Rezone for Big Redevelopment Near the Park? A Complicated Question Coming to Council

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Monday, September 9, 2019, 8:15 am
Alice Dreger

Should East Lansing’s City Council pave the way for another big building – possibly as tall as the newly finished Center City District buildings – just west of Abbot Road, behind Peoples Church, overlooking Valley Court Park and the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood?

Tomorrow evening, Council will take up that question as it holds a formal public hearing on whether to rezone properties owned by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) along Evergreen Avenue.

On the agenda is a proposal to rezone a series of properties that run from 314 to 344 Evergreen Avenue, on the east side of that road. These are properties currently occupied by rental houses (still legally in the Historic District) and a modern three-story brick rental building, across the alley behind Dublin Square.

In the past, these DDA-owned properties have been considered for “conditionally rezoning,” which means that upzoning of them was tied to a particular project. All the past projects failed, which means all the conditional rezoning ended.

The proposal on the table now is for “permanent” rezoning of the properties, adding them into the B3 downtown district.

That permanent rezoning would allow for buildings up to eight stories or 112 feet in height with a majority of Council (3 votes out of 5).

If the rezoning is approved, a supermajority of Council – 4 or more members – could approve an even taller project, up to 140 feet in height. For perspective, that’s how tall the new Landmark building is on Grand River, where Target is on the ground floor. That’s also how tall the new building being constructed at the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue will be. (The hotel next to Peoples Church will be 120 feet tall.)

This rezoning application is coming to City Council now because – even though a majority of the DDA voted to end its exclusive sale agreement with developers Royal Apartments and Vlahakis Development for the Evergreen properties – the Royal Vlahakis proposal for “Park Place West” has to still run the course.

Additionally, the DDA is preparing to send out a Request for Proposals (RFP) on the Evergreen Avenue properties, seeking proposals from developers other than Royal Vlahakis to see what they might want to do with the Evergreen Avenue properties. An RFP that can advertise the properties as already permanently rezoned to B3 would be more attractive to big developers.

The “pro” side of the permanent rezoning to B3:

There are a number of reasons Council members may be in favor of this rezoning, besides the RFP.

Members of Council have wanted more dense housing downtown, in part to bring the kinds of amenities a dense city attracts. The DDA has generally favored rezoning the properties to B3 because of this.

Some members of Council and the DDA have expressed the belief that the DDA’s Evergreen properties are rightly seen as a core part of downtown – that this is a logical place to put 140-foot-tall buildings. (Unless these properties are rezoned, the maximum height that can be approved here is 70 feet.)

Those in favor of the B3 rezoning note that there is a 52-foot-tall building already approved to go in right across the street as part of DRW/Convexity’s Park District project. That 52-foot-tall "Building C," they say, would constitute a “step down” from a significantly taller structure on the east side of Evergreen Avenue to the park and neighborhood to the northwest.

Below: A rendering of DRW Convexity’s Park District project, now underway, showing the buildings being constructed (D and A) and the 52-foot-tall building approved (C). The orange oval shows the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties proposed for rezoning. Building D will be a 120-foot-tall Graduate Hotel. Building A will be 140-foot-tall and called The Abbot.

Mayor Mark Meadows and other Council members frequently point out that the Council does not have to approve a project with the maximum allowable height for this location, and approval for any project over 112 feet in the B3 district requires approval by at least 4 Council members.

Some members of Council and the DDA have also expressed strong support for rezoning to B3 because of the $5.6 million debt the DDA owns on the properties – debt for which the taxpayers of East Lansing are ultimately responsible.

The $5.6 million debt at issue arose from the DDA purchasing the properties in 2009 for a failed project with developer Scott Chappelle. For years, the DDA has been making interest-only payments on the debt.

Now it has to start paying down the principal, and some believe that allowing a very big building there is the way to pay off the debt. That suggests the need to rezone to B3.

The “con” side of permanent rezoning to B3:

Tomorrow night, Council members are likely to also weigh the negatives of rezoning to B3.

One is that some citizens – including a majority of Planning Commission and some people from Peoples Church and the adjacent Oakwood Historic Neighborhood – object to the rezoning. They see the maximum height allowed in the B3 zoning district as simply too tall for that location.

Critics of the permanent B3 rezoning proposal say such height is inconsistent with the needs of the neighbors and would degrade Valley Court Park. They don’t see going from a building 140-feet-tall on the DDA properties on the east side of Evergreen to 52-feet-tall on DRW/Convexity’s property on the west side of Evergreen as a reasonable “stepping down” to the park and Oakwood Historic Neighborhood.

The “con” side is also worried about vehicular traffic, including its potential negative impact on businesses in the downtown area. The area where Abbot Road meets Grand River Avenue already sees a lot of traffic, with southbound Abbot Road and westbound Grand River Avenue frequently backing up many blocks during rush hours.

Below: Southbound Abbot Road backed up last Thursday morning from Grand River Avenue to north of Oakhill Avenue, as is typical for morning rush.

The Center City Albert Avenue retail and housing has yet to open, so traffic from that hasn’t even started. In 2020, we’ll also see the DRW/Convexity’s project open on the west side of Abbot Road, including The Abbot and The Graduate hotel.

When these big redevelopments open, the traffic can be expected to get worse than it is now, even though Albert Avenue will then be aligned across Abbot Road. Does it make sense to allow for another 140-foot-tall in the same one-block radius?

Some on the "con" side believe there are better ways to figure out how to deal with the DDA's debt than constructing at this spot a very large building consisting mostly of what is likely to be more student housing.

Finally, the “con” side sees conditional rezoning as better because it ties the rezoning to a particular project, meaning the rezoning happens if we know what’s proposed and that specific proposal is approved.

How you can weigh in:

If you want to weigh in on this subject, you can write to City Council via email or speak in person at the meeting, which is generally more effective. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, in the second-floor courtroom of City Hall. You can speak during the “public comment” section at the beginning of the meeting or wait until the public hearing on the rezoning.

Disclosure: Alice Dreger owns a house (her home) in the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info