Planning Commission Begins Review of Center City District Proposal

Thursday, March 9, 2017, 3:43 pm
Jessy Gregg

Above: artist’s vision of how Albert Avenue would look if the project is developed as proposed.

East Lansing’s Planning Commission began its review of the proposed $132 million Center City District redevelopment project last night, first holding a public hearing on the project. Questions raised at the meeting ranged over a wide array of topics, with major points of discussion including the height and mass of the proposed buildings, likely occupants, the possible impact of the project on existing businesses, appearance of the final product, and the potential benefits or problems of the proposed changes to Albert Avenue, including with the conversion of Parking Lot 1 to a parking garage fronted with retail space.

The meeting was well-attended, with many citizens who spoke expressing significant concerns about the proposal and the developers seeking to reassure the public and the Commission. Responding to the “tension in the room,” Planning Commission Chair Laura Goddeeris asked audience members to restrain their applause and outbursts saying, “This is the Planning Commission’s first time really hearing meaningful presentation on [the Center City Project] and we applaud all of you for coming.” She added, “No one is against you here. We are all here to learn.”

The proposed Center City Development would result in 22,000 square feet of retail space in downtown East Lansing along Grand River Avenue (replacing existing retail space) plus another 20,000 of new retail space along the south side of Albert Avenue. The developers say they are working to bring a major retailer/grocer to the Grand River Avenue space.

But the owners of existing downtown businesses told Planning Commission last night that they are concerned that they wouldn’t be able to survive the two-year long cycle of construction that it would take to complete the project.

Meg Croft of Woven Art outlined the difficulties that her Grove Street shop, specializing in yarn and knitting supplies, faced during the construction of the Ann Street Lofts and the Residences at the intersection of Grove Street and Albert Avenue in 2012. “Woven Art had to shut its doors completely for two weeks due to the fact that there was a 12-foot deep hole in the ground directly in front of our storefront,” she explained.

Deborah Cholewicki of Grove Street Gallery, next to Croft’s store, said that “passion for the arts” helped Grove Street gallery to survive the economic downturn in 2008 and the disruption to their business caused by construction downtown. But, she said, she didn’t know if the volunteer-run gallery would be able to survive through another construction cycle of this magnitude. Linda Dufelmeier of Mackerel Sky echoed these sentiments, saying she feared for the destruction of their family business.

Jerry Byer, who owns the building housing Urban Outfitters and Lotsa Pizza, said he also feared his tenants would see serious economic harm from loss of parking and disruption during construction. He also questioned whether there would be enough parking in the planned new garage for the development being considered for the future. Byer said he was consulting with legal counsel.

Downtown resident Vicki Graham spoke about the possible effect a twelve-story-tall neighbor could have on her property values as the owner of a condo in the City Center Condominiums, across M.A.C. Avenue from the proposed development. She described the anticipated view from her west facing condo as a “big, dark, ugly, monstrous building,” and criticized the practice of granting public financing to developers.

Brad Ballein of the Ballein family, co-developers of the project, spoke about his family’s long-term commitment to the City of East Lansing, assuring the Commission that his family is committed to improving downtown East Lansing. He said his family would “never do anything to hurt East Lansing.” Ballein turned the podium over to co-developer Mark Bell of Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors. Bell described the potential development as a “timeless asset” to the City, and emphasized that they had put thousands of hours into the proposal and had made an effort to align the plans with East Lansing’s Comprehensive Plan.

One of the features of the new development that is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, Bell said, is diversified housing options, with one- and two-bedroom units as well as studio apartments and “microunits” in the south, Grand River Avenue-facing building, and larger units targeted at residents 55 years and older in the Albert Avenue-facing building. The Comprehensive Plan also calls for an urban grocery store, which Bell assured the Planning Commission they are confident they can attract.

Commissioner Don Davis questioned Bell about how he planned to mitigate the disruption to local businesses that would be caused by the construction. Bell responded his solution would include a meticulous staging program as well as better communication with surrounding businesses about how to manage the project.

The plans for Albert Avenue were the subject of extended discussion. Under the proposal, the open space along Albert Avenue would remain the same although one existing parking lane would be essentially converted to pedestrian/seating space. Bell described the plans for Albert Avenue as an interpretation of a Dutch street concept called a woonerf, where there are no curbs to delineate the difference between pedestrian zones and driving lanes. The developers’ idea is that this would allow for a vibrant, walkable “main street” type of space along Albert Avenue between M.A.C. Avenue and Abbot Road.

A complaint had been raised in public comment that the new development would displace the downtown festivals, but Bell suggested that festival activity displaced from the existing City Lot 1 would be accommodated by the edge-to-edge woonerf design on Albert Avenue. Commissioner Chris Wolf questioned whether that concept would work in an area that was so compact and heavily trafficked, and said that in his understanding part of what made these mixed use areas work in was that vehicle traffic was extremely slow, “even 10 miles per hour.”

Commissioner John Cahill questioned Bell about how festivals would be able to take place, considering the new residents’ need to access the parking garage where their cars would be parked. Bell described how an art fair in his Chicago neighborhood addresses this problem by notifying residents in advance so that they know that they will not have access to the garage during festivals. Cahill suggested using the roof of the parking garage as a possible festival site and Bell agreed that that would be an option, but it would be up to the City since the City would own the parking garage.

Bell was asked to produce a drawing of proposed development as seen from the south, since Grand River Avenue would continue to function as a “main street” and appearance along that avenue was important to consider. Several in the room noted the proposed building along Grand River Avenue would constitute a large mass in height and width. So far the developer has not provided a colored, three-dimensional drawing of what this structure would look like from the MSU side of Grand River Avenue.

Wolf suggested that the planned amenity deck might be moved to the Grand River Avenue side of the Grand River Avenue building, both to provide it sun exposure and to break up the southern façade of the building. This suggestion came after the developer acknowledged that the planned deck in its current location would be dark because it would always be in the shadow created by the building. (See this article for where the amenity deck has been proposed.)

Bell said he was willing to make that change if the Commission required, but that it was a significant structural change and emphasized that the architects had already spent thousands of hours on the plan. Goddeeris asked Bell to be prepared to address the idea of being “compatible with surrounding uses,” and made the observation that the proposed development should be compatible with surrounding uses during the construction phase and not just as an end result.

Questions were also raised about the residential market for the two buildings. ELi reported earlier this week that MSU is not planning a master lease of apartments in this project, raising the likelihood the residents of the south building would be mostly MSU students. Several people speaking at the Commission last night questioned the wisdom of “putting Hubbard Hall” along Grand River Avenue in downtown. There have also been questions about whether seniors will be interested in renting the apartments planned for the north building. The developers said they were willing to share redacted conclusions of their marketing study at a later date.

The project has yet to be reviewed by Transportation Commission, and there has not yet been a clear explanation of what kind of “screening” will be used to make the parking garage look less like a third parking garage along the south side of Albert Avenue within a three-block stretch. It was noted that the developers’ rendering of the project did not show the other two parking garages, and one commissioner asked rhetorically whether East Lansing might come to be known as the city of parking garages. (At one point in the meeting, Chair Goddeeris said she would like more “reality-based” renderings to be provided by the developer.)

It isn’t yet clear from what has been presented how the parking garage and other public infrastructure would be funded. The suggestion was introduced last night that funding would come from a $27 million “non-recourse bond” for the City of East Lansing. This would likely mean a Council-approved bond that would be paid for with income produced by parking revenues and new taxes on the proposed project.

The project goes next to Transportation Commission on March 20 and then probably back to Planning Commission on March 22.

Reporting assistance provided by Chris Root.


Update: This article was corrected on March 11 to correct attributions of some commissioner comments.