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A zoning ordinance designed to help the $190 million Park Place redevelopment proposal failed to pass at City Council last night. The ordinance was aimed at allowing the developers to put a 135-foot-tall building on Evergreen Avenue, just north of Peoples Church.
Four members of Council were present – Ruth Beier is away in California for the birth of her grandchild – and Council Members Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens made clear they were against the ordinance.
Mayor Mark Meadows and Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann were in favor, but a majority was needed to pass it. So a 2-2 vote meant failure.
The vote actually came out 3-1 against, with Altmann choosing to vote “no” at the end. He explained that his “no” vote afforded him the opportunity to reintroduce the ordinance later, since parliamentary procedure only allows failed motions to be reintroduced by members who voted against them.
Stephens asked repeatedly from where this ordinance had originated, and how it was related to another ordinance already being proposed which would set the stage for the 15-story, 159-foot-tall building the developers want to build on Abbot Road.
Zoning Administrator David Haywood responded that the ordinance before Council was prepared at the direction of someone on City Council. Mayor Mark Meadows said he thought the ordinance was drafted because of a staff recommendation. But Haywood said again that someone on Council wanted this ordinance, without naming the person or persons.
ELi reported in November that Altmann and Meadows had been working behind closed doors with the developers on preparing the deal.
While the thumbs-down vote at City Council last night doesn’t stop the Park Place proposal from moving forward – in fact, it goes to Planning Commission tonight for a public hearing – it does signal rough waters for this public-private deal, which would be the largest ever undertaken in the City of East Lansing, and would give developers rights to at least three pieces of public land.
The ordinance that failed:
Ordinance 1443, if it had passed last night, would have allowed for buildings up to 140 feet tall in the City Center Commercial zoning district (B3), which currently encompasses East Lansing’s downtown area from Abbot Road to Collingwood Drive, as shown in the outline drawn on this map by City staff.
The law would have required approval of at least four members of Council for 140-foot-tall buildings in this area, which stretches east to Collingwood and north above Albert Avenue.
The area doesn’t currently include the Evergreen Avenue properties owned by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and included in the Park Place plan. But Council could have later expanded the City Center Commercial district to include those properties, as well as others in other parts of downtown.
During discussion of the matter, Stephens pointed out that the ordinance failed to be recommended by the Planning Commission where it received 2-6 vote against recommendation, and that it was inconsistent with the City’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan.
Asking why he should vote for this significant change to East Lansing’s zoning code now, Stephens said, “I want to know what the motivation is.”
City Attorney Tom Yeadon then explained that he had felt the ordinance was necessary to correct an inconsistency in East Lansing’s zoning code. Current B3 zoning allows for buildings of up to 112 feet, but there is a “bonus” district within the B3 zone where developers can build up to 140 feet with a supermajority vote from City Council if a project is deemed by Council to be “of significant public benefit.”
For perspective, 140 feet is the height of The Landmark building being built as part of the Center City project on Grand River Avenue (below).
Ordinance 1443 as drafted by Yeadon would have extended that “bonus” district of 140-foot height to cover the entire B3 zone. Yeadon explained that he felt limiting building height outside off the bonus district opened the City up to legal action from property owners who wanted to build additional height but whose property was outside of that zone.
“This ordinance . . . alleviates my fear about the enforceability of that standard, and it also accommodates the new [Park Plan] development,” said Yeadon.
A push to consider height downtown in a more comprehensive way:
Altmann pointed out that, in order to accommodate the Park Place development, the portion of that development along Evergreen Avenue would still have to be rezoned into the B3 district. (The implication was that passing this ordinance would not make a “done deal” for Park Place.)
But Stephens asked why this change wouldn’t be accomplished as part of the ongoing process that the City has undertaken regarding instituting form based code – a uniform standard for the downtown area now actively under consideration.
Draheim echoed that sentiment.
“I want us to look at this comprehensively,” Draheim said, “as to what do we want our zoning code to be downtown. We just finished the Comprehensive Plan, the Comprehensive Plan should be informing it . . . . A lot of people spent a lot of time providing that input, we need to weigh that.”
Draheim added, “I don’t want the project driving this process. I like the process and the vision dictating the projects.”
Stephens also spoke in favor of a more comprehensive approach.
“I agree,” Stephens said. “I think we should have this conversation holistically about our zoning. This feels random.” He added, “If we’re going to be having a huge conversation about form based code, let’s wrap this into that conversation.”
Meadows asked when Council could expect to see the Planning Commission’s recommendations regarding form based code, and Haywood responded, “Spring I would think, at the earliest.”
Meadows and Altmann say the Comprehensive Plan can and should be disregarded sometimes:
Before the vote, Meadows spoke in favor of Ordinance 1443, saying that the Council had decided to adopt the Comprehensive Plan as a recommendation rather than a requirement.
“This is not inconsistent with how we’ve treated Comprehensive Plans in the past,” Meadows said. “In fact, I’m trying to think of times when we haven’t disregarded the Comprehensive Plan given the nature of whatever we have in front of us. I think it’s happened a lot.”
Altmann echoed Meadows sentiment, adding that he had seen the Comprehensive Plan used as “a baseball bat to kill projects.” (He did not give examples.)
“I would like to see this ordinance passed,” Altmann said, “because I think it does simplify the code and it enables us to do more building up instead of out, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m going to argue for the merits of height, there.”
Meadows ended this portion of the meeting saying he wanted the form based code legislation to come to Council on an “accelerated process” to manage “this very critical area where we have most of our discussions.”
Stephens seconded that desire.
The Park Place proposal goes to Planning Commission for a public hearing tonight, and tomorrow the Downtown Development Authority and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority will be discussing the site plan and multi-million-dollar East Lansing tax incentives for the project. Learn more about the plan and how you can weigh in here.
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