Voters Won’t Know Much More on MSUFCU Plans Before March 10 Vote

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020, 8:00 am
By: 
Chris Gray and Alice Dreger

The latest rendering shows the proposed MSUFCU downtown building looking north across Albert Avenue, from the property on which the Graduate Hotel is now being constructed, just east of Peoples Church.

The design team for a new credit union headquarters in downtown East Lansing showed off the project’s new conceptual sketches at a discussion-only East Lansing City Council meeting Tuesday night.

But they also made clear for the first time that the public will vote on the sale of public land on March 10 without an actual site plan for the new tower.

It appears voters also won’t know if the project will involve a tax increment financing (TIF) plan, or whether the credit union might seek other accommodation from the City of East Lansing if environmental testing finds cleanup is needed. The downtown land currently holds Parking Lot #4 and a portion of right-of-way just south of the Dublin Square restaurant.

The Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) wants to buy about one-third of an acre of City-owned land at the appraised price of $810,000 to erect a tower that the company’s CEO has said would be eight stories and 112 feet tall.

Representatives of the credit union briefed the East Lansing City Council on its plans at a discussion-only meeting on Tuesday night.

Above: Architect David Mefford presenting the ideas to Council (photo by Raymond Holt)

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens said he liked what he was seeing, but he had been hoping the voters would see a site plan before they voted on the sale of public land.

“Any information that can be provided to the public is a service to them,” Stephens said.

If built as presented Tuesday night, the building would feature a new ground-floor credit union branch at the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, with office space on the upper floors. The building would also contain space for the credit union’s intern center and for a “large format community room” for gatherings and events.

A street-level commercial tenant could also take up space along Albert Avenue and some of the office space might be rented out to a tenant in advance of MSUFCU growing into that space.

David Mefford, the design architect at Neumann/Smith Architecture, based in Southfield, told Council the tower would have a focus on pedestrian activity. The office entrance will be further north on Abbot toward the Dublin Square Pub, while the service entrance will be off the north-south alley that runs between and parallel to Abbot Road and Evergreen Avenue.

There would be no parking at the building, which would involve the loss of about three dozen surface parking spaces. The plan is for users of the building to rely on the City-owned parking ramps and lots, which East Lansing officials have said are greatly underutilized.

The concept as it currently exists calls for a brick facade that complements existing downtown and university structures, along with accents of glass and metal.

The first floor would be 16 to 18 feet high to accommodate commercial retail needs. “This is very much conceptual,” Mefford said, explaining the glossy drafts presented to the Council.

The first floor of the new building would be 16 to 18 feet high to accommodate commercial retail needs, according to MSUFCU officials.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity to grow in downtown East Lansing,” said Erin Bowdell, MSUFCU’s Vice President for Facilities, who spoke to the Council. She added that the credit union was happy to support economic development and job growth in East Lansing, its home city.

Bowdell said the location near downtown and Michigan State University will help attract and retain a quality workforce. (MSUFCU plans to retain their current headquarters space off Coolidge Road at the north end of the City.)

In response to a question from Council Member Lisa Babcock, Bowdell also said that the credit union plans to use various “green” building technologies as part of its general practice of environmental responsibility.

Above: MSUFCU Vice President Erin Bowdell answers questions from Council (photo by Raymond Holt)

But the credit union representatives made clear they are holding off on a lot of the design until they know whether voters will approve the sale. For a property of this worth, a majority of voters have to approve a sale, precipitating the citywide vote on March 10, the same ballot as the presidential primary.

Mayor Ruth Beier said she could understand the desire not to spend a lot of money on design if the voters won’t approve the sale. She also expressed much enthusiasm for what she was seeing and hearing, including the news that each floor of office space would house about 65 workers.

At last night’s meeting, Council and the credit union’s chief legal counsel Steve Owen also discussed the draft sale contract. Owen said various parts of the contract had been changed since it was released with Friday’s agenda packet, including that the “close by” date has now been changed to Sept. 23.

That would give much more time than the previous version of the contract for the review and approval process.

Above: MSUFCU's attorney Steve Owen at the meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)

Owen also told Council the plan is not to enter into the contract until after the March 10 vote is done. This came as a surprise since the draft contract was written as if it would be signed before the vote. Council member Mark Meadows asked why they were even discussing the contract now, if the plan is not to come to terms until after the vote.

As East Lansing Info recently reported, an environmental investigation of the site is underway, and although MSUFCU has indicated it is not planning to seek any tax-increment financing for the construction, the credit union’s CEO April Clobes has suggested that’s still a possibility depending on the scope of any needed environmental cleanup.

City staff may also want a TIF to pay for needed public infrastructure in the area.

The ballot vote would limit any sale to MSUFCU and would require that the land be used for a 5-8 story office building not more than 112 feet high.

Eight stories is high for East Lansing on average, but an 8-story building at this location would not appear very tall compared to many of the new buildings in the city center, as Council Member Jessy Gregg pointed out: “That’s considerably shorter than other buildings under construction downtown.”

Beier lauded the project, recalling how adding downtown office space had been a goal when she started on Council in 2013. She said new additions to downtown, including new housing and restaurants, had made it possible.

ELi has a comprehensive voter guide on the land-sale ballot question, answering many questions from readers. See it here.

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