Facing Project Delays, Center City Contractor Will Use More Land

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Monday, June 18, 2018, 8:15 am
Alice Dreger

At a special meeting last week, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) voted unanimously to allow Christman Company, the Center City District project’s lead contractor, to rent publicly-owned land across Abbot Road for $1,500 per month. This will allow the contractor to have more space for moving materials on and off the job site—something Christman’s project manager called “a huge win for us.”

Josh Tolbert, Project Manager for Christman Company, told members of the DDA assembled for the special June 13 meeting that the project has “already suffered some pretty significant delays.” He said obtaining the right to use the land across Abbot Road for staging construction materials would “definitely help with the ease and flow of work” and would help “prevent further delays going forward.”

Tolbert told the DDA the company is at a “critical point in the project” and that work on Albert Avenue had revealed “lots of things…no one knew was there,” resulting in unexpected delays. He said that shifting some materials from the job site to the land across Albert Avenue would help reduce construction traffic on M.A.C. Avenue.

Said Tolbert, “Logistically it is better to keep congestion out of the heart of downtown” by shifting traffic and materials west to the Abbot Road side.

Neither Tolbert nor the City’s Director of Planning Tim Dempsey has responded to follow-up questions from ELi about when the project is now expected to be completed. The timeline provided on the City’s East Lansing Buzz construction information website (shown below) indicates the parking garage is slated to be done in January 2019 and the entire project in August 2019. Whether that is still realistic is unclear.

In his remarks to the DDA on the matter of the land lease, Dempsey named safety, not timing, as City staff’s chief reason for wanting to see the land leased to Christman Company. “Anything to reduce congestion and the level of activity and spread it out could potentially make it a safer site,” Dempsey told the DDA. “Safety is an issue for us.”

The property being rented out consists of about 10,000 square feet and is located at 303 Abbot Road, the southwest corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, across Albert Avenue from Dublin Square and across Abbot Road from College Manor, which houses Beggar's Banquet. By yesterday, Christman had already started stacking construction materials at the site. 

As ELi previously reported, the property being leased to Christman was purchased in 2001 by the DDA for the failed City Center II project and is now slated to become part of the Park District project. That is a separate project being developed by Chicago-based DRW and Convexity Properties.

The property at 303 Abbot Road (shown below using Google Maps) was purchased from Ballein Management for $700,000 and is now estimated by the City Assessor to be worth nothing. Ballein Management is now co-developer of the Center City District project. Brad Ballein is a member of the DDA and recuses himself from votes directly related to his project. (He was absent from last week’s meeting.)

Besides paying the DDA $1,500 per month for use of the property at 303 Abbot Road, Christman Company will bear the cost of preparing the land for use as a construction staging site. This includes covering it in gravel and putting up an eight-foot-high fence with screening, similar to what now surrounds the vacant property just to the south where the “big bank building” used to stand.

Discussion at last week’s meeting revealed that City staff had originally asked for a much more substantial sum, although that sum was not disclosed. Christman’s representative indicated that, given that the company has to bear the costs of preparing and reverting the site even though it may only have access for a few months, the company did not think it should have to pay more than $1,500 per month.

The lease of the land can be terminated with 50 days’ notice, which will happen if the Park District project finally takes off. ELi reported on Friday that new plans have now been submitted for that major redevelopment. The image below shows the proposed new buildings at the now-vacant Park District site along with the location of 303 Abbot Road, which is proposed under the new plan to be used in part for straightening Albert Avenue across Abbot Road and in part for the land of "Building A" (a proposed 12-story, mixed-use building) at the Park District site.

Before the vote on the lease of 303 Abbot Road to Christman Company for the Center City District project happened, the land rental agreement was strengthened in terms of protections to the DDA and, by extension, the City of East Lansing. (The City’s taxpayers are ultimately responsible for the DDA’s financial obligations.) City Attorney Tom Yeadon, who ordinarily advises the DDA, was not at the meeting, although Dempsey said he had reviewed the agreement prior to the meeting.

The recommendations for strengthening the agreement at the meeting came from Jim Croom, Treasurer of the DDA and, by profession, an attorney. Croom said he wanted to see about “cleaning up” the agreement, specifically by broadening the indemnification terms.

He noted that the draft presented at the meeting only indemnified the DDA on a limited number of items, and he proposed instead indemnifying the DDA, and by extension the City of East Lansing, from all damages that might arise from Christman’s rental of the land. Croom provided specific language, which the DDA supported unanimously.

As this was not his specialty area of law and he is not an attorney for the DDA, Croom noted that the City Attorney would still need to review the changes. Christman Company would also have to agree to the changes before the agreement's execution. As Christman has started using the site, it appears an agreement has now been signed. 

Before the vote, Croom asked Dempsey to confirm that the entity signing on the contractor side would be the parent corporation of Christman Corporation. Croom asked this in order to confirm that the DDA was entering into a contract with a company with deep pockets and substantial insurance. Dempsey confirmed this.

The members of the DDA present and voting in favor of the project besides Croom were Chair Peter Dewan, Vice Chair Douglas Jester, Lynsey Little Clayton, Tricia Foster, City Manager George Lahanas, and Mayor Mark Meadows. Absent besides Brad Ballein were Jeff Kusler, Colin Cronin, and Eric Sudol. Members of the DDA serve voluntarily (without pay) and are appointed by City Council.


Read ELi's complete reporting on the Center City District project.


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