Revision to Downtown Affordable Housing Plan Approved, as Developers Look to Do More in Valley Court Park Area

Thursday, December 19, 2019, 8:23 am
By: 
Chris Gray and Alice Dreger

Above: Developers’ rendering of 341 Evergreen Avenue.

East Lansing’s City Council has given unanimous approval to Chicago-based DRW Convexity’s revised site plan for its affordable housing apartment building near Valley Court Park, at 341 Evergreen Avenue. The project will bring 74 rental apartments restricted to tenants earning 80 percent or less of the area’s median income.

Meanwhile, DRW Convexity and other developers are still considering whether to submit proposals for the Downtown Development Authority’s land just across the street. On Monday this week, City staff held a special conference to answer questions from developers about that “Request for Proposals” process for the DDA’s Evergreen properties. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 24, 2020.

DRW Convexity’s “Building C” at 341 Evergreen will now be six stories, including one level of parking, four levels of income-restricted apartments (74 units in total) and one level of market-rate rental apartments (25 units in total). It will face Valley Court Park on its north and west sides.

The final plans were revised from an earlier site plan, which had just five stories, including the parking, and only affordable units.

Convexity plans to submit the building permits in February for the start of construction in April, to be completed about a year later. Tenants could start moving in by June 1, 2021.

The new building will have 19 studios, 35 one-bedroom apartments, 40 two-bedroom apartments and 5 three-bedroom apartments. The two-bedroom apartments will be built to accommodate two twin beds in the relatively large second bedrooms, making them an option for families with two children.

As reported last month, the number of studio apartments in the revised plan for 341 Evergreen Ave. is reduced by nine, and the number of two-bedroom units increased by 22 under the proposed revision. The new plan also adds five 3-bedroom units with master bedroom suites that include their own bathrooms. The larger units’ designs are aimed at attracting families with children.

“This is a great start for us. We need to encourage more diversified housing,” said Council member Mark Meadows (below) on Tuesday, before voting for the revised plan.

Meadows noted that the development will be the first time that the City’s Ordinance 1384 – a law aimed at diversifying downtown housing – has resulted in the construction of a building designed primarily for affordable, below-market housing.

So far, that ordinance has resulted in only one other diversified-housing component downtown, namely Newman Lofts, Center City’s market-rate apartments above the new parking garage that are restricted to tenants age 55 and over.

As part of its “Park District” redevelopment, DRW Convexity is also in the midst of constructing a pair of more lucrative towers, The Abbot, which will be 13 stories including parking, and the 10-story Graduate hotel, on Grand River Avenue just west of Abbot Road.

While the revised plan increased the number of units at 341 Evergreen Ave., it also decreased the number at The Abbot. The total number of rental apartments in the two buildings went from 290 to 295 under this plan.

The developers say mixing market rate and affordable housing in one building at 341 Evergreen Ave. reduces stigma, and that the change of unit mix also makes more financial sense for the developers.

In terms of the exterior design for 341 Evergreen Ave., the lower floors will have a brick facade, with a stucco-type exterior-insulation finishing system for the upper floors.

The developers are not relying on financial assistance from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), but they are following MSHDA guidelines for design and income qualification.

Mayor Ruth Beier was absent from the meeting, where the vote ultimately went 4-0 in favor of approval.

Before voting for the project, Council member Lisa Babcock (below, right) raised objections to the building’s limited parking – just 34 spaces for 99 units,

But the devleopers have noted that it was an earlier Council that had insisted on limiting new parking in new downtown development. The goal was to force more parkers into the City’s underused and expensive-to-maintain garages.

“The City ordinance prohibits you from building more parking. They want you to use the parking system,” said David Pierson, attorney for DRW Convexity.

Pierson noted that the developers had to receive special permission just to install the one floor of parking.

“It’s designed to be in an area where people don’t need a car,” he said.

Pierson said residents could rely on the public parking lots and garages in the downtown area, which has been found by City staff to be only at 65 percent of capacity at peak use, much lower than in other comparable cities, such as Ann Arbor.

Members of Council, including Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens (below), indicated at the meeting that they look forward to discussions of more parking in the Evergreen Avenue area in the coming months. Stephens, serving as Mayor for the meeting, said a special parking task force will start meeting in early January.

Although construction is set to go ahead in the spring, there’s a small chance the six-story building may not be built at all.

Responding to questions at City Council, DRW Convexity’s Director of Design Chris Oakley indicated that his company is considering pitching a proposal for the DDA’s properties. If that happens, DRW Convexity might pitch something like it tried in November, offering to give the land at 341 Evergreen Ave. to the City as expanded park in a deal to develop the other properties closer to Abbot Road.

Above: David Pierson (left) and Chris Oakley from Convexity.

But Oakley and Pierson have said that the timing of the RFP process by the DDA makes it unlikely they will be able to get an answer from the DDA and City on that park-expansion idea before they start building the approved project for 341 Evergreen Ave.

Pierson has said they want to start construction on 341 Evergreen Ave. soon because the construction labor market in Michigan is so tight, and they want to use the construction company now building The Abbot. If there’s too much of a gap between the end of construction at The Abbot and beginning of construction at 341 Evergreen Ave., Pierson says it could be difficult to contract skilled labor.

Photos by Raymond Holt.

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