East Lansing’s Newest, Biggest Proposal Draws Mixed Reactions

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Saturday, January 26, 2019, 4:15 am
Alice Dreger and Dan Totzkay

The Peoples Church and the Planning Commission seemed generally chilly, the Downtown Development Authority mostly warmer, and City Council decidedly mixed in reaction to the Royal Vlahakis “Park Place” redevelopment proposal this week.

If built as proposed, the project would rise to 169 feet at 15 stories, replacing the existing Dublin Square and encompassing a swath of public and private properties in downtown East Lansing.

This week’s governmental reviews of the proposal for a $190 million public-private-partnership also revealed just how many parts are still missing, unexplained, or in flux.

Two weeks after ELi reported that the proposal includes a chunk of public land that City Council never gave permission to include – Lot 15 – East Lansing Director of Planning Tim Dempsey acknowledged on Thursday that this is a problem, saying Council will have to vote on the matter before it goes back to Planning Commission.

The developers also planned to use another piece of public land for private development, also without Council’s permission: part of Valley Court Park for an underground storm water treatment tank. Dempsey told ELi Thursday “staff will be requesting [that] the developer find alternative means/locations for the storm-water retention.”

As the Chair of the Planning Commission pointed out on Wednesday with some frustration, multiple elevations and renderings have yet to be provided. There’s still been no traffic study presented. The required parking plan currently remains, according to one Planning staff member, “a moving target.”

East Lansing’s Ordinance 1384 requires that 25% of the housing units in a project like this be restricted to owner-occupied units, low-income renters, or seniors aged 55+. The two other large redevelopments already approved for construction within a half-block of this site, DRW/Convexity’s and Center City, have both followed that law.

But in Royal Vlahakis proposal, Ordinance 1384 isn’t followed. Only 17% of the housing units are condos, with no units restricted to seniors or lower-income individuals. And although a Planning Commissioner asked on Wednesday why a proposal is being presented that doesn’t follow the law, there’s been no indication of how this issue will be resolved.

What else remains uncertain? Last week, the tax incentives plan was submitted to the City with a $70 million ask by the developers. That draft tax increment financing (TIF) plan was, within two days, reduced to $15 million. The TIF plan was then pulled altogether from a planned discussion at the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA) at the last minute on Thursday, with no explanation.

Meanwhile, this week, Matt Hagan, whose rental property at 404 Evergreen Avenue is supposed to be included in the project, vigorously objected to having his apartment building labeled “functionally obsolete” in the TIF plan. The developers must eventually buy Hagan’s property for the project to happen, which means Hagan has to be willing to sell for this.

Below: 404 Evergreen Avenue (left), housing an occupied apartment building constructed in 2006. Two of the older rental houses owned by the DDA are shown to the right.

And, this week, two members of City Council killed an ordinance designed to help the project, saying they want a more comprehensive look at big redevelopment downtown.

Smooth sailing it has not been.

Too big, or perfectly big?

Illinois-based Royal Properties and local Vlahakis Development are looking to strike a deal with the City of East Lansing for a $190 million redevelopment, which would include a 12-plex movie theatre, almost 500 more apartments for downtown, and 20,000 square feet of office space. The project would also include retail space, restaurants, and a public plaza.

If built, it would be the third and largest redevelopment project in a one-block radius in East Lansing’s downtown. The building along Abbot Road, replacing Vlahakis-owned Dublin Square, would be 15 stories high. At 169 feet, it would be about 30 feet taller than anything else being built downtown. (In their descriptions, City staff don’t count the structure's top 10 feet and top floor; read why.)

That large scale and that location are what many members of Planning Commission seemed to disfavor this week. But it was also what many members of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) favored.

The DDA’s interest in the project is motivated in part by that agency’s desire to get rid of an almost $6 million debt on properties along Evergreen Avenue owned by the DDA. The DDA bought those properties at about three times their assessed value in 2009 for a different redevelopment project originally known as City Center II, which failed.

Now developers Royal Properties and Vlahakis Development have promised to buy those properties for what is owed, if this deal goes through. But is this deal the right way to solve that debt?

Below: One of the DDA properties that would be demolished under the plan.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Kathy Boyle said this week that she understands the need to deal with the DDA’s debt – a major debt for which East Lansing taxpayers are ultimately responsible. But, she said, “I don’t want those concerns to be the driver of a development” that might not be the right one for East Lansing.

“I want whatever goes there to be the best [project] we can put there,” Boyle said on Wednesday night.

By contrast, on Thursday at midday, some DDA members were expressing the view that this is a highly desirable project, particularly because of the proposed movie theaters and automated machine parking. (You drop your car and a machine parks it for you.)

DDA member Jeff Kusler said he thought the modernized parking system was so exciting, he imagined people coming to downtown East Lansing just to park in it.

DDA member Greg Ballein (who is a co-developer of the nearby Center City project) also expressed excitement over it, saying he was looking forward to using the automated system.

At Planning Commission, Vlahakis shared a promotional video of the automated parking system that would be used in Park Place, and cited a conversation with the City Manager from West Hollywood, California. That city has had an automated municipal garage for the past 10 years, built by the company Vlahakis wants to hire for the technology.

Below: Movie and church-goers could drive their cars in, go three stories up, and turn their cars over to machines to park them.

The developers want to fit about 600 cars in their project, and the automated system saves significant space. But can the nearby streets handle the extra traffic?

At this week’s DDA meeting, Vlahakis suggested slow-moving traffic is just a natural part of being a big city – the big city he wants East Lansing to become.

At the DDA meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, sitting in for absent Mayor Mark Meadows, agreed.

“I’m not concerned about congestion issues quite so much,” he said. “We are making a transition to a city.”

Planning Commission reacts to the first formal presentation of the plans:

Although many parts of the proposal were not ready, East Lansing Planning Commission held its public hearing on the plan Wednesday night, as previously announced.

Chief among Planning Commission’s concerns about the Royal Vlahakis project is its proposed height. The plan calls for two buildings, with Park Place East at 15 stories tall along Abbot Road, and Park Place West at 10-12 stories along Evergreen Avenue.

Below: Paul Vlahakis and Tom Tooley present at Planning Commission.

Vice Chair Boyle asked Paul Vlahakis why the height – several stories taller than anything currently allowed on these properties – is necessary.

Vlahakis said that the height would help the marketability of the condos in the projects’ top floors. He said that several individuals, including MSU Women’s Basketball Coach Suzy Merchant, have expressed interest in buying condos in this project. (Vlahakis has said this three times, so we have asked MSU if Merchant wishes to comment; MSU public relations say they will get back to us.)

Vlahakis and Tom Tooley, the project’s lead architect, also explained that the height of the building on Abbot Road increased because City staff asked for a public plaza with a 24-foot ceiling along Albert Avenue.

When asked by Commissioner Joseph Sullivan if being denied the additional height would “kill the project,” Vlahakis said he was not sure, but that it would make the project more difficult given the price of about $5.6 million being charged for the DDA-owned Evergreen Avenue properties.

The chief point of opposition cited for the proposed buildings’ heights was how out of step they are from East Lansing’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. Commissioner Dale Downes said it was “kind of disappointing” that the proposed buildings exceed the Comp Plan guidelines as much as they do, calling it “excessive.”

Commission Chair Dan Bollman noted that the Comp Plan had been crafted with a large amount of community input, being meant to guide development for approximately 20 years.

Like other Commissioners, Bollman said that he saw exciting elements in the plan, but that he thought it was out of scale and proposing too much density in too small an area, especially given the other two major redevelopments already under construction within a block.

Bollman responded explicitly to a claim made by Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann earlier in the week, when Altmann said the Comp Plan had been used “as a baseball bat to kill projects.” Bollman said he saw the Comp Plan as a yardstick by which the community wanted projects measured. Other Commissioners agreed with that in their comments.

Below: Planning Commission watching the automated parking video.

When asked by Commissioner Dale Downes if these condominiums would actually be affordable and thus able to be occupied, Vlahakis said he had not priced them out yet, but believed they would be affordable. He cited a couple telling him they would move from Ann Arbor to East Lansing if these were built. No marketability study has been offered.

When asked by Commissioner Cynthia Williams what plans there were for diversified housing options in the project, including for people with disabilities, Vlahakis and Tooley gave vague answers, saying that they are “still working on that.”

The developers and City staff are also still trying to figure out how the parking would work. The project would have about 600 new automated parking spots, but the developers said this week only about 100 of those would likely be available to the public, because many would be promised to the buildings’ tenants and residents.

The project would involve the loss of parts or all of three public parking lots, so it’s not clear what the net gain or loss of public parking spots would be. What is clear is that the project promises theaters for about 1,400 movie goers, plus restaurant and retail space. Where will all those people park?

The developers, City staff, and some on the DDA suggested that because this and other big projects will transform East Lansing, many fewer people will be driving to use downtown amenities.

The view from Peoples Church:

At Planning Commission’s hearing, local realtor Dave Ledebuhr spoke on behalf of the Peoples Church Development Review Committee to discuss concerns and hopes for the project. The church is located directly across Albert Avenue from where this project would be built.

Ledebuhr said that they had met with Vlahakis for the first time this week, and had had a chance to explain the importance of the Peoples Church Memorial Garden. That green space is the permanent home to the remains of over 100 community members, with another 250 community members planning to have their cremated remains interred there.

Ledebuhr expressed satisfaction with how the developers DRW Convexity worked with the church on their next-door project for The Graduate hotel (set to be constructed soon, at 10 stories). He said those developers had been sure to minimize noise and eliminate any balconies on the side that faces the Memorial Garden.

The Royal Vlahakis project, by contrast, calls for a large outdoor balcony for the movie theatres facing the Memorial Garden. The entrance to the movie theaters would be right across the street from the garden.

Speaking for the church’s committee, Ledebuhr also expressed concern over maintaining disability accessibility for those attending functions at the church, and over the availability of adequate parking. He said that the church relies on municipal parking for overflow events, and said they are concerned that the new automated parking garage would not be sufficient for residents, retail customers, the public, and attendees to Peoples Church.

Ledebuhr said his committee believes this development “came up quickly” and “seems premature,” especially with City Council this week voting down an amendment that would allow for increased height in the area.

Planning Commission noted the church’s concerns and indicated they will take the proposal back up, probably at the February 13 meeting.

City Planning Director Tim Dempsey tells ELi he plans to have City Council vote the day before that to allow the developers to include City-owned Lot 15 in the project’s site plan, something that was supposed to have happened before the proposal got to this point.

The Downtown Development Authority discusses the proposal:

At the DDA meeting on Thursday, there was discussion of essentially dedicating yet another portion of public land to the project, namely the alley that runs between the land along Evergreen Avenue (where Park Place West would be built) and along Abbot Road (where Park Place East would be built).

Because that alley would be almost entirely surrounded by the Royal Vlahakis project, Paul Vlahakis told the DDA it seems to make sense to use the alley specifically for the project. He envisions early-morning service trucks having access, but then, during the day and evening, closing off the alley to become a pedestrian space.

DDA Chair Peter Dewan suggested the space could include alley-facing retail shops. It’s unclear who would pay to maintain the alley in this vision. If it remains public land, ordinarily no taxes would derive from it and the City would pay to maintain it. No details are available yet on what the developers would pay for the long-term use or purchase of public land.

Below: Vlahakis presents to the DDA.

The DDA had questions about how the parking would work in terms of rush times, like when a big movie lets out. Vlahakis responded that many people will be on foot and that he would imagine people leaving at staggered times, because some would stay to do other things in East Lansing. City staff said they’re trying to figure out how to estimate parking needs for an urban 12-plex theater.

Vlahakis told the DDA that he doesn’t yet have a tenant for the theater space, so he’s not sure how many screens it would really have. He envisions it being a popular spot for MSU students, particularly for those who are too young to go to the bars. He also suggested the theaters would serve alcohol, like Studio C in Okemos.

Dewan asked what the backup plan would be for the commercial space in the west-side building if the theaters turned out to be economic failures. Vlahakis said he wasn’t sure what would happen then, because it would not be easy to convert theater space to some other use.

DDA member Jeff Kusler asked if there was a market study for the theaters.

“I’m just curious if this is realistic,” he said. Kusler made clear he wants to see more entertainment options downtown, but said he was concerned about it “not succeeding. That scares me a little.”

Vlahakis responded that he did not see a theater operator signing on if they did not think it was going to work.

Rendering showing the theater entrance to the left, above-ground enclosed walkway over alley, connecting two new buildings, at right.

DDA member Eric Sudol said he found the project exciting – “it brings life to downtown” – but asked whether Abbot Road was going to become intolerable in terms of traffic.

“Density is great,” Sudol said, “but I’m concerned about where all this is happening, at that junction.”

Kusler agreed, saying he was “really concerned” about the possible backup of traffic on Grand River Avenue. “This is a lot of housing [being] introduced downtown,” he said.

DDA member Jill Rhode asked what all the housing introduction would mean for existing housing. The question came up of what will happen with the big apartment complexes on the Northern Tier, especially if traffic on Abbot Road becomes worse.

Vlahakis replied he thought there would still be a market for lower-priced rental units elsewhere. But, he said, the apartment complexes on East Lansing’s Northern Tier “were a mistake ultimately. And that’s going to fail. . . . Chandler [Road housing] is going to drain back to East Lansing [downtown].” He said that’s how student housing should have been working all along.

Several DDA members expressed concern about the traffic that might cut through the Oakwood Neighborhood, just north of the project. (Disclosure: Alice Dreger owns a house in that neighborhood.) Vlahakis said he was interested in cutting off traffic between the project and the neighborhood.

“I think we can simply make that happen,” he said. “Cars can’t go there.”

Asked about whether he had a tenant for the proposed 25,000 square feet of office space, Vlahakis said he did not, but reiterated his belief that a tech company might move in. Or, he suggested, a law firm might take the space.

When he presented the basic plan to City Council on December 11, Vlahakis was asked how many office workers such a space would hold. He said one hundred. This week, he said the space would more likely house about fifty.

Jessy Gregg contributed reporting.


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