In Another 3-2 Vote, Council Majority Indicates Desire for Still Taller Buildings

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019, 6:56 am
Chris Root

How tall should East Lansing go? That’s becoming a point of significant debate.

East Lansing’s City Council voted 3-2 last week to adopt an ordinance allowing 160-foot-tall buildings in a section of downtown. This is the second 3-2 vote this year aimed at allowing taller buildings in East Lansing’s downtown. In both cases, Mark Meadows, Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier voted in favor, and Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens against.

Mayor Meadows said last week that this should serve as an instruction to the Planning Commission about what heights the Council is looking for in the new “form-based code” that the Commission is currently editing. The form-based code for East Lansing, if passed by a majority of Council, will specify aesthetic regulations for a designated portion of East Lansing. It would replace the existing zoning code for that area.

But some say it’s too soon to be passing these ordinances. What are the arguments, and where will the decisions play out?

Significant policy differences exist between the majorities of Council and the Planning Commission.

The majorities of the Planning Commission and City Council have held different views for some time about the optimal height of East Lansing’s downtown.

Recently, the Planning Commission voted 6-2 recommending against Ordinance 1443 (expanding the area allowing 140-foot buildings) and 8-1 against recommending Ordinance 1449 (allowing 160-foot buildings in part of this area). Nevertheless, both of these ordinances were adopted by 3-2 votes of the City Council. (Both ordinances require approval of a specific project by 4 or more members of Council.)

The Planning Commission’s recommendations about these proposals reflect its adoption in June 2018 of a new Master Plan (formerly known as a Comprehensive Plan) that is intended to set policy for the next five years.

A community consensus was reached around much of the vision for downtown described in the Master Plan. In particular, Goal 2 calls for “a diversified tax base and growing economy” to be accomplished by “[increasing] the attraction and vitality of the downtown for all demographic groups,” including office uses and more diverse retail, and “[encouraging] continued growth through redevelopment of gateways and major commercial corridors.”

However, differences of opinion persist about what needs to happen in the downtown to best accomplish this goal, particularly regarding how dense or tall the downtown needs to become.

The Master Plan calls for buildings no higher than 10 stories, with heights “stepping down” further away from Grand River Avenue as they approach residential neighborhoods.

The Plan’s concept for the heart of downtown is six-story buildings, with a “bonus height allowance” for up to 10 stories for buildings that meet certain criteria.

Planning Commission member Kathy Boyle, who also is a former City Council member, came to the Council meeting on April 9 to expand on the Commission’s succinct recommendation against Ordinance 1449 from the Planning Commission.

She expressed her support for two tall buildings (rendered below and marked as A and D) that are now under construction at Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue by DRW Convexity, but said that does not necessarily mean it will benefit the City to allow this height throughout the downtown.

Boyle spoke about the care that was given to creating the Master Plan and the significant amount of community input that went into it, which included the height designations. She urged the Council to take a breath and wait to see the impacts of adding hundreds more people living downtown before moving ahead to remarkably increasing the height of downtown.

Altmann said that taller buildings are the only way to actually achieve the goals of the Master Plan. If the downtown could spread out in all directions, he said, these goals could perhaps be met with three-to-four story buildings.

But there is no way to accommodate the needs of everybody who wants to be next to MSU without building up, according to Altmann. Height is the strategy that is going to get us what we want, he said, such as an urban grocery, urgent care facility, and movie theaters.

Altmann argued that the new, tall projects that the Council has approved are beginning to work, bringing in new retail that includes Campbell’s Market Basket, Blue Owl Coffee and Foster Coffee, Barrio Tacos, and Jolly Pumpkin. He said that it is important to keep going with this strategy, particularly in order to get a building with a large office tenant, so more people will be walking around downtown who can support these retail shops.

Altmann thought a “wait and see” attitude was risky.

In response, Draheim challenged the idea that taller buildings are the only way to achieve the goals in the Master Plan for a more diverse downtown. She said that the lower height recommendations contained in the plan are what the people who wrote that plan felt were “the reasonable actualization of those goals.”

Draheim addressed specifically the issue of wanting large-scale offices to come to downtown East Lansing. She pointed to the viability of the office where she works in a four-story rehabbed building in downtown Lansing (noting that Lansing is a different market).

Draheim expressed concern that, if the Council quickly approves additional taller buildings, a few projects could “suck up a huge chunk of the market share” and make it economically infeasible to adapt or rehab other downtown buildings of more modest height for office use.

How important should the Master Plan be?

Some think it should guide City Council’s decisions. The Master Plan was adopted on June 13, 2018, and at the April 9 meeting of Council, Boyle noted in her comments that developing the Master Plan had been a lengthy process, involving considerable public input followed by revisions.

At the April 9 meeting, many members of Peoples Church came out to demand that Council heed the master plan. They were specifically objecting to the Royal Vlahakis proposal for a project right across Albert Avenue from the church.

But Meadows responded: “I know the statement has been made that this proposal for fourteen stories ignores the comprehensive plan. I think the argument can be made that the comprehensive plan ignored what has been happening in the downtown area.”

He suggested the Comp Plan should keep up with what a majority of those directly elected by the people seek to accomplish.

Legally speaking, the Master Plan is only advisory, as are the Planning Commission’s recommendations on specific development projects.

Why pass the new ordinance now?

Council’s 3-2 vote on April 9 to allow for 160-foot tall buildings in a portion of downtown was expected, based on prior comments at Council. What wasn’t expected was an amendment to the draft version of that ordinance that excised the Dublin Square property, where developers Royal Apartments and Paul Vlahakis (whose company owns this property) had proposed a 14-story building that required the zoning change.

This map shows in the light-shaded space the area in which taller buildings would have been be allowed, as defined in the original draft of Ordinance 1449.

The red line shows where Council cleaved off the western portion that would have included Dublin Square.

The area in which the majority of Council did approve allowing buildings of up to 160 feet extends only from Abbot Road on the west to Bailey Street on the east, and from the south side of Albert Avenue to Grand River Avenue.

The question remains why three members of Council chose to move ahead with adopting the new, 160-foot maximum height along Grand River Avenue and Albert Avenue on April 9, given that it no longer applies to the Royal Vlahakis project – the project that was the impetus for the zoning change. (The staff report for that project noted that it required adoption of Ordinance 1449.)

Draheim asked this question repeatedly at the April 9 Council meeting, and specifically asked if some Council members knew of tall projects in the works for somewhere along Grand River Avenue that she had not yet been made aware of.

Meadows said in a comment on Public Response on April 13: “For the record, I have no knowledge of any new project proposed for Grand River.”

Draheim and Stephens urged that the Council delay consideration of increasing allowable building heights downtown so this decision could take advantage of public discussion about work by the Planning Commission that has been underway for months to create the new form-based zoning code for the downtown.

Form-based code is meant to simplify redevelopment.

In seeking to pass a form-based code, the City is trying to simplify procedures and policies for redevelopment in part because City leaders want East Lansing to obtain the “Redevelopment Ready City” designation from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

MEDC staff have told the City that, in order to be certified as a Redevelopment Ready City, it still needs to revise its administrative procedures for considering development applications to make the process less uncertain, more predictable, and quicker.

Below: East Lansing's downtown, including the Center City project now under construction.

Advocates of a form-based code – a zoning code that focuses on aesthetics rather than use – say that adoption of such a code will convey to developers what the City requires of a project in particular parts of the City, making the review process quicker and more predictable.

When consultants for the form-based code process presented the draft to City Council in October, they assured the Council that they made every effort to align their detailed, 74-page draft with East Lansing’s Master Plan.

The Planning Commission is now reviewing the draft form-based code, with detailed revisions being considered by a committee. Planning Administrator David Haywood has said the committee is one-half or two-thirds of the way through the draft.

With the Commission still working on the draft code, there has been little discussion about it in Council thus far.

Explaining his vote for allowing 160-foot-tall buildings, Meadows said, “I believe that this gives an instruction or an indication to the Planning Commission as they prepare their version of the form-based code as to what height we would be looking for in the downtown."

Meadows also said at the April 9 meeting that he did not believe height is the significant feature of the form-based code: “The key, the element, the important part of form-based code is not the height – the important part of the form-based code is all of the other elements of the form-based code.”

Yet a review of the form-based code, as the consultants drafted it for the City, shows that height is intended to function as a significant feature. Height is listed as the first of six “building form standards” that “set the basic parameters governing building form, including the building envelope (in three dimensions) and certain required or permitted functional elements…”

The five other standards are: Placement, Elements (including 1. Fenestration, 2. Façade Projections, 3. Attic stories, and 4. Privacy fences, street and garden walls), On-Site Vehicle Parking and Access (curb cuts), Frontage Designation Flexibility, and Building Functions (Uses). The form-based code describes these standards – especially the placement relative to streets and the “elements” – in considerably more detail that does the City’s current zoning code.

Although much work has already been done on drafting the form-based code, a great deal more work remains to be done. It is too early in the process to anticipate the end result. Both the Planning Commission and City Council have expressed the desire to hold public sessions to discuss the form-based code draft, possibly in June.


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Vibrant Debate Surrounds Increasing Building Heights Downtown

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Form-Based Code: Boon or Boondoggle for East Lansing?

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