Park Place Plan Doesn’t Sit Well with Planning Commission

Thursday, December 13, 2018, 10:07 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: Rendering of the 12-story building developers would like to build near Valley Court Park.

A majority of East Lansing Planning Commissioners sent a message last night that they don’t favor the Park Place plan as it’s been described. Commissioners voted 6-2 against recommending a proposed ordinance that would have begun to set the stage for the 12-story building near Valley Court Park envisioned by the developers.

The proposed ordinance under consideration would not be all that is needed to get that project done by any means. But it represented one key step – and that’s why Planning staff has already moved to get this ordinance through various required stages to approval, even though, as we reported yesterday, the developers still have not submitted a site plan.

Planning Commission’s vote is simply advisory to City Council. A majority of City Council can still vote to pave the way for this project, which also is calling for a 14-story building along Abbot Road. But the statements made in favor and against by Planning Commissioners hint at what they see as the positives and negatives of the Park Place project as the would-be developers have described it so far.

Dan Bollman, Chair of the Planning Commission, noted that the City’s new Comprehensive Plan, which was approved only a few months ago after years of discussion and deliberation, envisioned significantly lower buildings along Evergreen Avenue near the park, where the Park Pace West building would rise to 12 stories.

The developers want that building to include a twelve-plex movie theatre, two floors of parking, and hundreds of apartments, some of them owner-occupied condominiums.

Bollman said he was “pretty strongly feeling” that the Comprehensive Plan should lead here. That would speak against anything nearly this tall. Commissioner Chris Wolf also noted there had been much discussion previously about these properties, as part of the completion of the Comprehensive Plan.

Wolf also called attention to potential serious traffic congestion, noting that Center City and DRW’s Park District plan have yet to be completed and are likely to significantly increase traffic density in the area. He noted that Park Place would be “right next door” to two other major developments.

Commissioner Dale Downes said plainly, “I’m against this.” He said the Comprehensive Plan is “brand new” and this is why we have one – to use for guidance in cases like this.

Downes later added, “this would really detract from the appearance of the downtown. It’s going to make for a very dark downtown.” He said he had a long discussion with a friend who is a planner with MSU Extension who noted that East Lansing’s streets are “fairly narrow” without a lot of setbacks.

“We don’t have daylight penetration that larger cities have,” Downes said, “and our parks are small. I just think it creates a dark downtown.”

Commissioner Vice Chair Kathy Boyle also said she could not support the ordinance. She said “a considerable amount of community work” went into the master plan.

Boyle said she understood that the Evergreen properties’ debt was a real problem for the City as a whole. (Boyle was referring to the $5.8 million debt on the Evergreen Avenue properties that City staff and some members of Council hope will be solved with the Park Place redevelopment.)

Boyle said, “from the planning standpoint,” Grand River Avenue makes sense for tall buildings. But going north towards residential neighborhoods and towards Valley Court Park does not make sense.

Commissioner Jack Cahill did support the ordinance, saying that it was “maybe because of my experience of having a wife from the Bronx, where they have many parks and tall buildings all around the parks. I think it is a really wonderful amenity to have in a City. I think having a taller building there is a positive.”

Cahill wanted the ordinance passed to allow flexibility in East Lansing laws to put 140-foot-tall buildings in more areas.

In response, Wolf said he doesn’t think you should never have tall buildings next to a park, but “not at this time. I don’t think it’s right.”

Commissioner Joseph Sullivan said he was “conflicted” but said he ultimately agreed with Cahill, that “we just have to fundamentally decide what kind of city we should be.” He saw this as “an opportunity” to continue discussion of increased development and density in the area.

Bollman, Boyle, Downes, Sell, Williams, and Wolf voted against recommending the ordinance to City Council. Cahill and Sullivan voted in favor.

The matter will move on to City Council from here. Meanwhile, today the DDA takes up whether to sign the highly detailed contract for selling the Evergreen Avenue properties to the developers of Park Place – a sale that would only actually occur if many other contingencies fall into place.

The DDA will also be voting whether to send out a request for proposals, which would allow all developers to suggest what they would like to do with those properties. The contract with the Park Place developers, if signed, will give them an exclusive right to try to develop the properties, shutting out other possible proposals while the Park Place deal is reviewed and negotiated.

 

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