Board Grants Biggby Zoning Variance, But Plan Still Uncertain

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Friday, July 13, 2018, 8:33 am
Andrew Graham and Alice Dreger

Above: Biggby at its current location and 300 Grand, where Biggby seeks to move.

[Note: City Planning staff got back to us after this article was published, and it has been updated to reflect their response.]

The East Lansing Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday voted 6-1 to allow a Biggby coffee drive-thru at 300 West Grand River if the space can accommodate at least eight cars backing up on the property waiting for drive-thru service. Whether it can fit that many depends how the space is measured, but City planning staff tell ELi they believe the site does have adequate space.

Biggby was also seeking assurance, as part of its application, that the operation could be open 24-hours a day. But the applicant was informed that that decision will be up to City Council, not the Board of Appeals or City staff.

The six Zoning Board of Appeal members voting in favor of the drive-through variance gave various reasons for their votes, including that the site just doesn’t have enough space to meet the zoning code’s requirement for a ten-car back-up. 

Several also noted that traffic backs up onto roads in other drive-thru coffee shops like Starbucks on Grand River Avenue in East Lansing. Some said if that becomes a problem at this site, and customers are turned away, the coffee shop will fail, which will be the owner’s problem.

The lone dissenting voice on the Board’s decision came from Andria Ditschman, a lawyer who has specialized in municipal law. Before voting “no,” Ditschman said she thought the site simply didn’t work for this particular use.

“Stacking space” is the concern:

East Lansing’s zoning code requires that drive-thrus have adequate “stacking space” for cars waiting, so that they will not back up onto roads and block traffic. How much stacking space is required by the code depends on what the drive-thru use will be.

At 300 West Grand River Avenue – a building marketed as 300 Grand – the original plan was to have a bank in the ground-floor corner retail space, with a drive-thru in the tunnel. Cars would enter the bank’s drive-thru line from Delta Street and exit onto Grand River Avenue. The bank drive-thru was to have two working lanes.

For a bank drive-thru, East Lansing’s code only requires stacking space for a total of five cars. So, it was not hard to fit a two-lane bank drive-thru at this particular site under the existing code.

But the bank deal didn’t come through, and the ground-floor retail space has remained vacant since the building opened nearly two years ago. Now Biggby Coffee wants to move across the street from its current location – the location of the original Biggby store – and use the 300 Grand retail space with one drive-thru window lane, and space for cars to pass by in the right lane of the tunnel.

Biggby counts as a restaurant under the zoning code, and East Lansing’s zoning code calls for stacking space for ten cars for a restaurant drive-thru.

There isn’t space for ten cars to back up to a single drive-thru window at 300 Grand the way it was designed. That’s why DTN, the owner of the building (operating under the name Gateway of East Lansing, LLC), requested a code variance reduction, to require only five stacking spaces for Biggby at this location.

How much room there is depends on how you measure it:

Before the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Wednesday, even though they were asking for a variance requiring only five stacking spaces, the applicants for the variance submitted a site plan that suggested the site could accommodate eight stacked cars, as shown below with ELi's added annotation of the car spots:

According to East Lansing’s zoning code, stacking spaces need to be at least 20-feet-long each. The site plan (above) shows five cars stacked up from the window straight back. If those five stacking spaces were 20 feet each, as required, that stretch would be 100 feet long.

ELi went out and measured that stretch and found that how long it is depends on where you think the start of the line begins and ends. City staff tell ELi they believe there is enough space for eight cars to stack up in total on the property, entering from Delta Street and exiting on Grand River Avenue.

What happened Wednesday:

Before making their decision, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the applicants quickly became mired in discussing the site’s parking situation and whether or not a drive-thru for a coffee shop could realistically work in the space. There was acknowledgement that it is a challenging space for this particular use.

The board also wanted to talk about what was going to happen with the existing Biggby site, right across the street, once it was vacated after Biggby was moved to 300 Grand.

Below: 300 Grand as seen through a sculpture at the existing Biggby location.

But that wasn’t their charge for the evening, and Board Chair Brian Laxton was quick to remind the room of the board’s purview on the matter. Laxton said all the board could decide was how many stacking spaces would be required, if not the ten required by code.

At times in the discussion, DTN’s representative, Vice President Chuck Holman, demonstrated an apparent lack of knowledge about existing features of the site. For example, at one point he suggested that 300 Grand's underground parking garage would be open to the public to use for parking for the coffee shop.

But that parking garage is gated and rented solely to residents of the apartments at 300 Grand. In fact, DTN representatives have in other meetings said there is inadequate parking at the site for residents and that they are having to rent off-site spaces from the City of East Lansing for residents.

Eventually on Wednesday, alternate Zoning Board of Appeals member James Bradley (filling in for absent member Konrad Hittner) moved to approve the request with an eight-car variance, saying that the board has allowed similar variances for the Starbucks on Grand River Avenue and the new Biggby on Trowbridge Road.

Bradley also said a reason to grant the variance could be “practical difficulties…resulting from the physical characteristics of the property in question which make it unfeasible to carry out the strict letter of the Zoning Code,” a standard reason for granting a variance.

“I don’t think this property lends itself to ten spots,” Bradley, an attorney, said during the meeting. “I would also say I think there is a precedent for granting in the location of Starbucks. To deny Biggby the variance here would be to fundamentally alter the rights of this property.”

In discussing the variance request, Bradley said that, “short of changing the building, I don’t know how you get ten stacking spots. I don’t know how you comply with that provision of the code.”

One neighbor’s objection:

Only one resident of the area attended the meeting to speak for or against, and he argued against the drive-thru, and against moving the Biggby as a whole. Jeffrey Astrein owns and lives in a condo just west of the subject property, in the West Village townhouse condo complex.

Astrein pointed out that the parking lot of the current Biggby is often full, and that it has a parking lot much larger than what is available at 300 Grand. If Biggby does move across Delta Street to 300 Grand, it will have more retail space but less parking.

DTN wants to move Biggby, Astrein noted, so the existing Biggby site can be redeveloped. That older site is likely to see a more profitable use.

“I don’t know why it has to be a Biggby,” Astrein said at the meeting, “and I strongly question that.” He asked “why it can’t be some other shop when there is already one standing [across the street].”

One lone dissenter on the Board, and more challenges ahead:

“I think the practical difficulty is due to the site plan,” Board member and attorney Andria Ditschman said during the meeting, before she cast the lone “no” vote. Unlike other Board members, she did not see the site plan’s inherent limitations as a reason to give the owner a variance from the zoning code.

Ditschman suggested that the problem wasn’t the zoning code, but the fact that the property simply wasn’t well designed for this particular use.

The site is still challenging for Biggby’s plans, because the existing Special Use Permit for the property limits hours of operations of the retail space and drive-thru from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Biggby has said it must have 24-hour use of both the coffee shop and drive-thru before it will move.

To get this, DTN will have to appeal to East Lansing’s City Council and obtain at least four votes in favor of the 24-hour use. Given that residents live above the 300 Grand retail space and drive-thru, Council may decide not to grant the 24-hour usage.

As a consequence, whether Biggby will move locations remains to be seen. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info