LPI's Graebert on East Lansing Park District - A Missed Opportunity?

Mary Beth Graebert, from the Land Policy Institute, looks at recent developments with the East Lansing Park District and discusses different elements of the plan and how they could lead to success for the City and Greater Lansing Region.

Mary Beth Graebert from the Land Policy Insitute

By: Mary Beth Graebert, Associate Director of Programs and Operations, MSU Land Policy Institute

Voters in the City of East Lansing recently weighed in on a proposal to allow the City to sell three parking lots near the intersection of Albert Avenue and Abbot Road that were part of a proposed redevelopment, known as the Park District. The proposal missed the three-fifths supermajority necessary to pass by three percentage points in the November 2014 election. Opponents expressed concerns that negotiations between the City and the two developers involved in the plan were not far enough along, and some residents were hesitant to move forward after a previously failed development project at this intersection. As a result of the failed vote, one developer, DTN Management Co., has withdrawn its $70 million proposal to develop 2.8 acres of public property in the Park District, which hinged on the availability of the three parking lots.

Was this a missed opportunity for a successful placemaking project? It’s really hard to say at this point. For one, it may just be a delay in the process, as the City may have another opportunity to bring this question before the voters next year. For another, placemaking is a process that, like many traditional developments, can meet with numerous obstacles and delays along the way. Gaining public support to increase density is only one of them. However, the Park District plan has a number of things going for it that will hopefully lead to success. Here are just a few.

1. Public-private partnerships make the process less risky for everyone.

Historically, developers and city officials have often been on opposite sides of the fence. Developers read the market and then submit plans to the city for a project on private land, including any requests for variances from existing regulations. The city planning commission then reviews the plans and says “yes” or “no,” sometimes working with the developer to allow a project to happen. This process is very reactionary. With placemaking, which often occurs through public-private partnerships, the process is more proactive and collaborative.

In the case of the Park District project, the area in question has multiple owners, including both public and private space. The collective owners have come together to develop a comprehensive plan that meets public needs, while supporting private business activities. Parties include the two developers, DTN and the Park District Investment Group (PDIG), the City of East Lansing and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Both the City and the DDA are exploring the sale of their properties to facilitate the proposed development. The proceeds from these sales could go toward the payment of outstanding debt on these properties, as well as a contribution to the extensive public infrastructure work associated with this project, including new water and sewer lines, electric utility relocation, streetscape, street construction and public parking. In addition, tax increment financing (TIF) would be used to apply new tax revenue from the project to cover public infrastructure costs. By sharing the redevelopment costs, the onus is spread across the parties, making the project less risky and, hopefully, easier to finance.

2. The public and stakeholders have been engaged in the process.

More than a year ago, the East Lansing Department of Planning, Building and Development and DTN held a series of charrettes involving the public in the visioning and design for the Park District project. The charrettes gave community residents an opportunity to voice their concerns and wishes for this site, and to discuss such concepts as scale, walkability, architecture, transportation and innovative uses for the land and buildings. Based on the feedback from these meetings, DTN revised its pre-development agreement with the City and issued a redevelopment proposal this past summer. The East Lansing Planning Commission held a public hearing in August to review the Site Plan and Special Use Permit and necessary rezoning for the Park District project. These opportunities for the public to provide input into the placemaking process are vital to the success of these types of projects. The people who live and work in East Lansing deserve a say in how their community is redeveloped. As evidenced by the election, a majority of voters are already on board with steps that facilitate the contribution of City property to this redevelopment vision.

3. The proposed project would bring much-needed vibrancy and diversity to downtown East Lansing.

The Park District plan envisions a new “bookend” for the west side of the downtown, which would transform a largely vacant and underutilized area into mixed-use buildings, a walkable green space that connects Valley Court Park to downtown East Lansing, a restaurant featuring local food and housing for diverse tenants, including a residential building for people age 55 and older. The goal is not to just create another place for students to hang out, because those opportunities already abound at Michigan State University (MSU) and in the downtown. Rather, this development would cater to a variety of people, including MSU faculty, young talent and older professionals nearing retirement. This location would be attractive to those population segments that are looking for a more walkable, connected living environment, with close proximity to amenities like the park, the Hannah Community Center, the Eli Broad Art Museum and bus stops to take them to other places in the region.

There are some excellent restaurants in downtown East Lansing, but one that incorporates local food into the menu will be in high demand. Another hotel for parents of MSU students and people who come into town for football games and shows at the Wharton Center will be great for attracting people and keeping them downtown. More office space and residences will also bring more consumers into East Lansing businesses, including the fantastic art galleries/shops, boutique clothing stores and spa salons. All of this vibrancy is just what the market wants, including talented individuals who will come to work at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) on MSU’s campus and related companies that locate here.

4. The Park District plan is aligned with other redevelopment efforts along the Michigan-Grand River Avenue Corridor.

Many efforts are underway to plan for and implement the revitalization of the Michigan Avenue/Grand River Avenue Corridor, which is a vital artery of the Greater Lansing Region connecting East to West. First, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which is the lead on a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sustainable Communities grant with several regional partners (including the Land Policy Institute), recently hosted a visioning process for this corridor. The vision that resulted from a series of public charrettes and design exercises lays out a plan for a more sustainable future along the corridor, including street design retrofits, beautification, street-oriented housing, mixed-use buildings and green space. As part of this program, the MSU Planning & Zoning Center is developing a Corridor Design Portfolio, which will provide 160 tools for improving quality of life in a community, due to be released online next week.

Second, the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction was asked by MSU President Simon to conduct an academic exercise looking at how this area could be transformed into “an attractive, sustainable and economically diverse world-class community to complement the regional assets and anchor institutions.” Third, the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) is going through an extensive planning effort to bring a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to this corridor. The BRT could improve travel time on the corridor, contribute to economic development and help better connect the residents and workers in the Park District to the rest of the corridor and region. Finally, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called “East Lansing 2030: Collegeville Re-Envisioned,” which showcases the work and ideas of architects, landscape architects and urban designers from across the country envisioning a future East Lansing.

Furthermore, the Park District Investment Group can still move forward with two of the three development projects proposed for this area, which were not affected by the election. The PDIG is proposing one project (Building A) at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road, which would be a 10-story structure with a restaurant and bank on the first floor, a 120-room hotel and five floors of apartments. The second project (Building B) would be a four-story mixed-used building with commercial space on the first floor and apartments above, located east of Valley Court Park. If this project moves forward, it could provide the momentum needed for the rest of the Park District plan to move forward.

Once again, these are just a few of the reasons why the Park District plan is, despite a down vote in the November election, on the right track. A placemaking project at the west end of downtown East Lansing and the gateway to MSU, with the right support, can bring people, businesses and prosperity to this area in the very near future.

For more on the East Lansing Park District Project, including planning and design ideas from faculty and students in the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction, please visit the following links.

This is the first article published in the MSU Land Policy Institute’s article series on Critical Issues in Placemaking in the Greater Lansing Area.

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