Park District Plans Morph, Move Forward

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Thursday, December 1, 2016, 8:08 am
Alice Dreger

Responding to concerns raised by various groups—including Peoples Church, the Oakwood neighborhood, and East Lansing’s Planning Commission—the developer for the Park District project has amended the area redevelopment plans further, and has now obtained approval for the project's site plan from Planning Commission. The plans will now move for required approval by various other public bodies, including East Lansing’s City Council.

Developer Chris Oakley, representing Convexity Properties, told Planning Commission at its November 16 meeting that getting the local approvals all wrapped up is critically important if the project is to happen. “Not moving this along is frankly somewhat catastrophic,” he told the Commission, suggesting that if the plan is not approved quickly enough to obtain Michigan Business Tax credits for the project, the project likely won’t happen. He urged the Commission to approve the project that night to send it on to City Council.

Some Planning Commissioners expressed displeasure at feeling rushed at the meeting, because they had just gotten the latest staff recommendations a few hours before the meeting from the City's Planning staff. But they also acknowledged that this had occurred in part because the developer had been quite responsive to concerns raised by members of Peoples Church (next door), the Oakwood neighborhood (directly to the north), and Planning Commission and had rapidly instituted a number of changes to the plans. (Planning Commission had previously considered earlier versions of the plans.)

Ultimately at the November 16 meeting, the members of Planning Commission present voted unanimously to send the project on for approval to City Council, with several dozen recommended conditions. Several Planning Commissioners said they were appreciative of the responsiveness of the developer to the many concerns that had been raised about previous iterations of the plan and said they thought this was a good plan for the community.

The project is nowhere near a done deal. Financing for the project is extremely complicated and uncertain, and will depend in part on City Council ultimately approving some form of tax increment financing (TIF) at least for the parking garage the City will ultimately own. (The City can use TIF to reimburse itself out of new taxes for certain expenses for a project like this.) To complete the whole project as proposed, the developer will also need to successfully finance and sell a number of condo units in the two smaller residential buildings in the plans. And, as noted above, the developer has said the project depends also on obtaining state-level tax credits.

The project is planned for the multi-acre blighted area just northwest of the intersection of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. It includes plans for three major new structures to be built in the area, along with realignment of roads and major infrastructure construction.

The basic plan for Building A remains the same as before: it is set to be constructed on the land of what is now the vacant “big bank building” at the major downtown corner, the vacant old commercial buildings nearer Peoples Church, and the area of Evergreen Avenue that now exists between them. (The City would have to give the land of the street to the developer for this to happen.) Building A is designed to be 12-stories tall at its highest and to house a hotel with about 150 rooms, along with 177 rental apartments accessed via a separate entrance.

There would be retail space on the first floor, including possibly an "urban grocery," and a public restaurant/lounge near the top of the building (visible in the upper right portion of the image below). The corner facing the MSU Union would include a public plaza at the street level.

Above: artist’s rendering of Building A, shown from above from the southeast,  as if you were hovering over the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road.

East Lansing law currently requires that a building like Building A not have its own parking. The aim of this law was to maximize use of the City’s parking lots. The developer has requested and Planning Commission has approved an exception under which Building A would have 112 parking spots in the basement level, mostly for hotel guests. Apartment residents and visitors to Building A’s retail spaces who want to bring cars would be expected to park in a City-owned lot.

Above: artist’s rendering of Building A, shown from Grand River Avenue.

Building B, just across Albert Street from Building A, would be a new five-story parking ramp to be owned and operated by the City of East Lansing. On the west side of it, it would be fronted with a three-story residential grouping of 12 owner-occupied condos. This grouping of 12 apartments is called “C2” in the plans.

Building C1 would be just west of C2, across what is now Evergreen Avenue but what would become a pedestrian greenway. C1 would contain 52 apartments; these are also designed to be condominiums, so there would be a total of 64 owner-occupied condos (52 in C1 plus 12 in C2).

Above: Buildings C1 and C2 would be owner-occupied apartment housing with a greenway between them. Building B would be a new City-owned parking ramp.

Because Buildings C1 and C2 have fewer residential units than the last plan contained for this part of the site area, the developer has been able to scale back the parking ramp (B) to a smaller structure than previously suggested.

In the lower of the following pair of drawings, essentially showing what you'd see if you looked north from Peoples Church, you can see building C1 to the left and buildings C2 and the parking garage (B) to the right. Between them is the greenway that would be where Evergreen Avenue now exists in that area.

The following drawing shows an artist’s rendering of the greenway between buildings C1 and C2, as if you were looking from just north of Peoples Church. The empty area shown in the distance would actually be the Oakwood neighborhood.

Above: Building C1 to the left, C2 to the right, with the pedestrian greenway on the site of what is now part of Evergreen Avenue.

The developer had previously planned an eight-story rental building for where C1 now is planned, but many in the Oakwood neighborhood objected to such a tall building near an historic district of 1920s homes. The developer’s architect told Planning Commission that the new design of C1 and C2 is meant to evoke the brick and clapboard style of many Oakwood houses.

Building C1 is now designed to be entered from Valley Court Drive, near the existing tennis courts in Valley Court Park. This entryway location is chosen in part because it means the developer does not have to try to purchase the parking lot owned by the City just south of where C1 would be. This drawing shows the planned entryway of C1:

Residents of C1 and C2 would be expected, if they own cars, to purchase permit-parking from the City to park in the new ramp (B) or in another City-owned lot. The following artist’s drawing shows C1 (to the left) and the parking garage with C2 attached to it, shown from above from the southwest. Peoples Church is in the lower right corner.

The current plan provides one additional row of parking for Peoples Church at the north end of their lot. Those visiting the church could also use the new ramp if parking were available there. The City might also elect to maintain the lot that now exists between Peoples Church and what would become Building C1. Right now the developer is suggesting the City turn that lot into an attractive parkland (as you can see, it is shown as having grass, trees, and shrubbery in the drawing just above), but what happens there will be up to the City, not the developer.

The developer has been working with Peoples Church to provide adequate screening to the church’s Memorial Garden, which is just west of Building A’s site, and to design a traffic flow plan that avoids having drivers attempt to cut-through the church’s parking lot. The Oakwood neighborhood has similarly expressed concerns about traffic from the new project cutting through their residential area. The City’s plan there is to wait to see if Oakwood experiences a problem after the project is built and then to design traffic diverters if necessary.

Concerns remain with regard to how much traffic this project will bring to the general area, particularly along Abbot Road near Grand River Avenue. The developer has been working with traffic engineers and East Lansing's Transportations Commission to create bike lanes along Albert Street and continuous bike lanes along Abbot Road, where bike lanes are now lacking. (See the Transportation Commission's recommendations.)

City Council has tried to engineer a diversification of housing options in the downtown area via a piece of legislation known as Ordinance 1384. The ordinance restricts what kinds of housing can be built in the downtown area. City Council recently amended this ordinance and it now requires that at least 25% of new housing built in a development in this area be something other than what might easily become student rentals. Options include but are not limited to owner-occupied condos, senior housing, and income-restricted housing.

For now, the developer is opting to try for condos in buildings C1 and C2, thereby meeting the requirement of the revised ordinance. (The 25% minimum is met when taking into account the whole project, including Buildings A, C1, and C2.) But the developer’s representatives have made patently clear that they expect difficulty selling condos at these locations. The developer’s plan is to start with Building A and to see if they can pre-sell enough condos in Buildings C1 and C2 to make those buildings viable. If the developer cannot, the expectation is that they would come back to the City with an alternate plan for those parcels of land.

This large and complex project requires a multi-faceted public-private partnership in part because some of the land involved is owned privately, some by the City of East Lansing, and some by East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA). As noted above, the financing is also expected to be challenging and complicated.

David Pierson, the developer's local representative, told ELi yesterday, "I think we can fairly say that we are very pleased with the approvals received to date." The proposal next moves to the City's Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to work out a tax increment financing plan. Both the tax plan and the site plan will require approval by East Lansing’s City Council. This project is not yet on Council’s agenda.

Want to see the submitted plans in higher resolution and with more detail? Click here.


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