Vibrant Debate Surrounds Increasing Building Heights Downtown

Tuesday, March 12, 2019, 9:27 am
By: 
Chris Root

Above: View from Grove Street looking south, with The Residences (HopCat) to the left and Center City ahead.

Appointed and elected officials in East Lansing are engaged in a lively and sometimes contentious debate about whether to increase the allowable heights of buildings in the downtown.

At the end of February, the Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) made opposite recommendations that reflect the range of views on the issue.

Now, as City Council prepares to hold a public hearing on April 9 on the second of two ordinances that would allow taller buildings downtown – up to 160 feet high – ELi brings you this snapshot of some of the views on this issue.

The Ordinance coming before City Council:

Two ordinances have been proposed – numbered 1443 and 1449 – that aim to change zoning for building heights downtown.

City Council already voted by 3-2 on January 23 to approve Ordinance 1443, which expands the area in which buildings of up to 140 feet (about 12 stories) would be allowed; this area now includes all of the B3 business district. So this change is now part of the City’s zoning code.

Properties B3 are shown in red in this map provided by City staff. For a larger version, click here.

The measure coming before Council on April 9 is Ordinance 1449, which would allow a further increase in the height of buildings from 140 feet to 160 feet in part of downtown. This ordinance would create an “overlay district” in part of the B3 district where buildings could be built 20 feet higher than has been allowable anywhere in East Lansing before.

This map, by City staff, shows the proposed overlay district allowing buildings up to 160 feet with approval of 4 or more members of Council. It goes: on the west, from the alley between Evergreen Avenue and Abbot Road; to Bailey Street on the east; north of Grand River Avenue; and south of Albert Avenue, except west of Abbot where it includes the Dublin Square property.

The heights allowed by both these measures would be subject to a supermajority vote by Council in connection with a specific project. At least four of the five Council members would have to vote in favor of a “Special Use Permit” to approve the project.

This super-majority voting concept is not new; it is already part of the rules for approving mixed-use buildings in downtown, including any building that is more than six stories tall.

We reported on the Council’s approval of Ordinance 1443 here; that article explains both ordinances, with maps of the areas in question. An earlier article reported on the Planning Commission’s recommendation against approval of Ordinance 1443.

Planning Commission has formally recommended against Ordinance 1449:

On February 27, East Lansing’s Planning Commission recommended by a vote of 8-1 that the Council not approved the 160-foot overlay district. Some of the Commissioners gave the rationale for their votes for their recommendations to Council. Here are some excerpts.

Commissioner Chris Wolf gave two reasons why be believes the City is moving too quickly to increase building heights downtown. He cautioned against the belief, which some people have expressed, that “you’ll never notice [increased height] from the street; we’re already at 120 or 140, so going to 160 is a no-brainer.”

Wolf said East Lansing can learn from Ann Arbor on this issue, despite Ann Arbor’s being much bigger. Wolf told the story of Ann Arbor’s City Council adopting an ordinance to allow 150-foot buildings downtown and then, about five years later, approving the Foundry Loft 14-story apartments on Huron Street.

Wolf reported, based on media accounts at the time, “There was almost immediate backlash over it from the public and reversals from the Planning Commission and the Council – there was widespread acknowledgement that 150 feet was too tall. So … they proposed a new ordinance change that went back to some of the areas where they had allowed 150-foot buildings and lowered it to 120 feet. So, they have direct experience with buildings of these different heights, and they say there is a difference.”

Wolf went on to summarize the history of increasing building heights in East Lansing. In 1987, University Place (which holds the Marriott hotel) was built at 97 feet – the city’s tallest building at that time. In the mid-1990s, the Council increased the height limit to 140 feet in part of downtown. In 2013, The Residences (with Hop Cat on the first floor) on Albert Avenue became the city’s tallest building, at 107 feet.

“Now, in the last three years,” Wolf continued, “we have approved five new buildings that are taller – significantly taller – than either of those. We have The Hub at Bogue Street – it tops out at 144 feet. We have The Landmark part of Center City on Grand River at 137 [feet]. We have Newman Lofts part of Center City on Albert at just under 120 feet. We have Park District apartment building at the corner of Abbot and Grand River at 140 [feet], and we have the Park District hotel at the corner of Evergreen and Grand River at 120 feet.”

Wolf added: “All of a sudden, in the space of just a few years, we have approved five new buildings that are much taller than anything we have seen before, and we have zero experience with them... We don’t know what effect they are going to have on our streets, on shadowing, on anything. We don’t know what we are going to think about them. And yet now we are thinking about already increasing our height limit by another 20 feet. And It just doesn’t make sense at this time.”

He concluded, “I think those projects may turn out to be very good. I am certainly hopeful that we are going to like them and they are going to contribute to the city. But for us to go up yet again without knowing what this size of building does for the city I think is a complete mistake.”

Wolf included among his concerns about taller buildings their impact on traffic. “By my count, we’ve approved 1,100 bedrooms and 194 hotel rooms right around this corner in the four buildings of Park [District] and Center City,” he said. “And we have no idea what that is going to do to traffic congestion in the area.”

Below: Planning Commission meeting on January 23, 2019, watching a presentation by the Royal Vlahakis team.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Kathy Boyle agreed with Wolf that the City should wait to see how the new, taller buildings impact the downtown before increasing the allowable building height.

Boyle also expressed opposition to Ordinance 1449 because it departs significantly from the Master Plan. “I have been distressed to hear the comments of some Council members that we do not need to give due consideration to the recommendations in the Comprehensive Plan,” Boyle said. “I’ve heard … that the comprehensive plan is old, when the update is less than a year old. I have heard it said that ‘they didn’t really talk about the heights of the buildings downtown when they were coming up with the comprehensive plan.’”

She disagreed with that framing, noting, “I was involved in it, I know other people at this table were involved in those meetings, and they certainly did spend a considerably amount of time talking about what the desired heights would be…”

Boyle stated that the ordinance allowing a 140-foot overlay district in part of the B3 district “is being propelled by a proposal to build a particular project [namely the Royal Vlahakis Park Place project]. I think that is a bad way to do ordinances, and I think it’s a terrible way to do city planning.”

Boyle, a lawyer, said, “The old saw from lawyers is that: ‘Hard cases make bad law,’ … and I think you have the same thing here, that “projects make bad planning if the project is departing from what the current standards are.” Boyle said that changing policy to increase allowable height in response to the Park Place project at the Dublin Square site is a case in point.

Below: A rendering of the Royal Vlahakis project showing what would replace Dublin Square.

Boyle concluded by expressing concern about the impact of approving the ordinance on small businesses downtown. “I think the downtown merchants and restaurateurs have suffered through a considerable amount of construction as a result of the projects that are currently underway and the new project that’s happening at the corner of Grand River and Abbot Road,” Boyle said. “I would like to see them have some respite and be able to continue with their business without a lot more disruption. If we increase the height and [developers] come forward with even more proposals for higher buildings, that is just going to continue, and I wonder how many businesses are going to survive that.”

Planning Commission Chair Dan Bollman elaborated on Boyle’s recounting of the history of the Master Plan, pointing out that the Planning Commission considered, but rejected, a recommendation from the DDA to increase heights at the west end of downtown – where the Royal Vlahakis proposal would build two buildings on Abbot Road and along Evergreen Avenue, moving down a hill toward Valley Court Park.

“The Comprehensive Plan is certainly intended to structure decreasing intensity of development as it moves north away from Grand River,” Bollman said. “Indeed, the proposed ordinance and the [Royal Vlahakis Park Place] development … does just the opposite.”

Bollman, an architect with an office in downtown East Lansing, said, “I am generally of a feeling that six to eight stories is workable. That said, I think that the properties that front Grand River – given that they’ve got six lanes of traffic and a median – helps to soften the impact of the height of that building… We would not have this as we start to creep up into Abbot [Road]. The right-of-ways along those streets are significantly narrower and the impact of the tall buildings are going to be significantly greater.”

Below: The Landmark building of the Center City District project on Grand River Avenue:

Commissioner Cindy Williams said she was persuaded by several arguments expressed by her colleagues and also by concerns raised by representatives of Peoples Church. Peoples Church Councilmember Calvin Kerr, Council of Elders Chairperson Jodi Cook, and Associate Pastor Drew Filkins all spoke to the Commission to urge voting against the ordinance.

Filkins said that he welcomed development and wanted this part of East Lansing to thrive, but that ignoring the Master Plan would be detrimental. Kerr said the church is not anti-development, but rather is pro-Master Plan. Kerr said the church is dedicated to maintaining the sanctity of its Memorial Garden, and Cook expressed concern about the aesthetics and shadowing effect of building a 12-story building across Albert Avenue from that garden.

Commissioner John Cahill was the sole vote against the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Cahill said he favors having more flexibility as to height and believes that the 140-foot limit contained in Ordinance 1449 for only a part of the B3 downtown district should apply to the whole center of the city. If you grant additional height, Cahill argued, “you have to get something back, in the way of architectural definition and other public benefits. But that is incumbent on us when proposals are before us.”

The Downtown Development Authority’s recommended in favor of Ordinance 1449:

In contrast to Planning Commission, the DDA voted 4-2 in favor of recommending that the Council approve the 160-foot overlay district in part of the B-3 district. The DDA’s discussion sometimes switched to focus on the Royal Vlahakis proposal, which calls in part for a tall building at the location of Dublin Square on Abbot Road that can only be approved if Ordinance 1449 is adopted.

Below: The DDA meeting on Feb. 28, 2019, with Jim Croom acting as Chair.

DDA Vice Chair Jim Croom supported the proposed overlay district, saying that the Council’s Special Use Permit process gives the City leverage to require setbacks in taller buildings, such as in the design of the Center City parking garage and apartment building on Albert Avenue and the Hub on Bogue Street. With such setbacks, Croom said, he did not see significant aesthetic difference between a 160-foot building and a 140-foot building. He also said that taller buildings would be appropriate along Abbot Road.

DDA member Greg Ballein, whose family company has partnered with Harbor Bay on the Center City project now topping-out downtown, agreed with Croom, saying that the specific site plan is what matters the most. He said he thinks the taller building that is being proposed for the Dublin Square site will be appropriate, located right across Albert Avenue from the 140-foot DRW Convexity apartment building for which the foundation footings are now being drilled.

DDA member Lynsey Clayton opposed the ordinance because it is inconsistent with the Master Plan and because, she said, it would be wiser to observe how the already-approved projects play out first. Clayton was one of the people who worked on the Master Plan.

“I think we need time to have the Comprehensive Plan take some roots and see what grows from that,” Clayton said. “Come back in 24 months and ask us to do it. If it’s working great, I would sign up,” she said. But increasing the building height limit now is too quick, she said.

Below: Rendering of the Royal Vlahakis project as seen from the northwest, with Peoples Church in the background.

Mayor Mark Meadows, who by virtue of his office is a member of the DDA, argued that setting a new maximum height does not mean buildings will automatically be built to that height. Council controls heights, because it must adopt a Special Use Permit for each tall project, which requires approval of four or more Council Members.

DDA member Eric Sudol said he would not support taller buildings because “the higher you go means more apartments.” City law (Ordinance 1384) currently requires that 25% of the units in large downtown residential buildings be other than market-rate apartments, but, Sudol said, there is not yet enough experience to know whether the apartments for aged 55 and older in the Center City Albert Avenue building will fill up.

Meadows challenged Sudol, saying that City government cannot regulate uses within buildings (other than the 25% housing diversity requirement), and that students may not be the only renters in the upper floors of the Center City building on Grand River Avenue because of good views from there of the MSU campus. Clayton supported Sudol’s point, saying that it is large student-rental developers that are coming into East Lansing with financial resources to propose new, tall buildings.

How to weigh in:

The next step in the debate is the City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 9. People can make public comments at that meeting or can write to all Council members at council@cityofeastlansing.com. The Council often votes on ordinances at the same meeting as the public hearing.

 

Sourcing note: A video of the Planning Commission discussion on February 27 is here. DDA meetings are not recorded for the public, so two ELi reporters (Chris Root, who reported this story, and Alice Dreger) took notes at the February 28 meeting in order to bring you this report.

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