Council Votes Not to Upzone Evergreen Properties; Reasons May Hint at Future Votes

Thursday, September 12, 2019, 9:00 am
By: 
Chris Root

Above: Mark Meadows, the last Royal Vlahakis idea for the area, and Ruth Beier. (Photos of people by Raymond Holt)

East Lansing’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday not to change the zoning of the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties at this time. The change would have allowed significantly taller buildings there than the zoning code currently permits.

While Council member Ruth Beier said she thought the location should not become the site of a development as tall as those that have been going up along Grand River Avenue, Mayor Mark Meadows said he wanted to withhold the upzoning for now, to keep it as a negotiating point with possible developers.

Meadows’ comments suggest that, unlike Beier, he might approve something relatively large in that location in the future.

The zoning question involved a block of properties on the east side of the 300 block of Evergreen Avenue.

The proposal on the table would have permanently rezoned this area to allow buildings up to 8 stories or 112 feet in height by vote of a majority of Council (three of five members) or buildings of up to 140 feet in height with approval by four or more Council members.

A plot of land often the subject of big ideas, but still mostly home to old houses

This block of properties, close to Valley Court Park and just north of Peoples Church, was purchased by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) 10 years ago for future development. The project for which the DDA bought the land fell apart.

Below: Rental houses now occupying some of the land in question.

Tall buildings have been proposed here before, as part of “Park District” projects by several developers. None of them have materialized.

Most recently the site had been the subject of the Royal Vlahakis “Park Place West” proposal, which went through several iterations. The DDA recently terminated a Purchase and Sale Agreement with Royal Vlahakis for the properties.

Each previous proposal has been made on the assumption by the developer that the Council would vote to upzone the land from the current RM-32 City Center Multiple-Family Residential District (maximum 6 stories or 70 feet) to the most intensive zoning, B-3 Center City Commercial District.

On previous occasions, the Council did vote to conditionally upzone the properties, so that the zoning reverted back if the project under review did not go forward.

Upzoning means the potential for more development, and that means more money

The formal request to Council to rezone these parcels came from the DDA, as Royal Vlahakis needed this change to accommodate its proposal.

More recently, as the Royal Vlahakis deal fell apart, DDA members expressed interest in the upzoning for a Request for Proposals (RFP) that the DDA is expected to approve at its September 26 meeting. The RFP will essentially be an advertisement asking other developers to pitch ideas for the properties.

As Planning Administrator David Haywood explained to the Council on Tuesday, “It’s clear that the DDA wanted to market this property pretty heavily, and the best way to do that from their perspective is to go after B-3, because it’s the most permissive, it creates the most density. … [The DDA] would prefer to market the property to get the best return on it.“

Council members differ on what should go at this location

Before voting against the upzoning, Councilmember Ruth Beier (below) explained that she believes the 300 block of Evergreen Avenue is not an appropriate site for buildings as tall and intensive as what is allowed in the B-3 district.

“That area isn't City Center, it's between the Center City and the neighborhoods and the park,” she said. “So, we need something between that.”

Said Beier, “I don't mind so much on Abbot Road, but coming down on Evergreen Avenue, I think there needs to be a decline [in building height]."

Beier asked Planning Department staff to draft amendments to the B-2 District (which Haywood said is similar to the zoning contained in the Master Plan for this site) that could be helpful for this location—amendments “that would allow us to do what we want to do there without allowing us to do more than what we want to do there.”

Councilmember Shanna Draheim (below) started out by saying “I’m in the same boat” as Beier. She went on to discuss the challenge of communicating to potential developers in an RFP what is wanted here, given the open questions about zoning.

The recently adopted Master Plan for development calls for something comparable to the current B-2 district, less intensive than the B-3 district. Draheim talked about the possibility of explaining, in the RFP, the current zoning, the zoning recommended in the Master Plan, the possibility of rezoning to B-3, and the fact that the Planning Commission currently is working on a new form-based code.

Developers would then be invited to respond with creative proposals that would fit within these broad parameters.

Mayor Meadows cited several reasons he saw for opposing the rezoning ordinance, but much of his statement dealt with how to position the City to negotiate with potential developers.

“I personally think that we have to have the opportunity to conditionally rezone,” Meadows (above) said. “I don’t want to rezone this property permanently and not know what we are going to get proposed for us, because then we are sort of locked into an existing zoning that may restrict our ability to negotiate a better product.”

Meadows continued: “If the RFP comes back with something that we love, then we could take a look at this again and take a look at the appropriate zoning. But I also agree with Ruth. I think we need to see some alternatives to the zoning at this particular location that might promote a better project on this site.”

Meadows also said he agreed with Ralph Monsma, a Pinecrest resident and former Council member who spoke against the rezoning ordinance.

Below: Ralph Monsma at the June 25 meeting of the DDA.

Meadows concurred with Monsma that it is significant that this property is very close to Valley Court Park, and that it would be good to have a proposal at this location that is compatible with the low- to moderate-income apartments that DRW/Convexity plans to build at 341 Evergreen Avenue, between the DDA properties and the park.

Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann and Councilmember Aaron Stephens joined Beier, Draheim, and Meadows in voting against the rezoning, but did not explain their votes.

Perspectives of neighbors of the Evergreen site

Prior to the public hearing at Tuesday’s meeting, the Council received letters from Jodi Cook, Chair of the Council of Elders at Peoples Church, and David Ledebuhr of Musselman Realty.

The letter from Peoples Church (available here) said, “We strongly believe the properties should remain zoned RM-32 in compliance with the City Master Plan” and that they should not be rezoned prior to the RFP.

Below: 314 Evergreen Avenue (left), just north of Peoples Church, owned by the DDA and in the block that Council was considering upzoning.

Cook’s letter continued, “We urge City leaders to wait and see what responses are received first, now that the process is competitive, as a rezoning decision may not be necessary.”

Ledebuhr, who owns several pieces of property near this site, wrote in favor of the “step down theory” advocating progressively shorter buildings moving from the downtown toward Valley Court Park. (His full letter is available here.) He also favored the current zoning over a change to B-3 because B-3 requires less parking.

Ledebuhr’s letter also suggested de-coupling the decision about what building is in the best interests of the City at this location and how to pay for the $5.6 million of the remaining DDA debt on these properties.

He wrote, “in my opinion, the best way is to focus on the long-term solutions as to what's best for the immediate area, and then calculate the best financial methods to get there.”

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