East Lansing Council Removes DDA’s Evergreen Properties from Oakwood Historic District

Thursday, February 13, 2020, 8:15 am
By: 
Chris Gray

Clockwise from upper left: Council Members Jessy Gregg, Ruth Beier, Lisa Babcock, Aaron Stephens, and Mark Meadows (photos by Raymond Holt)

The East Lansing City Council decided Tuesday night on a 3-2 vote to follow the advice of the Historic District Commission and remove just the southeast corner of the Oakwood Historic District nearest downtown from the district’s boundaries.

Most of the properties removed belong to the Downtown Development Association (DDA), which may have been otherwise impeded by the historic district restrictions as the City works to redevelop those lots and pay off the debt incurred when the DDA purchased them.

A lot owned by the City that includes Parking Lot 15 on Abbot Road and a series of stairs near Evergreen Avenue was also removed, along with a 2006 townhouse at 404 Evergreen Ave. owned by property manager Matt Hagan.

Above: The red line shows the pre-existing district boundary, and the shaded area at the lower right shows the properties removed.

The 3-2 vote turned on the need for the city to get out from the roughly $5.4 million in debt it owes on the DDA properties.

The two Council members opposed to the decision — Lisa Babcock and Mark Meadows — said the process had been too flawed to support a boundary change.

Babcock and Meadows, the two members who are attorneys, complained that the years-long historic boundary review lacked transparency, particularly with regard to the decisions made around the report produced by the special Oakwood Boundary Study Committee.

“This was a consistently flawed process,” Babcock said. She said homeowners in the district had put “decades into their homes” and said she while the debt “is really troubling,” she believed Council must consider other questions: “how do we treat people, and how do we go forward, and how do we conduct business for the people of East Lansing?”

Above: Lisa Babock speaking at the meeting Tuesday (photo by Raymond Holt)

Meadows agreed with Babcock, saying there had been a “failure in process here.” Meadows continued, “The fact that we can’t find any minutes or any public notices is disturbing to me to say the very least.”

But City Attorney Tom Yeadon said he could defend the process in court, and strongly urged the Council to take the DDA’s properties out of the district now rather than starting the boundary-changing process all over.

Yeadon expressed concern given the power the Historic District Commission would have to veto developments that might be feasible but viewed by the Commission not compatible with the surroundings.

Above: Alice Dreger of Oakwood and Jim Robertson of Glencairn arguing at the meeting that the process had been botched (photos by Raymond Holt)

Yeadon argued that while the public process to remove properties from the district had problems, the Council still had a legal right to change the boundaries as it wished.

“Nobody’s going to buy the property if they don’t know they can develop,” said Mayor Ruth Beier, leading the motion to adopt the boundary change version known as Ordinance 1444c. “I don’t think we can leave this hanging out there. It’s too much debt.”

Beier pushed back on Babcock’s suggestion that the process had “colossally failed” and required a lengthy do-over.

Above: Ruth Beier listening to citizens at the meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)

“Just because you read something was flawed over and over again, doesn’t mean that it is,” Beier said. “If you’re trusting one source over our city attorney, that’s your choice.” Beier said she felt the Council should believe Yeadon that this process was “within the bounds of normal messing up.”

Beier said if they did not take action now, the City could be stuck with the DDA properties while another boundary study was done, and the principal on the DDA’s debt would begin to eat into the City’s general fund.

“If the Council wants to proceed with the development of these meetings, the Council should take these properties out of the district,” recommended Yeadon. “This is an impediment on the sale of the property.”

Council Member Jessy Gregg agreed, arguing that even if they restarted the long and tedious boundary-change process, they would likely still come to the conclusion that the DDA properties should be removed from the Oakwood Historic District.

Above: Jessy Gregg listening to a citizen at the meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)

“The right way forward is to remove those properties from the debt of the City,” Gregg said.

The flawed process did stop a majority of the Council from more aggressively cutting back the district, as had been proposed at previous meetings at the request of those property owners along Valley Court Park who did not wish to remain in the district.

“The only version of the ordinance that I’m comfortable voting for is the one recommended by the Historic District Commission,” Gregg said.

The decision is likely to appease the Oakwood homeowners who opposed a shrinking of the historic district, while leaving unhappy the parties with properties between Valley Court Park and Oakhill Avenue, who complained about the restrictions that the historic district places on their ability to maintain and redevelop their properties.

Two members of the Michigan State University Student Housing Co-Operative, which manages the 1915 Phoenix House at 239 Oakhill Avenue, came to say they wanted that building out of the district.

Connor Meston complained that the historic restrictions interfere with their mission to provide affordable housing for students at MSU, since they must repair the facade of the building with more expensive, historically appropriate materials. Bryan Moody raised issues of equity, property rights, and architecture. (Read his statement as he provided it here.)

Above: Bryan Moody and Connor Meston of the MSU Student Co-Op (photos by Raymond Holt)

Gregg and Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, who supported the limited reduction to the historic district boundaries, offered to investigate and support a subsidy program for property owners like the co-op that provide affordable housing in historic districts. Such a program would help maintain historic character while also supporting the co-op’s mission.

February 24 is the deadline for developers to turn in proposals for redevelopment of the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties.

 

Disclosure: ELi's Publisher Alice Dreger owns a house in the Oakwood Historic District and she opposed the boundary change. ELi has received donations from people who opposed the boundary change, including Jim Robertson and Oakwood homeowners, and also several people who supported the boundary change, including Sante Perrelli (who owns three properties on Oakhill Ave.), David Krause (who owns two properties on Oakhill Ave.), and Matt Hagan (whose property on Evergreen Ave. was removed).

Note: Bryan Moody objected to the original characterization of his statement as it lumped in his comments with Connor Meston's. We amended that and added a link to a PDF of his full statement at 2 p.m. on the date of publication.

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