Public Works Director Recommends New $3.5M Sewer Now Instead of Waiting for Redevelopment

Thursday, December 12, 2019, 7:45 am
By: 
Chris Gray

Above: DPW Director Scott House and the section of Evergreen Ave. under consideration.

The long-awaited construction of a new, larger sewer line under Evergreen Avenue near Valley Court Park (above right) could be in the works for 2020. The aim would be to prevent the nasty backup of unsanitary discharge into Oakwood Historic Neighborhood basements after big rainstorms, but also to prepare public infrastructure for likely redevelopment just west of Abbot Road.

The East Lansing City Council is expected to be asked to approve approximately $74,000 in funding for the engineering study of the sewer construction at next Tuesday’s meeting (Dec. 17). The total project, which could begin as early as the spring and finished later next year, is currently estimated to cost $3.5 million. The project cost includes such things as major regrading work, realignments of streets, new sidewalks and plantings, street lighting, and more.

East Lansing’s Director of Public Works Scott House (above left) recommended in a presentation this week that Council consider paying for this major project out of reserve funds. Tax increment financing (TIF) might be tapped later to repay the costs through the capture of new taxes off of new redevelopment in the area.

The need for a larger sewer pipe heading under Evergreen Avenue south from Oakhill Avenue to Grand River Avenue was identified in a 2012 study. But the project has been repeatedly put off under hopes that some big new development would pay for the infrastructure, either directly or indirectly through a brownfield TIF plan.

“Our big challenge has been, when do we build the sewer?” House told City Council on Tuesday night. “We’re focused on the sewer and critical water infrastructure to get ahead of any development.”

Indeed, DRW Convexity’s Park District project at the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue involves construction of the first small section of pipe north from Grand River Avenue to Albert Avenue.

Proceeding farther uphill Evergreen Avenue to Oakhill Avenue has been more of a struggle, however, in part because it will require a massive regrading of Evergreen Avenue. That street needs to be raised somewhere between four and five feet to accommodate the new, larger sewer pipe and the necessary grade.

Below: Map showing with a red oval where the new sewer is needed.

The costs of this infrastructure have been seen as a challenge to redevelopment in the area, particularly because they come in addition to about $5.5 million the Downtown Development Association owes on Evergreen Avenue properties it bought a decade ago in anticipation of redevelopment. All of that plus the engineering involved in the new sewer make the scene difficult.

“Nobody wants to build a big sewer. That’s what held it up,” House said.

Nevertheless, House explained, modern sewer pipes need to be in place to deal with existing problems and increase the viability of redevelopment. The new sewer would sharply increase the sewer flow in the strapped system.

“I think about this all the time,” said Mayor Ruth Beier, who lives in the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood, just north of the affected area. “Every time I use the toilet, I say a little toilet prayer.”

Beier agreed with House that TIF options for the sewer project have always come up short, and, she suggested, even another 12-story tower might not generate enough new property tax revenue to cover the cost of the sewer and the DDA’s debt.

The sewer in question drains a 35-acre area that roughly corresponds to the south end of the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood, but it also crosses Abbott Road to serve a few properties lining Abbot Road north of City Hall, and reaches all the way to Grand River Avenue on the west side of Abbot. The area encompasses Valley Court Park and properties north of Oakhill Avenue with the western edge roughly being Hillcrest Avenue.

The sewer pipes in the area date to the 1920s, and like most sewer infrastructure of that period they are designed to capture stormwater runoff as well as “sanitary” waste (toilets, etc.) from homes and businesses. A heavy rain can overload such a system, causing it to spill into streets and basements, creating not just a mess but health and environmental problems.

House said the City can elect to charge new developments in the area, including those that might emerge from the DDA properties, to link up to the sewer, helping to offset the costs. But he spoke pessimistically about other sources of funding, including state grants, as both too cumbersome and selective to get this particular job done soon.

As part of the project, the City may decide to turn Evergreen Avenue into a greenway from Oakhill Avenue to Albert Avenue, while rerouting Albert Avenue through the City-owned Parking Lot 8 to connect to Valley Court Drive on the south side of the park.

Council member Mark Meadows said he wanted that part of Evergreen Avenue reserved for people on foot.

“The goal has always been to close [that portion of] Evergreen and turn it into a pedestrian walkway,” he said.

 

Photo of Scott House is courtesy of City of East Lansing; photo of Evergreen Avenue by Raymond Holt. One sentence was added to this article after publication to note that the $3.5M cost includes such things as new sidewalks and street lighting.

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