Little Love for Royal Vlahakis at City Council

Wednesday, May 15, 2019, 8:34 am
By: 
Dan Totzkay

Above: A rendering shown last night of a “market pavilion” in the latest conception of the project.

Representatives of the Royal Vlahakis Park Place proposal appeared at last night’s East Lansing City Council meeting, but received chilly reactions from Council members.

Council member Shanna Draheim had requested the project be discussed in the open forum. She said that representatives of Royal Apartments and Vlahakis Development had been seeking conversations with Council members individually or in small groups, and that she felt having them come before Council would be more efficient and more transparent.

After hearing a short history of the Royal Vlahakis plan from Tom Fehrenbach, East Lansing’s Community and Economic Development Administrator, Council members voiced skepticism about the proposal, especially related to the proposed height of the building, the feasibility of the “city market,” the type of underground parking structure included in the project, and the ability of the developers to meet the latest deadlines agreed to in a contract addendum with the DDA.

The project currently (again) lacks any formal site plan, traffic study, or financing plan. As ELi previously reported, the adjusted conception for Park Place now focuses only on a single new building, designed to be constructed on property for sale by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) along Evergreen Avenue.

In this latest conception, the project would provide two stories of underground parking to be partially owned by the City, an indoor “public market,” an outdoor pavilion for the farmers’ market where Evergreen Avenue now is, and some income-restricted apartments for people earning what counts as low or moderate incomes for this area.

The overall height would be 14 stories rising to about 140 feet.

The project was recently awarded an extension for site plan submission to June 21 by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and extension until July 24 for submission of a Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan. In exchange for lump-sum payments, the DDA is delaying an open Request for Proposals (RFP) process seeking bids from all interested developers on the public properties.

ELi reported last week that three developers have said the public properties should go out for RFP at this point. But for now, a majority of the DDA wants to give Royal Vlahakis more time to try to pull together a project.

Would-be developers Kelly Kenefick of Royal Apartments and Paul Vlahakis were both present last night. Kenefick told Council that changes were made largely to ramp up the project, especially the decision to focus on the west building only and to exclude condominiums and the movie theater.

Now, Kenefick told Council, the developers have now elected to include low- to moderate-income rental housing options to comply with the City’s zoning requirement for large downtown projects that at least 25 percent of residential units provide some type of diversity housing. They also want to build a “city market” into the project.

Kenefick said her team is talking to MSHDA (the Michigan State Housing Development Authority) about funding for the housing part of the project and that MSHDA is “very excited to get into this market.”

While Council members like the idea of income-restricted housing, Shanna Draheim, Ruth Beier, and Aaron Stephens all signaled that they would not support a development with 14 stories at this location.

Stephens said he would be willing to have a conversation about a tall building there if there was to be low- to moderate-income housing, while Draheim and Beier were willing to discuss a project with 10 stories if a sufficient step-down toward Evergreen Avenue, in the direction of Valley Court Park, was included.

Regarding the proposed “public market” indoors on the first floor of the would-be Park Place West building, Draheim questioned whether such a space would be financially feasible, especially given the closure of Lansing’s City Market and that city’s debate over use of major public subsidies for a market.

Stephens said he was nervous about the space and did not want to see it empty, while Meadows said it looked to be “more like a food court.” Meadows did not appear to support it.

The developers are also proposing an outdoor “pavilion” for the place where Evergreen Avenue now runs between Valley Court Drive and Albert Avenue. Meadows derisively described the design as a “pole barn” and suggested this concept was not useful to East Lansing.

Council also noted the developers’ failure to meet the already established deadlines. In response, Kenefick stressed how tight the deadlines had been in the original agreement.

But Meadows clarified that it was Royal Vlahakis who had proposed the original tight schedule and had promised they would meet it, which Fehrenbach confirmed.

Below: Kelly Kenefick presents as Paul Vlahakis (right) listens.

Little detail was provided for the proposed underground parking that would be included with this project, but the idea seems to be that the City would own the underground two floors that would be built on public land. How this would work, given that a major sewer line runs through that area, has still not been explained by the developers.

Meadows made clear he was not in support of the use of tax increment financing (TIF) for more parking in this area, especially if it is expensive, as underground parking would be.

There also appeared to be a disconnect about why owner-occupied condominiums are no longer included in the project’s conception.

Kenefick first suggested that members of the Oakwood Neighborhood had motivated that change in plans, saying Oakwood homeowners did not think the condos or movie theaters would be financially feasible.

However, Mayor Meadows corrected her that the DDA had been told by Vlahakis that financing for both condominiums and market rate apartments in the same building was not feasible, which Beier also recalled. In fact, as ELi reported, Vlahakis sent the DDA a letter saying that financing was their main problem.

As for the movie theater, Royal Vlahakis had originally told the DDA they were in talks with interested industry players. But Kenefick and Vlahakis told Council last night that there was never a committed theater company.

Meadows – who explicitly said there was not much in the project to attract his vote – along with Beier, Draheim, and Stephens signaled that they did not support the Park Place project in its current form.

Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann did not make any comments about the project at Tuesday’s meeting.

For now, the developers can keep pushing forward with revisions and proposals. But the project as concurrently described would need, according to East Lansing law, at least four votes in favor among the five members of City Council.

Last night, there appeared to be at least four votes against.

 

See our complete reporting on the Royal Vlahakis project.

 

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