Fire Marshal Review Missing on Center City Project

Thursday, August 30, 2018, 5:00 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Today, in response to a public records request from ELi, the East Lansing Fire Department specifically acknowledged that there has been no Fire Marshal review of plans for the 12-story building now under construction on Grand River Avenue. It appears that plans for the rest of the $132 million Center City District redevelopment project have also never undergone Fire Marshal review, as normally required.

The project – set to house over five hundred MSU students and senior citizens, Target, other retail stores and restaurants, and a parking garage for six hundred vehicles – apparently skipped the normal Fire Marshal review stage.

East Lansing’s City Manager George Lahanas has not answered requests for comment. East Lansing’s Fire Marshal, Don Carter, has also not answered, and follow-up calls to ELFD have not been returned.

The State Fire Marshal’s communication officer tells ELi that “the plan review of this project does not fall under State of Michigan jurisdiction.”

Responses to a separate public records request by ELi show also that City staff never checked to make sure the final design plans for the project match what City Council approved, as also required by East Lansing’s zoning code. City Manager George Lahanas has also not answered requests to explain that.

The project involves a public-private partnership between the City of East Lansing and a limited liability company (LLC) called HB BM East Lansing, LLC. The initials of the company derive from the names of the co-developers: Harbor Bay Real Estate of Northbrook, Illinois, and Ballein Management of East Lansing.

How we made these discoveries:

In June 2017, Council approved plans for the Grand River Avenue building to house 271 market-rate rental apartments and for the Albert Avenue building, above the parking garage, to house 92 rental apartments for people aged 55 and over.

Several weeks ago, as they saw advertising banners for the apartments go up, ELi readers asked us to find out what the rental prices would be for the apartments of the Center City District project.

As background, we asked City staff to confirm how many of various types of units were being constructed in the Grand River Avenue building, now called “The Landmark.” In response, staff told us there would be 81 efficiencies, 31 one-bedroom units, 131 two-bedroom units, and 30 three-bedroom units.

But Council had not approved any three-bedroom units.

So, we took to digging to try to figure out what was going on. Ultimately what we found was that, in reading the design plans, staff were seeing two-bedroom units that are designed to hold three beds, and were counting these as three-bedrooms.

This line of research also led us to discover that what Council had approved as “market-rate rentals” are being marketed by the developer as “purpose-built student housing" on the rental website.

We then wanted to know if what is being built is really what Council approved.

I went to the East Lansing Building Department to ask to see the design plans referred to in the Master Development Agreement, signed by Mayor Mark Meadows in October 2017 on behalf of the City. I was told at the desk that the Building Department couldn’t find the design plans.

We filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get them. We simultaneously requested copies of documents showing City staff had certified that the final design plans match what Council approved, as required by the City’s zoning code.

We were initially told the City couldn’t find these documents and needed an extension. Eventually, we received back a response providing the design plans as referred to in the Master Development Agreement. But, we were told, there was no record of staff certification that they matched what Council approved.

A close look at the design plans for the apartments confirmed that a number of them are designed to have three beds in two-bedroom units. It also indicated an element of the design that seemed somewhat curious: there are apartments with windows that face only other apartment windows along a ten-story-tall indentation in the façade.

It seemed that, in a fire, such a space might become an accidental “chimney,” and that it would be difficult for a firefighter to access such windows safely. (For the entire floor plan, click here.) Below is a photo showing the indentations built into the Grand River Avenue-facing side:

Curious to see what the Fire Marshal might have said about the design, I went back through the agenda packets for this project. That’s when I discovered there was apparently no Fire Marshal review of the plans which Planning Commission voted not to recommend in April 2017. I also found no Fire Marshal review of the plans which City Council voted unanimously to approve in June 2017.

What we know for now:

On August 18, I wrote to ELFD Fire Marshal Don Carter to tell him that I could not find his review. I asked, “Is the building being constructed according to plans you’ve had the opportunity to review and approve?” He never answered.

On the same day, I wrote to City Manager George Lahanas, and asked, “Can you explain the lack of the fire marshal review in the final packets for Planning and Council on Center City District?” I also brought up the issue during public comment at City Council on August 21, a meeting which was attended by Lahanas. He has provided no response.

I also filed a Freedom of Information Act on August 18 asking specifically for:

“Documentation showing the Fire Department’s or the Fire Department’s representative’s review of building plans now actually being used for construction of the building now called The Landmark, that is, the Grand River Avenue-facing apartment building being constructed as part of the Center City District project, including date(s) of the documentation provided.”

That was the FOIA request finally answered at 2:40 a.m. today: no such documentation could be found.

This morning, ELi made inquiries on the matter to Christman Company, the general contractor for the project. We also left a voicemail message through the Fire Chief’s assistant. If we receive responses, we will post them as updates.

Fire review is meant to ensure safety for firefighters as well as for residents and visitors to buildings. The purpose of the fire marshal’s review is to check that a building design meets the current fire safety code.

 

See a timeline of our complete reporting on the Center City District project here.

Read a follow-up to this story here.

Note: This article was updated with two new photographs on August 31, 2018.