MSU Making Play for Blighted Corner

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Friday, January 27, 2017, 11:43 am
Alice Dreger

In a move that could create significant ripple effects for East Lansing, MSU is looking to possibly become a major actor in the redevelopment of the blighted corner downtown.

According to Vennie Gore, MSU’s Vice President for Auxiliary Enterprises, MSU is working through Chicago-based real estate consultants JLL to possibly arrange a deal with developer Convexity Properties for the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. The deal is still theoretical but could result in the university housing 300-350 visiting faculty and scholars across the street from MSU’s main entrance.

As ELi reported yesterday, Convexity Properties recently told City Planning staff that they would be “significantly” changing their site proposal for the blighted corner. Whether this is a reference to a deal with MSU is not clear. Convexity’s representative did not respond for comment this morning.

Gore discussed various possibilities at a meeting this morning with East Lansing’s Council of Neighborhood Presidents at the Kellogg Center. The invitation from MSU to East Lansing’s neighborhood representatives, sent earlier this week, read: “MSU shares the vision of a vibrant downtown with the citizens of East Lansing to attract top talent who can go anywhere in the world. The university recruits the best and brightest each year and in order to attract and retain faculty and staff, the university would like to work with the city to eliminate blight and revitalize the downtown area.”

The invitation continued: “As you may recall, two years ago we engaged in a request for proposals (RFP) to work with the private sector to provide housing for visiting scholars in the City of East Lansing as Spartan Village begins to be decommissioned. The RFP process did not yield viable options and we continue to search for solutions for our 350 visiting scholars, post-doctoral students and faculty from around the world.”

Gore told the Council that these “visiting scholars” include such people as faculty from other universities doing sabbatical work at MSU, visiting researchers, and members of MSU’s Visiting International Professionals Program. Some have family members who come with them.

It has been challenging, according to Gore, to find housing for these individuals because landlords have not been interested in doing shorter-term leases, and these scholars typically stay only between a few weeks and nine months. If MSU strikes a deal with Convexity, the university might obtain a long-term “master lease” to rent hundreds of apartments for the people the university wants to house.

Gore indicated the university is also potentially interested in eventually trying to provide some kind of retirement housing options near the university. He spoke favorably of the Kendal  system, not-for-profit retirement communities that are purposely connected to vibrant universities and colleges.

He said the university would also like to see more upscale residential condo-type options for wealthier alumni who visit the university 30-40 times a year for events, including games.

Among the in-play initiatives at the university that will involve a need for more professional-type housing are the FRIB (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams), which Gore indicated would be “coming online” around 2021, and a capital campaign by the university to hire 100 new faculty members.

Asked by one neighborhood representative about what these 300-350 residents would want in short-term homes, Gore said that these individuals would typically seek “a sense of community, a place to go eat, to get groceries, to worship,” and to relax downtown, “especially on weekends, when they’re not in the labs.” He said this is a group comfortable with an urban lifestyle in which, if a car is needed, a person calls Uber or a cab or rents a Zip Car. He said especially, “They don’t want to hunt for an apartment.”

Gore asked the neighborhood representatives what kinds of amenities they thought would be of interest to the community, suggesting an urban grocery store and possibly a small film venue—two currently absent amenities of perpetual interest to residents who live in and near downtown.

Janet Lillie, MSU’s Assistant Vice President for Community Relations, said the university recognizes that “having a different population downtown” could significantly diversify retail options downtown, in terms of shopping and dining.

MSU is planning to provide what Gore called “a Trader Joe’s lite” kind of grocery store at the new 1855 development on Harrison Road across from the Breslin Center. (To be clear, this will not be a Trader Joe’s brand store.) Asked about whether the old Cherry Lane property might be used for providing this housing, Gore said that property is likely to be developed to house new academic science buildings.

Ray Vlasin of the Harrison Meadows Neighborhood Association and member of the Financial Health Team advised Gore that dealing with the City planning system can be unpredictable and frustrating. He said that often the City holds charrettes or other formal consultations with residents during planning, only to ignore down the line what residents suggested.

Vlasin also said that transportation planning for that area of downtown has been “woefully narrow” and that the area could be a significant problem if not planned well.

Asked by Chesterfield Hills Neighborhood Association member Mark Terry about what kind of timing MSU was looking at, Gore responded that he knew that Convexity had to get some kind of plan to the City on Monday or Tuesday in advance of next Tuesday’s Council meeting. At that meeting, Council will be discussing whether to order demolition of Convexity’s buildings, something that could risk a $10 million state tax credit. (Read more.)

Terry pointed out that a challenge to all this is the financing—the cost of the land and of major construction is high, which makes the profit margin a potential challenge for the developer, and thus also for the university. Gore effectively agreed, indicating how the finances would work is far from worked out.

Gore warned the neighborhood representatives that “this is a long and arduous process” and said “we’re at the beginning.”

Disclosure: Alice Dreger is a leader in the Oakwood Neighborhood.



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