Parking in Downtown East Lansing? Heated Debate Flares Up

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Friday, July 19, 2019, 7:22 am
Alice Dreger

What’s the right approach to parking downtown?

Strong disagreement broke out on this question at yesterday’s committee meetings of East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA), with City Council member Erik Altmann arguing the City needs to stop “inducing” car parking, and local business owner Greg Ballein arguing that if an increasing number of downtown businesses are to survive and thrive, convenient parking is essential.

City staff, meanwhile, indicated the City needs to deal with the significant vacancy rates in downtown garages before any more parking is constructed.

The Royal Vlahakis deal is causing the parking debate to flare up again

The parking issue at the DDA arose in conjunction yesterday with the continued discussion about the Park Place West proposal from developers Royal Properties and Vlahakis Development.

For that proposal, which includes realigning Albert Avenue and redesigning some existing public parking just north of Peoples Church, the plans call for actually reducing the number of public parking spaces.

In terms of private space, Royal Vlahakis is now looking to construct one new building with 184 new apartments (housing at least 300 people) plus major new retail space on the first floor. For this, they would provide 140-160 underground parking spaces for the exclusive use of that building’s residents.

In terms of public space, following the City’s desire to extend Albert Avenue west to Delta Street, the current Royal Vlahakis plan also calls for a change to City surface parking Lot 8 (known as “the Evergreen lot”). That change would reduce parking in the Lot 8 area from about 80 public spots to about 40.

The idea of losing public parking while building more new apartments and retail set off the sharp remarks from Greg Ballein of Ballein Management, co-developer of the Center City District project in East Lansing’s downtown and owner of SBS Bookstore.

Ballein called for an immediate and “unbiased” parking study commissioned by the DDA and said it makes no sense to have projects built that have inadequate parking from the get-go.

Major projects now being completed have less parking than some think necessary

The Center City District project, now being completed, includes the new 600-space City-owned parking garage on Albert Avenue. That project is the one that Ballein’s company has co-developed with Harbor Bay Real Estate.

In the new Center City public garage on Albert Avenue, a ramp expected to open in early August, the developers have leased about 300 spaces for their own tenants. Ballein said that’s turned out not to be enough to meet demand for his project.

Ballein also noted correctly that the two new DRW Convexity buildings now being built on the west side of Abbot Road will have very little parking.

Set to come in at 13 stories at the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue, DRW Convexity’s “The Abbot” (above, right) will have retail space and 218 rental apartments but only 89 parking spaces, all private, all for tenants.

The 10-story Graduate hotel (above, left) will have 195 guest rooms and no on-site parking. That deal calls for The Graduate to lease 25 spots in Lot 8 for valet parking.

City staff say there’s actually too much ramp parking available

At the meeting yesterday, Parking Administrator Caleb Sharrow objected to Ballein’s characterization that the City has or will soon have inadequate parking. Sharrow noted that the City’s parking system is regularly at only 60 percent usage in peak hours (except during MSU home football games).

Director of Planning Tim Dempsey agreed that East Lansing has too many public parking spaces. He has said before that East Lansing has overbuilt parking ramps, particularly in light of national trends away from people driving themselves.

East Lansing has more than 3,000 parking spaces downtown, Dempsey said. “Show me another community that has that many spaces for this size downtown.”

The Grove Street ramp (below) has had high occupancy of late, but City staff say this is largely because construction workers for downtown projects have been parking there, and that won’t last forever.

During Thursday’s debate City Manager George Lahanas agreed with his staff, saying ramp vacancy rates are much too high. In downtown Lansing and at suburban malls, he said, customers walk a few blocks, and suggested they could learn to do the same here.

Sharrow said that the challenge has been convincing people to walk a few blocks from where they park to their destinations.

Sharrow also said East Lansing’s parking system used to see 1 million transactions per year and is now down to about 700,000 per year. He said the reasons for that are complicated, but he does not see it likely to trend up significantly.

Altmann and Ballein sharply disagree on parking philosophy

Council member Erik Altmann said at yesterday’s meeting that the City must try to change the way people view and use downtown. Altmann argued in this meeting and in City Council earlier this week that the City needs to stop “inducing” people to drive and park by making it easier.

“If you create opportunities to park, people will park, and if you don’t, they won’t park,” said Altmann.

Reducing car use is “a great long-term goal,” Ballein agreed. But, he suggested, downtown businesses might not survive until the local car-based culture changes.

Speaking “from the perspective of a downtown business owner,” Ballein said he disagreed “one thousand percent” with Altmann’s philosophy. He said the new businesses coming downtown “won’t attract people if [their customers] can’t park there.”

“They’re just not coming,” Ballein said, speaking of would-be customers to downtown. “I don’t understand the war against downtown.”

Altmann termed “nonsense” the idea of a “war against downtown.” He made clear: “I want people in the downtown who don’t have cars.” Ideally, that will include residents of new apartments.

Nevertheless, Ballein reiterated his concerns about the Center City District project tenants, including the incoming retail tenants – Target, Barrio Tacos, Foster Coffee, and Jolly Pumpkin – facing inadequate parking.

Ballein and his co-developers built no parking into the parts of the project that they own, instead planning to rely on the City’s parking, particularly the new Albert Ave. ramp (shown below).

But rejecting Ballein’s call for an immediate DDA-commissioned study of parking, Dempsey pointed out that the new Albert Avenue ramp will have more than twice as many publicly-available spots as the surface parking lot it replaced.

DDA Chair Peter Dewan closed the debate by saying there had been a “healthy discussion” that could be revisited.

Meanwhile, July’s free half-hour parking opportunity continues

At City Council this week, staff presented preliminary data on whether parking habits downtown have changed as a result of July’s “free half-hour parking” program. The data is not yet substantial enough to draw conclusions, but staff think it may be helping downtown businesses.

At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Altmann moved to extend the free-half-hour parking program into August, because it appears to possibly be helping downtown businesses struggling as a result of the construction.

But Dempsey told Council that for “logistical issues” – including the problem of potentially confusing customers and overburdening staff – it was better to end that pilot project at the end of July, as had been planned.

Altmann consequently withdrew the motion at City Council to extend the free-parking program.


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