Renderings Versus Reality in East Lansing

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019, 7:26 am
Alice Dreger

Even before we learned last week that DRW/Convexity, the developers of the Park District project at the blighted corner, submitted plans for building permits that don’t match the design as rendered during the approval process, ELi was planning this article on “renderings versus reality in East Lansing.”

That’s because we’re getting ready to see another big project come through the review process – the redevelopment proposal from Vlahakis Companies and Royal Properties called Park Place – and, as East Lansing’s dedicated nonpartisan factual news organization, ELi’s staff thinks it’s time to remind people who want to weigh in that renderings often can (intentionally or unintentionally) mislead.

Developers are obviously trying to get approvals. They’re not going to show ugly aspects of a site or a plan – electrical wires running down a street, a proposed building that is casting huge shadows, or the like. They often show roads wider than they really are, and sometimes turn MSU's campus into what looks like a pristine national forest.

It’s ELi’s job to try to insert realism, so citizens who want to weigh in on proposals can base their remarks on more than pretty pictures.

At this point, ELi has a well-earned reputation among developers for annotating renderings that don’t represent what we would really see if a project is built as proposed.

Here’s an example of an early rendering from developers Harbor Bay Real Estate and Ballein Management for their Center City District project. In our reporting on that project, we marked up this rendering as shown, in part to clarify reality about the site’s surroundings:

The next version of the Albert Avenue-side rendering for that project came back with existing buildings rendered more appropriately. The 7-Eleven store was, for example, no longer shown as a lush park. Two existing parking garages (including the colorful parking structure) that had first been rendered as apparent apartment buildings became more reality-based, too. (Although that's a lot of shops open at dawn.)

But the main reason East Lansing suffers (or enjoys?) a City-wide skepticism about renderings is not any project currently under review or construction. It’s a project that was built in 2012 – the project known as St. Anne Lofts, shown here in a photo taken yesterday:

Among all the questions East Lansing Info gets from new readers every year, perhaps the steadiest is this: “Why is there a giant cross in the heart of downtown?”

The simple answer is “because Kris Elliott, the developer of St. Anne Lofts, put it there.” But why didn’t City Planning staff and City Council at least challenge the design of St. Anne Lofts during the approval process?

The answer to that seems to be they didn’t notice the cross in the pretty rendering as it was presented during the approval process. Here’s what the rendering showed:

The way this rendering was done, the apparent front of the building (the long side) is, in reality, the side of the building in the alleyway on the east side of the project. In the rendering, none of the existing buildings to the east of the project – including Spartan Spirits or El Azteco – is shown. The rendering also doesn’t show anything like the cross that was built on the front (the shorter side) that faces Albert Avenue.

Notably, that publicly-offered rendering also did not show the fifth floor that the developer ultimately constructed on the building without any approval to do so.

Back in 2012, I was curious to know whether building plans submitted showed the cross and the fifth floor. I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to go see the plans submitted for building permits. Sure enough, the cross and the fifth floor were shown in plans submitted for Building Department approval:

We’ve never gotten a clear explanation about why East Lansing’s staff didn’t catch these problems when the plans for the permits were submitted. It may have been because, back then, the Planning Department and Building Department were separate.

Those two departments were joined after this project, a project widely viewed as a fiasco. The St. Anne Lofts project involved so many regulatory failures in East Lansing, the Lansing State Journal did a major investigation and termed the whole scene a “bureaucratic collapse.” (This headline metaphorically referred to a collapse that occurred in the building during construction.)

When Council Member Ruth Beier raised the issue at Council last week of the DRW/Convexity Park District building permit plan submission not matching what Council approved, she specifically referred back to St. Anne Lofts as a case she didn’t want to see repeated. (In 2013, Council passed an ordinance requiring that developers stick closely to the architectural styles, façade materials, window sizes, and over all window areas in approved plans. See Ordinance 1319.)

During the approval process, DRW/Convexity had been rendering the surrounding sites for the Park District realistically, more than any other developers we had tracked for East Lansing. Here’s an example of a DRW/Convexity rendering of their site prior to approval, annotated at the time by ELi to explain which proposed building was which.

Below you'll fnd one example of the discrepancy between what Council approved last summer for Building A (on Grand River Avenue, between Evergreen Avenue and Abbot Road) and what the developers submitted for the building permits a month ago. The renderings show the building A corner where Evergreen Avenue meets Grand River Avenue (the corner of Building A where the yellow arrow above is pointing).

The first shows what was approved, the second what was submitted for the building permit:

Just after learning from Beier’s remarks at Council that this problem had arisen with the DRW/Convexity project for the vacant corner, I jokingly asked East Lansing Planning and Building Director Tim Dempsey, “There aren’t crosses now, are there?”

He chuckled and said “no” . . . but as I later discovered via FOIA, and as several ELi readers have now also pointed out, the new design does seem to create a pattern of crosses at the top of that building. (To see in high resolution the renderings of the Park District project that were in the plans Council approved, click here.)

“The Hub,” the project being built by Core Spaces where Bogue Street meets Grand River Avenue is not yet far enough along to make it easy to compare it to its renderings. Here’s what it is supposed to look like when complete, viewed from the northwest:

What about the Center City District project, now being built in the center of East Lansing’s downtown? The big streetviews for the final version of that project were never rendered in daylight before the project was approved by Council, in spite of ELi pointing this out multiple times.

So, it’s challenging to say whether Center City is turning out to look like what was approved in terms of finishes, because we never got to see what they were supposed to look like by day.

Here’s how the Center City building along Grand River Avenue, now called The Landmark, looked in the Council packet when the project was approved:

And here’s how it looks under construction, in daylight. (Most of the finishing is yet to be put up.)

City Manager George Lahanas told ELi last week, “I am not aware of any façade changes” for the Center City District project. But it looks to us like what’s been put up in terms of the façade for the Albert Avenue side of the project so far doesn’t match what was in the City Council packet for approval.

Here’s the façade of the Albert Avenue retail space of the Center City District project shown as was approved:

And here is a photo of what’s been built so far:

The rendering seems to show red brick being used for the long landscaping terrace that juts out over the retail space, between the retail front (level 1) and the parking garage front (starting on level 2). But it looks like a dark grey brick is being used for that facing. Whether the rest of the brick rendered red will also be grey is not yet clear.

Here are two more versions of that space in approved rendering versus under construction. First, the rendering in the packet approved:

Note in this rendering the light-colored facing between the retail shops. That, too, appears to be grey brick in the actual construction:

If you'd like to see in high resolution the renderings of Center City that were in the plans Council approved, click here.

Finally, we come to the renderings offered for the recently submitted proposal for the Park Place redevelopment project, for the property currently holding Dublin Square, along with properties north, west, and south of that.

Because we have been told by City staff that that proposal is still in revision, we will just offer one recent rendering, provided by developer Paul Vlahakis late last week, annotated by ELi for orientation. First, here's the map of the site:

Now, here's the annotated rendering:

This rendering is meant to show how the project would look if you were viewing it from up in the air above the back steps of Peoples Church. Right now, the only existing building this rendering shows is a grey block where College Manor exists at the southeast corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue. (That’s the building that houses the tattoo parlor and Beggar’s Banquet. It is shown just above where we’ve inserted the words “Abbot Road.”)

We’ve noted in red text where the Center City parking garage is now being constructed, because that seems particularly significant for understanding this rendering. But this image is also missing lots of other surrounding buildings.

I was surprised, in this rendering, that you can see all the way through the Park Place East building, at least up to level 7. The floor plans show that those levels would in fact hold apartments with interior walls, and interior hallways with walls. So why can we see all the way through, as if it is a building with wide open interiors?

Asked about this, Vlahakis explained that the rendering doesn’t include interior walls for Park Place East. You wouldn't really be able to see the sky on the other side.


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Note: This article was updated after publication to include reference to Ordinance 1319, which requires developers to adhere closely to architectural features as approved by City Council. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info