Mayor Still Wants a Building Moratorium, But Council Majority Says No

Wednesday, June 12, 2019, 3:08 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

By the end of a long and contentious discussion at East Lansing’s City Council last night, the idea of a moratorium on new buildings downtown lost support from everyone except Mayor Mark Meadows. And that means a moratorium won’t happen.

Meadows said, however, that he’s going to observe “my own little moratorium.”

There is no way he’s going to review a site plan or vote on one until “we have form-based code in place” for the downtown, Meadows told his colleagues on Council.

Form-based code process will take a while to play out

City staff, external consultants, and a subcommittee of the Planning Commission have been working for months on trying to create a new form-based code for East Lansing’s downtown. The idea has been to have an entirely new code replace the existing code by which development projects are judged.

Under the form-based code, new standards would dictate how new buildings should look and function on the outside. Council has been considering a moratorium on new buildings to allow time for the new code to take shape first.

City staff has been hoping that the code would be specific enough that much of the approval process could be managed by City staff rather than by Planning Commission and City Council. This would, in theory, make it possible for redevelopment to happen faster and more predictably in terms of process. That’s what the Michigan Economic Development Corporation wants to see.

But several members of Council insisted last night that, realistically, the form-based code won’t be ready any time soon. They said that it’s not reasonable or feasible to do a building moratorium while everybody waits for the code to be worked out.

Calling the idea that the code would be well on its way to done by this September “wildly optimistic,” Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann (below) argued forcefully that the new code should not be rushed.

Altmann said that if the Council is going to radically change how new projects in the downtown are approved – in many cases, taking control away from Council and giving it to staff, based on more detailed standards – it was critically important that there be “community buy-in” for the standards in that new code.

In an unusual scene, Meadows and Altmann stand opposed on major points

Historically Altmann has been largely in line with Meadows on zoning and development issues. But last night the scene was different, with Altmann and Meadows openly disagreeing.

Altmann expressed concern that a moratorium could not only stall real estate investment, but that it might also scare off retail businesses wanting to locate in a growing downtown East Lansing.

Meadows thought this was very unlikely, indicating he thinks developers and businesses are eager to move into downtown East Lansing.

Altmann also noted that Council has substantial power right now to reject proposals that it doesn’t like. So, he asked, why bother with a moratorium? Just reject specific projects that they don’t favor.

Council members Ruth Beier and Shanna Draheim found this argument persuasive, and, like Altmann, Draheim thought the idea that the new code would be worked out by September was “overly optimistic.”

Draheim (below) didn’t think it necessary to get ordinary citizens involved “in the weeds” of the new type of form-based code, but wanted to see meaningful public engagement before anything was voted through, given that Council expects the new code to govern downtown redevelopment for as much as 50 years.

But in response, Meadows indicated this was one reason he wanted a 90-day moratorium – to hold “feet to the fire” to get the form-based code done.

Altmann replied that he didn’t want to hold anyone’s feet to the fire on something so important. He said he initially supported the idea of a moratorium, “but the more I hear, the more I think we just don’t need it.”

Earlier in the day, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) held a special meeting, convened by Chair Peter Dewan, who was against the moratorium. A split vote (4-4) resulted there on the question of whether to recommend a moratorium to the Council, with Lynsey Clayton, Luke Hackney, and Eric Sudol voting with Dewan against a moratorium, and Meadows, City Manager George Lahanas, Jill Rhode, and Michael Krueger on the other side.

Where does all this put Core Spaces and Royal Vlahakis?

At both the DDA and Council meetings, attorney David Pierson spoke to ask that Council not stop movement on student-housing developer Core Spaces’ desire to build another Hub project just south of the one it is building now on Bogue Street.

Beier made clear she didn’t want to hold up Core Spaces’ ambition, “because it will generate so much [tax] revenue we need.”

Above: Ruth Beier and Aaron Stephens

On the subject of the Hub, confusion ensued about whether the area where Core Spaces is redeveloping – an area known as the East Village – would be subsumed under the new downtown form-based code or would continue to have its own specific form-based code. (A member of the Planning Commission’s special form-based code committee tells ELi it’s all supposed to be rolled into one.)

Confusion also broke out with regard to how all this impacts developers Royal Apartments and Vlahakis Development’s desire to redevelop the properties owned by the DDA along Evergreen Avenue.

Council members have not been happy lately with that deal, and some of them wanted to know why a moratorium, if enacted, should exempt those properties.

In answer, City Attorney Tom Yeadon cautioned that the City (including Council) needs to appear to be acting “in good faith” on that deal, lest the DDA lose the ability to keep Royal Valahkis’s deposit of $100,000 if the deal falls apart.

Meadows asked how the City is obligated by an agreement signed only by the DDA, not agreed to by Council. Yeadon again cautioned that the City needs to appear to be acting in good faith.

To this, Meadows said the DDA should just give back the $100,000.

The City Manager says staff recommends here what Council wants

Meadows asked City Manager George Lahanas (below) what staff wants in terms of a moratorium. Staff memos have been indicating staff recommends a moratorium.

But last night, Lahanas answered Meadows by saying that Council had started talk of a moratorium, and that staff’s stated recommendation to pass a moratorium had simply been based on what they thought Council wanted.

Lahanas suggested that if Council didn’t want a moratorium, then staff would recommend there not be one.

Earlier in the meeting, public comment on the subject was offered by David Krause, a major local developer and landlord. Krause called the draft form-based code one of the most confusing documents he’d ever read.

He also said he was troubled by the idea of a building code deciding what counts as good architecture. He cautioned Council to consider letting the existing code stop the trend toward greater and greater density in the downtown.

As of now, it appears Council will skip any formal vote on a moratorium. The form-based code committee will keep working on a plan. And Core Spaces will try to get another Hub project approved.

As for the Royal Vlahakis deal, the developers are due to submit yet another site plan by June 21. On that deal, to try to avoid the City and the DDA getting sued, Council members will have to keep acting in good faith around a purchase agreement the Council never voted to approve.

Chris Root contributed reporting from the DDA. Photos by Andrew Graham.

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