Planning Commission Unanimously Recommends Plans for Vacant Corner

Thursday, August 9, 2018, 7:20 am
By: 
Andrew Graham

Above: "Building A" (at the main corner) is in the lower right, Building D (the hotel) to the left of that, and Building C to the north.

East Lansing’s Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to DRW/Convexity’s big plans for the vacant corner downtown at its meeting last night. The formal vote was to recommend that City Council approve the site plan and special use permit application for what has been called “the Park District project,” but which currently appears to be nameless.

ELi broke the story in June that the current proposal calls for three new major structures, including:

  • Building A, a 12-story mixed-use building at the Grand River Avenue/Abbot Road corner, with retail on the ground floor, two floors of screened indoor parking for residents, and rental apartments above that;
  • just west of there, across Evergreen Avenue and along Grand River Avenue, Building D, a 10-story hotel in The Graduate chain;
  • north of that, along Evergreen Avenue, Building C, a new five-story residential structure with “affordable, moderate-income” rental apartments and parking on the first floor.

 

(For a larger version of this map, click here.)

In its approval last night, the commission added three conditions for approval to the fifteen recommended conditions in the City staff’s report:

  • to require any driveways crossing a sidewalk be paved in a delineable way from other pavement;
  • to do post-development traffic analysis in the Oakwood Neighborhood and then undertake necessary traffic reduction measures;
  • to recommend the City Council approve an ordinance to change zoning to meet slight changes in the plan in terms of setback.

Immediately after voting to recommend the site plan and special use permit (SUP), the Commission also unanimously approved the parking plan the project.

In doing so, the Commission acknowledged that the City’s parking ramps are underutilized and that it is in the best interests of the City to use these ramps, rather than requiring developers to build their own on-site parking to fully satisfy the parking needs of new buildings. (See ELi’s special report on this issue.)

At the meeting, Oakwood resident Deanne Lawrence read a letter written by her neighbor Ken Sperber and signed by them plus fifteen other Oakwood homeowners. The letter expressed the signees’ support of the plan and the development team, stating that it was “finally time” to develop an area that’s sat blighted for more than a decade.

The letter did, however, bring up concerns about possible cut-through traffic from the development, and requested that the post-development traffic analysis be done. One condition added to the approval, as noted above, was designed to address this concern, following the Transportation Commission’s discussion of the same concern on Monday night.

As ELi reported at the end of July, since being introduced, the proposed plan has seen some tweaks to alter the façade of Building A as well as giving it a rooftop lounge-type area.

Some of the changes have been specific responses to concerns raised by Planning Commission and City Council members. (Although the plans have not yet officially come to City Council, it was clear from remarks at last night’s meeting that City Council members have been weighing in, asking for specific changes to the plans along the way.)

Last night, David Pierson, attorney for developers DRW/Convexity, and Chris Oakley, Convexity’s Director of Design, also highlighted changes that added more bicycle and alternate vehicle (mopeds, motorcycles, etc.) parking and “softening” landscaping.

Oakley said that the developers are giving up substantial amounts of land to public plaza space that might otherwise be used for revenue-generating development. He said he thought these open, welcoming spaces are ultimately good for the project and good for the City. The developers are also giving up space along Abbot Road to allow for the addition of a southbound bike lane.

Above: Architect's rendering of Evergreen Avenue, looking north from Grand River Avenue (hotel to the left, Building A to the right).

The landscaping changes introduced require that Building A be moved two feet south. Current zoning requires that Building A be 22 feet from the curb, and the changes put Building A only 20 feet away. However, Pierson said that Council will be introducting an ordinance next Tuesday to change the setback requirement for buildings west of M.A.C. Avenue to fix this issue. (The Center City District project already got a variance to be less than 22 feet setback from the curb.)

The aesthetics of the buildings continued to be a major point of discussion, with Commission members Kathleen Boyle and Chris Wolf lamenting the looks of the Grand River Avenue buildings. However, Chairperson Daniel Bollman, an architect, offered praise for how the new project will look, saying he liked the new design better than previous proposals. He did ask for a "softening" of the grey color on the hotel (shown to the left in the image below, looking northeast across Grand River Avenue).

Last year’s plan from DRW/Convexity for this area called for one very large building along Grand River Avenue, a building that would have eliminated the south-most block of Evergreen Avenue. The current proposal has two buildings (A and D) along Grand River Avenue and leaves in place Evergreen Avenue as it currently exists. Everyone seems to prefer this divided approach.

Below, Building A seen from the northeast across Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, with the hotel in the background.

As noted above, Building A (on the main corner) would have retail on the first floor and two levels of parking on floors 2 and 3. There would be a total of 89 car spaces inside the building for residents, plus a total of about 190 bicycle parking spots inside and outside the building.

Building A would house 218 apartment units for about 350 residents. Designed to contain a mix of 105 efficiency units, Building A would also have 18 one-bedroom units, 45 two-bedroom units, and 50 three-bedroom units.

Pierson sees some of the larger units being occupied by families. He said he had more confidence this time around that these residential units would be marketable to non-students, and, he has said, there will soon be a lot more new downtown apartments that were designed for students, addressing that market. (The Hub, now under construction, was specifically designed for student living, and the Landmark building of Center City District is now being described by its developer as purpose-built student housing.)

The architectural changes for Building A now include a rooftop amenity deck, oriented with a campus view, for residents of the building. The new design also angles the building’s front corner, widening the sidewalk there into a larger plaza space.

Across Evergreen Avenue, in Building D, would be The Graduate Hotel, with 194 guest rooms, meeting space, a ballroom, and a rooftop restaurant and bar. DRW/Convexity has said that if the project doesn’t start soon, The Graduate will pull out of the planned investment in East Lansing, as it has been trying to get this project going for three years.

Below: Rendering of the Graduate Hotel entry, to the right, seen from Albert Avenue looking south along Evergreen Avenue.

The plan for Building C, to the north, up Evergreen Avenue, is currently not finalized, as the developers are waiting to see what the Downtown Development Authority does with nearby properties it owns. Building C is currently designed to be five stories high, with 72 apartments and interior parking for 26 cars.

Building C (shown in sketch below) is set to house moderate-income rental apartments for occupants who earn 80% or less of the area median household income. This is meant to fulfill a law in East Lansing, Ordinance 1384, that requires big downtown projects to dedicate at least 25% of their housing units to senior housing, owner-occupied condos, or low/moderate-income housing.

DRW/Convexity doesn’t want to submit applications for permits to build Building C until two years after the Grand River Avenue properties are occupied. That length of delay over Building C was a sticking point for Wolf, who went back and forth with Pierson and Oakley, though the issue went unresolved. That issue will have to be resolved by Council.

DRW/Convexity says it makes no sense to undertake construction of Building C until the City knows what it wants to do with the DDA properties along Evergreen Avenue. But it seems likely the developers also want to delay construction of Building C to see if Council changes the law on housing development requirements and to see what the market will bear after so much construction is completed in downtown East Lansing.

The plans now go for review to the Downtown Development Authority today at noon, and to City Council next Tuesday, August 14. City Council has the ultimate say on the site plan and special use permit.

Even if Council approves those, it’s still unclear what’s going to happen with finances for the project and with the problem posed by legal maneuvering of the owner/developer who lost the properties to foreclosure years ago. (Read ELi’s special report on that.) Whether the project can actually happen will depend on complex and as-yet unresolved legal and financial issues.

 

UPDATE from ELi reporter Chris Root, August 9, 2018: The day after the Planning Commission acted on the Park District, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) voted by a vote of 6 to 2 to recommend that Council approve the current DRW/Convexity proposal.

Lynsey Clayton, who voted against recommending approval, stressed that she was unhappy with the lack of a detailed plan for Building C on Evergreen Avenue.  She expressed concern that more attention was not being given to this key part of the project, which is intended to provide apartments attractive to people older than students in order to diversify the downtown. Luke Hackney also voted against recommending approval.

DDA Chair Peter Dewan, who voted for recommending approval, asked that conditions be added to the DDA’s motion that would require the Council to adequately address concerns about cut-through traffic into the Oakwood neighborhood and what he sees as the unresolved problems of tremendous traffic congestion and parking planning in the downtown.

City Manager George Lanahas, who made the motion to recommend approval, also voted in favor, along with Greg Ballein, Jim Croom, Trish Foster, and Erik Sudol.

 

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