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Above: West Village 2 condo townhouses, which neighbor the empty lot at issue
When the West Village 2 townhouse condos were built at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Hillcrest Avenue, the plan for the large lot just to the east was for a building that would house still more owner-occupied condos. The building was supposed to have commercial space on the ground floor and nineteen apartment-style condos above, restricted to owner occupancy.
But that building never came to be, and today the developer DTN is looking to build quite a different sort of building on that lot, one with a substantially larger footprint and designed for rental apartments. This would be a four-story building with a bank drive-through on the ground floor (along with additional commercial space) and 39 two-bedroom rental apartments.
DTN’s plan has been approved by the Planning Commission and is now before City Council for review and possible approval. This week Council held a public hearing on the project. A large number of owners from West Village 2 came to object strongly to DTN’s plan, with none appearing to support the plan. The condo owners speaking to Council this week said they felt this project is very likely to negatively affect their privacy, security, and property values.
Jerry Smith, a West Village 2 condo owner, hit a common theme when he told Council this week that DTN’s plan is nothing like what the owners were told would be built next to their homes when they were sold their properties by the developer who owned both of the parcels.
Jeremiah Mankopf told City Council that he had purchased his condo about two years ago, moving from Whitehills so that he could be in downtown East Lansing. Mankopf described himself as a business professional who works in downtown Lansing, and explained that he had been attracted by the idea of living in an owner-occupied area of downtown.
Mankopf stressed that he enjoys the college-town life of East Lansing and that he is not anti-development. He said he wants the empty lot developed. He also said he understood himself and the other West Village condo owners to be the kinds of people City Council want moving downtown—young professionals, married couples, retired individuals, MSU alumni.
But Mankopf questioned building a student rental building right next to the owner-occupied townhouses, particularly when this was not what the condo owners were led to believe would eventually occupy the empty lot, and particularly when the traffic is going to be cutting through the West Village condo lot.
At issue for Smith, Mankopf, and the other owners are several things: First, as noted, the condo owners had been led to expect their neighbors to the east would be homeowners like themselves, of a mix of ages, and now the rental apartments are likely to be occupied by MSU students. Second, relatedly, the condo owners are worried about noise and throwing of objects from the planned balconies that would face their homes.
Third, some of the traffic generated by the proposed building—in part because of a drive-through bank and there being twice as many units as previously planned—will end up in the West Village 2 parking lot, a lot that is already challenged by a narrow entrance drive.
Fourth, the condo owners are concerned that the plan for the new building has too little parking and that people will be illegally parking in their spots, causing them to have to call frequently for tow-aways.
Finally, the new building would have its trash dumpsters in the parking lot of the West Village 2 condos. The condo owners are concerned this will lead to significantly more trash, bad smells, and noisy haul-aways in the parking lot that their master bedrooms and balconies face.
Because the projects were linked in the original plan, legal easements exist which DTN says gives the company the right to use the West Village 2 parking lot as it has proposed, including in terms of the dumpsters and the traffic.
At Council, in response to condo owners’ objections, DTN did not suggest a different way to configure the dumpsters. In fact, it is difficult to see where else they could put them because their planned building takes up most of the empty lot.
DTN’s Colin Cronin did say at Council DTN is willing to take away the balconies that face the condos if that is “a deal-breaker” in terms of Council’s approval.
At a previous meeting of Council, the idea of changing the traffic flow came up, in an effort to reduce the impact on the West Village 2 lot. At Council this week, revised plans for traffic flow were reviewed, with DTN suggesting it was an improvement and the West Village condo owners suggesting it was still not acceptable.
Planning staff Darcy Schmitt told Council that DTN had sent Jeffrey Astrein, president of the condo association, the revised traffic flow plans and that he had not responded, but Astrein later objected that he had received the revised plans only a few hours before the meeting, which he felt gave the association no time to meet and discuss the significant revision.
Schmitt told Council that the fire department had reviewed the revised plans and found no problem with them in terms of emergency access issues. Debbie Astrein, another West Village condo owner, told Council that she spoke to East Lansing fire inspector Donald Carter who told her that the design was dangerous to the West Village condos.
Debbie Astrein said she thought DTN was concerned with their profits, not the neighbors of the project. She said that she was disappointed the project had not been designed for seniors as she believes it is an excellent location for such a project. (At an earlier Council meeting, Councilmember Kathy Boyle had said the same.)
DTN has suggested that the relatively small number of parking spaces (44 for 39 two-bedroom apartments) should mean residents are using fewer cars and using greener forms of transportation. A special exception has to be granted to allow so few parking spots for this number of apartments.
This week at Council Cronin referred to the DTN project as being “starved for parking” when he noted that the new traffic flow plan would add three more spots for the DTN project by adding three spots for DTN’s renters in the West Village 2 lot.
Jeffrey Astrein expressed significant frustration with DTN, saying the way the plan was playing out was “upsetting” to him and the other residents, in part because DTN had never notified the condo owners or talked to them about their plans. According to Astrein, they heard about the project through the Planning Commission notice required by law to be sent to neighbors of a proposed project. Astrein described the owners as “united with concerns.”
Jeff Mugerian, who lives in the condo closest to the empty lot, told Council that “I am really pro-growth, pro-development.” He said he wanted the “mudhole” empty lot developed and that he understood it had to be “right for the developer” but said that he wanted it right for the condo owners, too.
Mugerian, whose year-round home is in Northport, said he bought the property with the understanding the neighboring building would be owner-occupied, like the condos. He named concerns about noise, the balconies, and the dumpsters. He told Council he had already had problems with cut-through traffic, including someone who ran into his garage and sped off, leaving him with almost $600 in damage.
Several councilmembers expressed apparent sympathy for the concerns of the condo owners, including with regard to the west-facing balconies, the dumpsters, and the traffic. A question was put to the City Attorney about the legality of the easements, something the City Attorney could not answer this week because he had not reviewed them prior to the meeting.
Councilmembers also expressed some confusion over the new traffic design plan, and asked for clarity on that at their next meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goodeeris said she wanted the condo association to sit down with DTN’s Colin Cronin to try to work out the points of disagreement. She asked the condo owners to tell Council in the coming week what would be the best conditions that could be put on the approval of the site plan, from their point of view.
The previous plan, which involved more owner-occupied condos, had been set to be supported with tax increment financing (TIF)--a form of public financial subsidy. DTN believes it should still be allowed that public financing, but not all on Council support the use of public subsidies for what are likely to be student rentals, because they say it does not provide a public good in terms of diversifying housing options downtown. Whether DTN will be allowed to use the previously-approved TIF plan has yet to be determined. It is likely the City Attorney will advise Council on this question.
Council moved to defer further deliberation on the matter to the next meeting of Council, next Tuesday, April 28.
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