Council Tries to Shape City Via New Zoning Changes

Friday, February 5, 2016, 12:47 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Townhouses on Albert Street (above), photo courtesy of Hagan Realty

In a pair of unanimous votes, this week East Lansing’s City Council put through a group of zoning changes that appear designed to encourage more housing for non-students in high-density areas of the City and to discourage housing of large number of students in single dwelling units.

By passing Ordinance 1347, Council voted to limit the number of bedrooms that can be in a housing unit in the City’s multi-family and business districts. By passing Ordinance 1348, in the words of Mayor Mark Meadows, Council is “mandating that there is a mixture of housing opportunities in the Downtown.”

Mandating mixed housing downtown:

Ordinance 1348, unanimously approved by Council this week, requires new building in the downtown “city center” (zoned B-3) district to reach a minimum of four-stories. The change also requires that projects have more mixes of housing options, with more studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments than three-bedroom.

Under Ordinance 1348, developers will also be allowed to get a waiver from a majority of Council to get out of the current requirement to dedicate the first floor to retail commercial space.

The new rule also requires “an appropriate balance” of rentals, senior housing, and condos. The idea is to compel developers to provide things like senior housing and owner-occupied condos by requiring that at least 50% of new housing constructed downtown be something different than the usual student rentals, like senior housing or owner-occupied condos.

During public comments, John Kloswick of Haslett Road in East Lansing spoke against the minimum height requirement, saying he thought that a variety of building heights was important for allowing for sunlight and fresh air to be available to those living in taller structures. He also expressed concern about creating structures that are unaffordable to locally-owned small business like Curious Book Shop.

Councilmember Draheim said she had read a lot of studies where the concept of the mixed-market doesn’t play out in sustainable ways in college towns. She noted that while owner-occupied condos might sound like a good idea, it is often the case that non-students don’t want to live in areas that are dense with students.

Several condo projects in the downtown area have struggled or failed to meet their original plans for owner-occupancy, including West Village (on Grand River Avenue along Valley Court Park) and Albert Place (at Albert and Bailey Streets).

Meadows said in Council discussion and in a follow-up email interview that the “and/or” legal wording of the ordinance allows for mixing-in of student housing, or even some buildings with housing likely to be all student rentals if a developer also builds properties that allow the developer to ultimately meet the requirements for 50% of the total being for seniors and/or condos.

Asked about evidence that senior housing and/or condos are economically feasible in downtown East Lansing, Meadows wrote to Eli, “As to senior housing and condos there is no evidence they can or can not be successful in the Central Business District.” He said he thought that existing downtown condos showed that condos can succeed, and referred to a study by a local citizen to support the idea that senior housing downtown could succeed. (He was not able to provide the study at this time.)

Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier said at Council that she believed the student rental market was saturated so that Council had to mandate other options. Draheim maintained that it seemed problematic to approach the concerns about downtown with this method, although she did ultimately vote in favor of the ordinance.

Meadows said the language of Ordinance 1358 was similar to that adopted by a previous Council for the East Village area, and he opined it was “a thoughtful way to approach the East Village.” He said that even though no new development has happened in the East Village as a result of this same type of zoning being put in place in 2006, the zoning sent a signal to potential developers about what Council wanted to see.

Number of bedrooms-per-unit limited:

The limitation of bedrooms per unit of housing, passed as Ordinance 1347 this week, applies only to residential space in the multi-family and business districts of the City. A unit with more than the set number of bedrooms can still be built if the owner gets a special kind of permission from Council, called a Special Use Permit.

A series of three new townhouses (shown above) on Albert Street, directly north of the Peanut Barrel, came up repeatedly in the months of public discussions of Ordinance 1347. The three townhouses were built and are operated by Hagan Realty. Each has seven bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and is licensed for seven unrelated persons.

The building plan for these townhouses was “administratively approved”—meaning city staff approved them—which Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier at City Council this week said was the reason Ordinance 1347 was needed, i.e., to require Council-level approval instead of just staff approval. Her take implied that these are not necessarily the kinds of new residential structures Council would want.

In her correspondence on the matter, City Planning and Zoning Administrator Darcy Schmitt said such designs were not “sustainable.” Brian Hagan of Hagan Realty strongly disagrees, as do other landlords with whom I spoke. In a letter to the Planning Commission last year on this ordinance, Hagan said, “These units are by far our most popular units. We receive calls and emails 2 years in advance to rent the property, some even offer to pay more than the advertised rent.”

He clarified that “we are not advocating for building 7 bedrooms [units] all over town, however, it is a perfect example of density in the downtown. It has been stated in staff reports that this type of development is not sustainable, [but] we could not disagree more.” He asked, “How many 1 and 2 bedroom units can the market absorb?” and added, “Typically these [smaller apartments] are the last to rent, primarily, in our opinion, because there are so many.”

An advertisement for another seven-bedroom unit downtown shows a per-person rental price of almost a thousand dollars a month, much greater than typically paid per-person for units with smaller bedrooms. Some point out that if the City wants people with a large disposable income to live downtown—to spend money and support higher-end businesses—then they should provide housing that attracts tenants who can afford high rents.

Landlords have repeatedly told ELi and the City that the market is saturated with studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. Hagan also points out that City staff have used photos of the townhouses as positive examples of how higher-density, house-style housing can look. In his letter to the Planning Commission, Hagan said these townhouses show “that density can be done in an attractive manner.”

Ultimately Hagan supported Ordinance 1347 because it allowed for exceptions to the bedroom limit for well-designed high-bedroom-count units if Council felt the plan made sense for a given location. He told me he was satisfied with the outcome, and continues to believe properties like these townhouses can make good sense for some carefully-chosen locations in East Lansing.

The Planning Commission and the Downtown Development Authority had previously discussed a draft of this ordinance and indicated they were comfortable limiting the number of bedrooms in these areas to four per unit.  For reasons that are unclear, at its meeting this week Council instead considered a different version of Ordinance 1347, one limiting the number of bedrooms to three.

Councilmember Shanna Draheim said at the outset of discussions that she was uncomfortable with the change from what had been discussed in previous open meetings—that this language change, from a limit of four bedrooms to three, which occurred with almost no notice to the interested public, did not allow for appropriate input from those impacted, including landlords.

Ultimately Council voted 5-0 to institute a limit of three bedrooms per unit for the downtown area and a limit of four bedrooms per unit for the multifamily-zoned districts. Mayor Mark Meadows said the issue could always be revisited.

 

To read what else happened at Council this week, check out ELi's weekly Council Capsule.

 

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