Big Downtown Project’s Public Spaces Won’t Match What Was Approved

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Thursday, April 18, 2019, 10:13 am
Alice Dreger

East Lansing’s Planning staff came to City Council on Tuesday night to ask Council to OK their plan to approve more changes to the Center City District project in the heart of downtown.

The revisions mean that the public spaces won’t be constructed as they had been designed in approved site plans and renderings.

The developers for Center City, a $132 million public-private partnership, are Harbor Bay Real Estate and East Lansing-based Ballein Management. A major selling point for the project, which is supported with a lease of public land for 49 years, had been design of the public spaces.

But now, that’s changing.

East Lansing Planning Director Tim Dempsey came to Tuesday night’s meeting “to try to get direction from council” on the changes being proposed by the developer.

He was joined by Harbor Bay’s Steve Willobee (below). Willobee had worked for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) when he advocated for the project during the review process, but he now works for Harbor Bay.

The developer is required under the contract to pay for the construction of the public infrastructure, with a capped limit on what they will get back in reimbursement from the bond issued for the project.

But Willobee told Council repeatedly the issue isn’t money – it’s the ease and cost of maintenance – which will be the responsibility of the City.

The Grand River Avenue sidewalk in front of the new small-format Target store was supposed to feature a wavy sidewalk design that would “activate” the space visually. The wavy design was also supposed to draw attention to the entrance for The Landmark, the apartment building constructed over the Target store.

The approved Grand River Avenue sidewalk design is shown below, with annotation in red by ELi. The circles indicate the canopies of street trees, and the sidewalk pattern is shown to have the fancier design.

Now the developers want to install something much simpler: mostly concrete block with simple bands of pavers along the curve.

Explaining the simplification of the sidewalk design, Dempsey also said it would make it easier for the DDA to match this design when it pays to redo the sidewalks immediately to the east and west of the project in the block of Grand River Avenue that runs from Abbot Road to M.A.C. Avenue.

Dempsey told Council that the sidewalks to the east and west of Harbor Bay’s property on Grand River have “vaults” below them. Dempsey said the vaults are used for underground storage by the businesses on that strip, including at Potbelly and Urban Outfitters.

ELi reported during the demolition for the DRW Convexity project that similar vaults had also been found there, on Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road. This image shows what demolition at the blighted corner revealed under Abbot Road:

According to Dempsey, doing an inset brick pattern above these vaults could cause water leaks into them from rain and snow melt. Mayor Mark Meadows asked Dempsey to find out who owns that land, including the vaults being used – the private property owners or the City.

“It seems like we ought to figure that out,” said Meadows.

On Tuesday night, Council accepted the simplification of the sidewalk in front of Target. The next morning, a visit to the job site showed that, in fact, the new sidewalks in front of the Target store had already been installed days earlier, and were already dry enough for workers to work on.

The new sidewalk in front of The Landmark has also already been installed. (The door shown below is a temporary construction door for The Landmark’s entrance.)

Contacted for an explanation of why Council was asked to review a design for something that had already been installed, Willobee did not respond.

Dempsey answered only to say that he could not reply to questions now because he is “booked solid the next couple days.”

ELi reported last week that the wavy brick design for the alleyway has also been taken out, replaced with simple concrete. The alley had been rendered, during the public review process, this way, looking from M.A.C. Avenue:

The rendering showing the view looking toward M.A.C. Avenue is reproduced here:

But now the developers and City staff say that would be too difficult to maintain, particularly with big trucks driving through.

Will the alleyway have that green ivy shown in the renderings? At this point, we don’t know.

The developers have now also changed the design for the covered pedestrian pathway that will run from Albert Avenue, through the ground floor of the parking garage structure, to the alley and back door of Target.

That pedestrian pathway had been rendered during the review process with a pattern of stripes originating from either side of the pathway:

The approved site plan shows that black-and-white floor pattern, in colors formally called “white sand” and “charcoal.” In the following image, Albert Avenue would be at the top:

Now the floor of the pathway will be made of this type of concrete paver in the color called “earthtone”:

The revised design shows that the pattern of these brown pavers will be herringbone:

Dempsey said this new design was preferable in terms of maintenance.

A major selling point of the project had been the streetscape design for Albert Avenue. There, the project was supposed to feature an artful sidewalk design along with lush plantings, free-flowing sidewalks, all based on the European woonerf style of pedestrian-friendly city streets. This was the rendering advertised, showing a view from the Ann Street Plaza.

The sidewalk had been rendered like this in the approved site plan. (Again, the circles indicate canopies of street trees.)

Now the developers want to install something much simpler: mostly concrete block with simple bands of pavers. (The yellow strip is that covered walkway, shown also above.)

Flowers and small plants designed to be installed street-side are now out of the plans. Dempsey named the challenges of maintaining what was in the design on a sidewalk near a street that will see salting and plowing in the winter.

When asked by Council member Shanna Draheim if the design would look like this more recent rendering, Willobee said it would be:

But that isn’t what it will look like, based on what was said at the meeting. What was going to be open-flow sidewalks will now see intermittent fencing, to allow restaurants to serve alcohol to patrons seated outside, similar to what HopCat does across the street.

No designs for the sidewalk bar-fencing were provided. But Dempsey told Council that a major reason to take the wavy inset brick design out is those fences will need to be anchored, and they have to be anchored to concrete.

Willobee agreed that the fencing requires concrete. Both also named as a problem that people might trip on brick inserts or pavers.

It isn’t clear why all of this was not known during the review, approval, and public comment process.

Brick will still be used for crosswalks in the street across Albert Avenue, as shown in the approved site plan design:

Why keep that inlaid brick design for crosswalks in the street, when the developers and staff are saying they’re hard to maintain with salting and plowing?

That part of the design was a condition in the site plan approval. That means changing the crosswalk design would require formal submission of a site plan revision, with review by Planning Commission. There’s isn’t time to go through that, so the crosswalks in street will have pavers.

On Tuesday night, at first, several Council members indicated frustration with these changes.

Shanna Draheim (below, left) said she was going to “throw a fit” over the changes to the Albert Avenue side.

Ruth Beier (above right) said, “The original is so much prettier.” She reminded her colleagues “We can just say no.”

But that didn’t happen in the end. Council did not tell staff to stick with the approved design.

The floor of the pedestrian pathway will apparently be changed from the white-and-black contemporary layout to the brown herringbone layout. And, as noted above, the Grand River Avenue sidewalk is already laid out for the mostly-concrete, simpler look.

Draheim tells ELi she hopes staff will still come up with something more attractive than the developer’s revised proposal for the Albert Avenue side of the project.

She said yesterday, “The final direction council gave was for staff to work with the developers to add back in to the plans (from the proposed changes) some elements of pavers/artistic design.” She explains, “They will focus on those flourishes in the space between planters or along the planters. I leave it to them to redesign those.”

She added this morning by email that, “for this project – a very key downtown effort – the look and feel of the aesthetic was a big part of the design. Also, on Albert these are our sidewalks. We gave some of that space so that they could be wide and help create a boulevard. So I hate to think of them becoming too plain because maybe it takes an extra 10 minutes to plow.”

The rest of Council did not respond to request for comments. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info