.

At that meeting, it was Altmann who moved to reconsider the ordinance. He argued that increasing tall building heights by another 20 or 30 feet on a 100-foot building will have little visual impact, and said that there are environmental as well as economic reasons to increase density in the downtown. “Building up,” he said, is more environmentally friendly than “building out.”

“Height is a resource that we have control over that doesn’t cost us anything,” Altmann said. “[It is a resource] that we can use to invest in getting projects that we want that will end up delivering the downtown that we all would all like to see.”

Beier said she does not oppose tall buildings, but that she would never support “a tall, ugly building” or a building that “looms.” She said that the Center City District building on Grand River Avenue was improved, in consultation with Council members, by incorporating a cut-out section, so that there is not a uniform tall wall of building along that street.

Below: The Center City District building called The Landmark under construction on Grand River Avenue.

Beier and Meadows characterized the Council’s option to approve taller buildings as a tool to negotiate for buildings that are more attractive or have other desirable features. Meadows said that considerable negotiations between Council Members and developers preceded approval of large development projects downtown.

Draheim said in January, when the Council initially voted on Ordinance 1443,  that she “felt conflicted” about increasing the allowable height for the Park Place project because of the two large development projects already underway within a half-block of this site. She described herself as a “staunch supporter” of downtown density and height, but wondered if this added height is manageable in this particular location.

The Royal Vlahakis project (shown as #3 above) would be the largest and tallest of these projects.

Draheim and Stephens said that they wanted the Council to consider setting policy to increase building heights downtown as part of an upcoming discussion of a form-based code, rather than in an ordinance which clearly is coming forward in response to a specific proposed development.

Form-based code is designed as an alternative to conventional zoning regulations and focuses more on regulating the physical form of developments, rather than on specific uses. Now that the Master Plan has been completed, a subcommittee of the Planning Commission has started to consider form-based code for East Lansing. This is a lengthy process that requires considerable staff time, and the process is underway as the State has funded a consultant to assist with this process.

Draheim said that she has discussed with City staff organizing meetings to engage the public in discussion of a form-based code for downtown, and she advocated that Council hold off on changing current zoning ordinances until that happens.

The Mayor has recommended that a form-based code be developed first for the downtown area, so this part can inform decision-making on development projects more quickly.

The Planning Commission’s subcommittee on the form-based code is holding its next meetings at 4:00 p.m. on February 22 and March 6, in Conference Room A of City Hall.

With Ordinance 1443 passed, buildings zoned B3 downtown can go up to 140 feet only if the Council approves a “Special Use Permit” (SUP) by a supermajority of at least four Council members. To grant a SUP, Council must make a finding that the building is deemed to be “of significant public benefit.” In the past, such Council findings have been very general.

Ordinance 1449, which envisions 160-foot-tall buildings, is now before the Planning Commission:

The second ordinance now being considered would allow the Royal Vlahakis “Park Place East” building to go to an unprecedented 160 feet, not counting the additional 9 feet that would be allowed for a fitness center penthouse. (The City doesn’t count such a penthouse in its legal height limitations.)

“Park Place East” would be located at the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, as shown below, replacing the Dublin Square Restaurant and public Parking Lot #4.

“The reason we went to 14 stories,” developer Paul Vlahakis told the Planning Commission in January 23, is that “people will want to buy the views up there.”

Aimed most immediately at providing for the Royal Vlahakis project, Ordinance 1449 would establish a “overlay district” to allow building heights of up to 160 feet (plus any allowed non-residential features on the roof that are stepped back) in a portion of the B3 district. To approve 160-foot tall buildings in this area, a supermajority (four or more members) of Council would have to grant a SUP under the same conditions that are currently in the zoning code for buildings up to 140 feet.

The overlay district is defined as (1) between Abbot Road and the alley immediately to the west of Abbot Road that lie south of City Parking Lot #15 and north of the realigned Albert Avenue, and (2) south of Albert Avenue and north of Grand River Avenue lying west of Bailey Street and east of Evergreen Avenue. A map in the staff report shows the proposed overlay district:

The Planning Commission held its public hearing on Ordinance 1449 on February 13, but has not yet voted on whether to recommend it to City Council. (Council makes the final decision.)

City Attorney Tom Yeadon told the Council in January that he favored Ordinance 1443 because setting a uniform maximum height of 140 feet in the entire B3 district could protect the City from a legal complaint by a developer that a carved-out area from which they are excluded is unfair. Yeadon also said that an overlay district, as proposed in Ordinance 1449, is the appropriate legal mechanism to use for defining special conditions for only part of a zoning district.

In their discussion of Ordinance 1449, several Planning Commission members questioned which areas should be included in the extra-height overlay district. Commissioner Chris Wolf said the obvious place to allow additional height would be along Grand River Avenue and perhaps along Albert Avenue, but not extending further north along Abbot Road as envisioned with the Royal Vlahakis project.

Commissioner Dale Downes concurred with Wolf, adding that it appeared to him that the overlay district is tailored to accommodate the Royal Vlahakis project that is proposed for 160 feet plus a 9-foot penthouse space.

Downes then said he would rather grant the developers a variance of the existing 25% requirement for residential units providing diverse housing options (other than market-rate, student-attracting apartments) instead of having buildings going higher and higher. (Right now, the Royal Vlahakis project proposes only 17% of its units be something other than market-rate rentals – namely condos, so it doesn’t meet that law.)

Bollman agreed with Downes. If the 25% requirement for diverse housing types is what is causing the need for the extra height, Bollman said, “my preference would be that it be maintained at the height that would be preferred as opposed to the residential mix that would be preferred.”

The Planning Commission is likely to vote on Ordinance 1449 at its meeting on February 27. Ordinance 1449 is also expected to be on the DDA’s agenda on February 28. The Council will take it up after receiving the Planning Commission’s and DDA’s recommendations.

Meanwhile, the Royal Vlahakis plan is moving through other steps:

Sometime after their vote on Ordinance 1449, the Planning Commission can be expected to return to its consideration of the Royal Vlahakis site plan application itself, on which they held a public hearing on January 23.

The City Council took one other step at its February 12 meeting that is needed for the Royal Vlahakis proposal to move forward. As part of the Consent Agenda, Council voted 5-0 to authorize Royal Vlahakis to submit an application that includes city-owned parking Lots 8 and 15.

The Council had previous voted to allow Lot 4 (at Albert Avenue and Abbot Road) to be included, but not Lots 8 and 15. A staff memo on this issue said that a title search had found that the City indeed owns Lots 8 and 15, so the developer should have asked the City’s permission before including them in the plan.

What deal the City Council would seek for use of those public lands remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely Council will sell the properties, as that would require going to the voters for approval. More likely, Council will look at a long-term lease of public land, as it did with the Harbor Bay/Ballein Management deal for Center City.

You can catch up on the Royal Vlahakis proposal through this link.

Want to weigh in?

The Planning Commission’s subcommittee on form-based code is holding its next meetings at 4:00 p.m. on February 22 and March 6, in Conference Room A of City Hall.

You can communicate with Planning Commission at their meetings (next is February 27) and can also write to Planning Commission via staff member David Haywood. You can speak to the DDA at its meeting (next is February 28) and write to the DDA/BRA through staff member Tom Fehrenbach. You can speak at City Council at any meeting during public comment (next is February 26) and you can also write to Council via email. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info