Site Plan Approved for Vacant Corner – But Uncertainty Remains
Above: project rendering looking northeast, with Peoples Church to the left.
With 4 of 5 members present last night, East Lansing’s City Council voted unanimously to approve a site plan and special use permit for DRW/Convexity’s major redevelopment of the three vacant lots near Peoples Church. Last night marked the first time Council formally considered this new plan for “The Park District” area. The proposal has moved quickly through the local review process over the past several weeks.
Councilmember Ruth Beier was not present at the meeting, and because the special use permit requires by law at least four votes, the project needed unanimous approval to succeed. It appeared from discussion that Council had worked out all major issues with the developers in advance of the meeting.
During periods allowing public comment, citizens raised concerns about traffic and possible negative impacts on downtown businesses from more construction – businesses already suffering from the Center City District construction. (ELi has a separate report on what business owners had to say about the situation downtown.)
The proposed site plan brought to Council includes three buildings:
The site plan approval covered:
- “Building A,” a 12-story mixed commercial and residential building located at the northwest corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road. This is set to include about 14,000 square feet of retail space, 218 apartments housing about 370 people, 89 indoor parking spaces on two levels, and a rooftop terrace for residents.
- “Building C,” a 5-story residential building located at the southwest corner of Evergreen Avenue and Valley Court Drive. This is set to include 72 income-restricted rental apartments with one level of on-site parking for 26 cars.
- “Building D,” a 10-story hotel from The Graduate chain located directly to the west of Building A, between Evergreen Avenue and The Peoples Church. This is set to include 194 guest rooms, a ballroom, about 3,300-square-feet of retail space, hotel meeting rooms, and a rooftop restaurant and bar.
(Drawing above annotated by ELi to show which proposed building is which.)
A special use permit had to be approved by Council because Building A will, at 140 feet, exceed the 112 feet maximum allowed by East Lansing law and because the hotel will, at 119.5 feet, also exceed the maximum. Building C requires a special use permit because it is an all-residential (no retail) building and because it is shorter than required by East Lansing law for such a structure.
Extra conditions placed on the approval:
Council’s discussion of the proposed development plan included four new conditions -- beyond what Planning Commission recommended – to the now-approved site plan.
The first amendment addressed a zoning requirement change. To accommodate extra pedestrian space and landscaping to the north of Building A, along Albert Avenue, and to maintain the integrity of the current development plan, East Lansing Planning and Zoning Administrator David Haywood conveyed a request to allow a 20-foot setback along Grand River Avenue instead of the required 22-foot setback.
Haywood noted, and was affirmed in comments by Councilmember Shanna Draheim and Mayor Mark Meadows, that most buildings along Grand River Avenue to the west of M.A.C. Avenue have a 20-foot setback. Ultimately, Meadows provided wording to enable this reduced setback, which was accepted.
The second new condition concerned conditional rezoning of the property where Building C would stand. This property needs to be reverted back to its original zoning in order to be then be rezoned for this development. Haywood noted that this was not conveyed in recommendations provided by the Planning Commission.
The third new condition to the site plan requires the approval of a not-yet-worked-out development agreement between the City and developers. Haywood noted this condition was also not included in Planning Commission recommendations. (The development agreement will come to Council at some later date.)
The fourth and final new condition was regarding landscaping. Councilmember Draheim voiced concern regarding “street trees” that are placed amid overly “concrete-y” buildings, with limited creative landscaping. Haywood noted that specifics on the placement of landscaping features could be included in a development agreement. Ultimately, Draheim successfully proposed that final landscaping details will be designed in accordance to East Lansing’s urban design guidelines.
Questions remain about Building C:
During Council’s discussion, Councilmember Aaron Stephens pressed for clarify over the proposed market for Building C (shown below), the residential structure near Valley Court Park, as he advocated for affordable housing downtown. In response, the developers’ attorney David Pierson explained that Building C would be limited to people earning at most 80% of the average median income of mid-Michigan residents.
The application process for such housing would disallow rental to students who are dependent on their parents’ income. According to Pierson, moderate-income housing was identified by the developers as a way to address the City’s housing-diversity requirement (Ordinance 1384) while still ensuring financial viability of third building component of the project.
Pierson noted that lower-income housing had been an option under Ordinance 1384, but that this would require government subsidies to ensure viability. Pursuing this route would elongate the process and would likely not allow the project to be financially doable.
Pierson also reminded Council that, given how the paperwork is worded, they could later change the planned use of building C to better meet housing-diversity needs, if Council wishes and the developer agrees. This language is designed to circumvent having to start the approval process all over again if, for example, the developers and Council decide Building C would better consist of owner-occupied condominium apartments.
Building C is not really entirely planned. Pierson said the developers are waiting for Council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to figure out what they want to do with Evergreen Avenue and the DDA-owned properties along there before finishing the plan and constructing Building C. So, the issues of which way the building will face and whether units will have balconies are yet to be really finalized.
Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann voiced curiosity over the traffic study previously presented to and accepted by East Lansing’s Transportation Commission. Specifically, Altmann reiterated resident concern over congestion from wait times at stop lights and wondered how the simple inclusion of a left-turn lane on eastbound Albert Avenue at Abbot Road could improve traffic to the extent projected.
Below: View of Building A as seen from the park at the northeast corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, with the proposed hotel in the background. (Park fence and trees not shown by City Council Member's request.)
Public Works Director Scott House noted the additional lane added greater capacity and increased ease of left turns both on to northbound Abbot Road from eastbound Albert Avenue and on to southbound Evergreen Avenue from westbound Albert Avenue. According to House, the proposed changes would also adjust and improve signal timing at Albert Avenue and Abbot Road. House went on to note there are other innovations with traffic flow might arise as time progresses as “with increased traffic, there will be new solutions for traffic, as well.”
Responding to questions from Altmann, House said it is not possible to add a pedestrian walkway on the west side of the Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road (southbound) intersection, and not possible to put in a pedestrian bridge over Grand River Avenue. House explained the Americans with Disabilities Act would require an enormous footprint for such a bridge – it would require ramps or an elevator – and that few pedestrians want to bother going up a level to cross a road.
This latest iteration of this development proposal includes a continuous southbound bicycle lane on Abbot Road on the west side of Building A, aligning Albert Avenue on the west and east sides of Abbot Road, and adding both eastbound and westbound bicycle lanes and a left turn lane to Albert Avenue. There is proposed to be street-level rack space for up to 90 bicycles, plus pedestrian amenities surrounding the properties.
Pierson later noted that The Graduate’s desired use of valet parking and the potential use of Lot 8, behind Peoples Church, additionally mitigates traffic concerns while also promoting guests’ use of downtown retail.
The possible role of The Graduate Hotel in East Lansing:
Steve Kehm, a representative from The Graduate Hotels, was present at last night’s meeting and conveyed The Graduate’s interests and goals. Calling The Graduate chain a “collection of lifestyle hotels,” Kehm noted that the chain likes to identify universities and towns that support local businesses and that have a local entrepreneurial focus.
Stating that the hotel wants to take guests “back to [their] college experience,” Kehm said The Graduate attempts to find ways to “highlight local heroes and legends” into a hotel’s design. Ultimately, he said, alluding to concerns raised by local business owners about chains, The Graduate wants to bring people closer to downtown and campus to experience East Lansing’s culture.
The Graduate Hotel’s representatives have said if the project doesn’t get started soon, they’ll move their investment money to another college town because they are having to wait too long to start. Kehm told Council the chain is building hotels all over the United States now and would like to do one in East Lansing.
But it ain’t over:
Pierson told ELi last night that he is pleased with the outcome of Council’s vote and awaits finalization of the development agreement in the hopes of staying on the proposed timeline. There is still no word on what if any tax increment financing (TIF) scheme will be used for this project or on how the developers plan to deal with the roadblocks created last time by Scott Chappelle, the previous would-be developer of these properties who is engaged in legal disputes with DRW.
DRW/Convexity hopes to break ground for Building A and the hotel in January. But groundbreaking can’t happen until the development agreement and any TIF deal are signed and sealed. A TIF deal will also require state-level approval, and the state has previously refused to approval deals for these properties without the consent of Chappelle, whose business lost the properties to foreclosure years ago.