Park Place Officially Proposed; Public Comment Now Sought

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Sunday, January 20, 2019, 8:22 am
Alice Dreger

The $190 million Park Place project will officially come for its first public hearing at East Lansing’s Planning Commission this Wednesday evening.

If built as proposed, Park Place would constitute the third major redevelopment within a one-block radius of the intersection of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. It would be the largest, tallest, and most costly of the three projects.

The two other big redevelopment projects right near this site are already approved and under construction. These are the Center City project rising in the heart of downtown, and the Park District project, at the vacant corner, where excavation has just now started.

Like the Center City project, Park Place would involve a major public-private partnership, with the long-term lease of at least three public properties for these developers’ use. In this case, the developers are Vlahakis Development and Royal Properties.

The Park Place proposal was released by the City late Friday as part of Planning Commission’s agenda for Wednesday, but that proposal contains no traffic study. A traffic study is expected to be made public before the end of this month.

The proposal also does not include realistic renderings of the project shown among actual buildings that exist or that are under construction. So, for example, they don’t show what Albert Avenue will look like with a 15-story building (Park Place East) directly facing a 13-story building (Park District Building A).

Nor are there any renderings showing what the project would look like from Valley Court Park to the west or from the residential neighborhoods to the north. Paul Vlahakis, one of the developers, has said that his team is still working on those renderings.

Below: A rendering of the project as seen from the southeast, as if you were standing at Ink & Needle tattoo parlor downtown. The large blocks to the left suggests where DRW/Convexity has approval to build a 13-story apartment building and a 10-story hotel.

The City’s staff analysis of the proposal provides no explanation of why the project is under consideration when Council has not voted to allow the developer to include all the public land that is in the proposal.

It also makes no comment on the project not meeting the City’s law requiring diversified housing for a redevelopment like this one.

Under East Lansing’s Ordinance 1384, the City requires that at least 25% of housing units in a project of this type be designed as (a) owner-occupied units, or (b) restricted to people age 55+, or (c) be income-restricted housing. The staff report for the Planning Commission simply states that 17% of the housing units in this proposed project provide diversified housing, through the provision of 82 for-sale condo apartments.

This raises the question whether the Council Members are considering a change to Ordinance 1384 that would make it possible for the Park Place project to avoid what was required of DRW/Convexity’s Park District and Harbor Bay/Ballein Management’s Center City in terms of diversified housing.

Council members have talked about wanting significant new office space downtown, and this proposal includes 25,000-square-feet of office space. So, it is possible Council will change the law to allow less housing diversification in consideration of office space. But there’s been no public discussion of this.

Council also would have to change various height limits, zoning laws, and the Oakwood Historic District boundary in order to approve the proposed project. Council has already been moving to prepare do some of that, in advance of the formal proposal becoming public.

Where would this be built?

Vlahakis Development and Royal Apartments are looking to construct two large new buildings where Dublin Square now stands, plus on properties west, north, and south of there, including using public property in Valley Court Park (for an underground storm water treatment tank), parking lot 4 on the south (south of Dublin Square), and part of parking lot 15 on the north (north of the AT&T building on Abbot Road).

The project would also make use of the public alley between the two large buildings, to act as a driveway for the project’s west-side parking garage. It would also repurpose a section of Evergreen Avenue to turn it into a greenway which some of the project’s private rental apartments would then face.

The following map is based on one from the City, which mislabels Evergreen Avenue "Evergreen Road." We've added annotations about what goes where.

City Council would have to agree to allow all these uses of public land. In some cases, that would likely be achieved in a fashion similar to what City Council agreed to under the Center City plan, when it gave developers Harbor Bay/Ballein Management a long-term lease on the land that had been used for Parking Lot 1 downtown.

If Council wanted to sell the land, it could have to ask the voters’ permission, depending on the value of the land. Giving developers a long-term lease to public property avoids the potential problem of voters not agreeing to a plan.

What’s being proposed?

At the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue, where Dublin Square now is, the developers want to build “Park Place East,” a 15-story structure above ground. That would include 133 rental apartments and 56 condos.

The east building would have retail/restaurant space on the first and second floors, office space just above that, and the apartments above that, with private club house and fitness room space on the top level. (Staff calls this building “14 stories” because they aren’t counting the private space on the top floor as a story.)

Along Albert Avenue would be a public plaza (shown above from the south). The rest of the building would rise above that public plaza, putting the 15-story structure right across Albert Avenue from the 13-story structure being built on the southwest corner by DRW/Convexity.

Just west of there, immediately across the public alley, the developers want to construct “Park Place West,” to have either 12 or 14 movie theatres (the proposal is not consistent on this number), 275 rental apartments, and 26 condos.

This is how the project would look from Albert Avenue, with annotation from ELi:

Here’s how the numbers break down in terms of total apartments and total parking spots added for the three projects, all within a one-block of each other:

How would the parking and traffic work?

For Park Place East’s parking, drivers would come off Abbot Road and head underground (see purple arrow on right, below). There, they would drop off their cars in one of three bays provided, and an automated parking system would park their cars on one of four underground levels. The car is returned by the automated system when the driver returns to retrieve it.

For Park Place West’s parking, drivers would drive up to the third level (above the movie theatres) and use one of five bays to have their cars machine-parked on one of two above-ground levels. Drivers would enter and exit on Evergreen Avenue or via what’s now the west side of Parking Lot 15, the lot across Abbot Road from City Hall (left and middle purple arrows, above).

Vlahakis told a Downtown Development Authority (DDA) committee that cars could reach the parking entrance on the east side of the building via the public alley that runs north-south betwen the two buildings, intersecting Albert Avenue near the northeast corner of Peoples Church's property.

What are seen as the benefits of this proposal?

The developers say the project addresses core needs of East Lansing’s downtown, including movie theatres, office space, and owner-occupied condos with impressive views.

Vlahakis recently told ELi, “the height makes our downtown look impressive to visitors of our city and the University, which is a movement that is long overdue for our city and I am happy to see our City Council approving these developments.” He has also suggested that the automated parking would bring a “wow” factor to East Lansing.

Housing density has been named repeatedly as a benefit of big projects downtown. Proponents of major redevelopments say density will bring commercial diversity in shops and dining and create a more walkable city, plus more tax revenue – once the tax incentive pay-backs to developers are completed. (With Park District, that will be after 9 years, and with Center City, shown below, after 30 years.)

City leaders are interested in the Park Place project because the developers have promised to pay off about $5.6 million in debt owned on properties currently owned by East Lansing’s DDA. These are properties along Evergreen Avenue currently occupied by a 3-story mixed use brick building and a series of older rental houses in the Oakwood Historic District. The houses are shown here:

The City’s staff report on this proposal says those properties were “strategically acquired by the DDA for redevelopment.” But that “strategic acquisition” has represented a stress-inducing debt for the DDA, and for the City, which is ultimately responsible for the DDA’s debt. The properties were bought for over three times their assessed value in 2009 for the failed City Center II project.

So far, the DDA has not opted to open up those properties to proposals by other developers. That’s in part because Paul Vlahakis’ company owns the Dublin Square property, which makes for a bigger project once rolled in with the publicly-owned properties.

The developers have offered to write a check for the amount owed on the Evergreen Avenue properties if they and the City agree on all the components of the project and it goes forward.

What are seen as the downsides of this project?

With regard to the Park Place project, some have questioned the use of public land for private redevelopment, the involvement of the City in more real estate deals when its success has been spotty (that is, after all, how the Evergreen Avenue debt came about), and whether there’s really a market for all that’s being developed downtown.

Many have also raised the potential for snarled traffic, including along Grand River Avenue as a result of backups on Abbot Road.

Concerns have also been raised about Valley Court Park, the Oakwood Neighborhood, and Peoples Church. The church’s memorial garden, which is an active cemetery (human remains are interred there), would be across from the entrance to the 12- or 14-plex movie theater and entertainment venue.

Because the City has been pushing to pave the way for this project, Planning Commission has already reviewed a zoning change required by this project, and Commissioners spoke about the height of the proposed project at that time. As we reported, a 6-2 majority of Planning Commission expressed concerns about having such a tall building along Evergreen Avenue.

Below: The only image provided so far of what Park Place West would look like from the west, situated along Evergreen Avenue.

Some Commissioners named specific concerns about the Oakwood neighborhood, a historic neighborhood made up chiefly of single-family homes. The northwest part of this project is located in the southeast corner of Oakwood. (Disclosure: this reporter owns a home in Oakwood.)

East Lansing’s recently-passed Master Plan – formerly called the “Comprehensive Plan” – envisions nothing this large at this location. Under the Plan, “Park Place East, the Abbot Road building, would be a maximum of 10 floors. “Park Place West,” the Evergreen Avenue building, would have at most 8 floors.

The idea in the Master Plan was that new tall buildings in the downtown would “step down” to Valley Court Park and single-family neighborhoods. This plan instead puts 139-foot building on the west side and 159-foot building on the east side, both just south of old houses that are at most 3-stories tall.

Although the DDA has in the past expressed concerns about the Oakwood neighborhood with regard to what happens with the Evergreen Avenue properties, when it came to the draft ordinance to allow 140-foot buildings there with a zoning change, the DDA recently voted in favor of recommendation in a 10-0 vote, saying it would be “compatible with the adjacent neighborhoods.”

Below: Developer Paul Vlahakis at a DDA meeting in November.

Expect a tax incentive plan for the project:

The developers are seeking big tax incentives for this project.

They have submitted a draft Brownfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan of about $15 million. Of that, $5.4 million is for “site work,” which appears to include many private redevelopment expenses, despite the fact that a recent Council policy excludes such costs from those for which a developer can be reimbursed under a TIF.

According to a cover memo from staff, an earlier (not released) version of this TIF plan included even more expenses “which were clearly not in line with the City policy for TIF.” Council wants to see TIF limited to things like public infrastructure improvements (roads, sewers) and environmental clean-up.

We’ll have more details on the TIF plan as it receives further staff review, as promised in the staff report.

Want to weigh in?

You can communicate with Planning Commission on this project at the meeting on Wednesday, which starts at 7 p.m. in City Hall, and you can also write to Planning Commission via staff member David Haywood.

Planning Commission is advisory to City Council, which makes most of the ultimate decisions on the project. The DDA is also advisory to Council on most issues, although the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which has the same membership as the DDA, could stop a project by voting against a Brownfield TIF plan. (It has never done so.)

You can write to the DDA/BRA through staff member Tom Fehrenbach.

You can speak at City Council at any meeting during public comment, including at the meeting occurring this Tuesday, where Council will decide on an ordinance related to allowing 140-foot buildings on the DDA-owned properties along Evergreen Avenue. They will hear public comment before that vote.

You can also write to Council via email.


UPDATE, January 26: Read what's changed since the project was proposed and how the Planning Commission, DDA, and public have reacted.

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