• Evan Jones

City Council debates halting downtown development, direction of housing policy


Constructions workers work at the Park District project in East Lansing on April 12, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News) Nic Antaya | The State News

The East Lansing City Council discussed halting downtown development in order to streamline a housing study and augment the downtown zoning code at its June 11 discussion-only meeting.

Housing study

Director of Planning, Building and Development Tim Dempsey spoke about the potential for a housing market study in the city.  

“There’s been some discussion recently about our rapidly changing housing market, in particular the multi-family market,” Dempsey said.

He said from the city staff perspective, the primary focus includes market-rate and student housing, with the potential of looking at urban, owner occupied, condominiums, income-qualified, multifamily, market and student housing.

Dempsey said the city would want to engage surrounding municipalities like Meridian Township and Lansing because housing developments like SkyVue are outside the city’s borders, but still implicate the city’s housing market.

“This could be a $30,000 to $100,000 study potentially, depending on how broad we get,” he said.

Council member Aaron Stephens said he and Mayor Mark Meadows shared similar concerns about changing downtown.

"There are a lot of residents who have worries. I have some misgivings,” Stephens said. “Are we at a good level, or do we need to re-evaluate some things?”

Council member Shanna Draheim said that landlord buy-in is necessary to obtain vacancy rates and rent data crucial for the study’s validity.

“I’d like to see us try to keep the parameters of this as straightforward and as simple as we can,” Draheim said.

Council member Ruth Beier said that one goal of the study would be to determine what it takes for other housing in order to get conversions to happen.

“My other goal would be to not hurt, or destroy, current markets,” Beier said.

Beier said more than finding out supply and demand, she doesn’t want enough done in one area to destroy the market in another.

"I’m not entirely sure what question we want to answer with this,” Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann said. “If the question is, ‘do we have enough housing for people,’ the answer is probably going to be yes, but I don’t think that’s a really interesting question to ask.”

Altmann said a study should determine where new housing developments downtown are drawing their residents from and whether they are from the northern tier or outside of East Lansing.

Potential moratorium loses support

Community and Economic Development Administrator Tom Fehrenbach introduced the discussion on the potential halt to downtown development. The council removed the item from their agenda last week.

The moratorium would last until September 11, 2019 and it exempts the Downtown Development Authority-owned properties on Evergreen Avenue, where the Park Place project is planned to be built and is still pending city approval.

The city's staff report says the moratorium would examine "several critical building design and height issues."

Fehrenbach said the Downtown Development Authority had a split 4-4 vote on the potential moratorium.  

He said that many in Downtown Development Authority supported the housing study, but the moratorium worried some about sending the wrong message to developers at the wrong time.

Mayor Mark Meadows said the moratorium would put feet to the fire in terms of staff creating a product that is meaningful for the City Council to review. 

Altmann pushed back on the necessity of a moratorium.

“I would much rather have us be accountable for those votes directly on any particular project that comes through than to hide behind a moratorium,” Altmann said.

Council member Beier said she agreed and didn’t want to jeopardize Core Spaces' Bogue Street project.

“We can make decisions, we don’t need to hide behind a moratorium,” she said.

Draheim said she was starting to lean against the moratorium as well, depending on if a project comes through the approval process by right.

Zoning code reform

Draheim said at last week's meeting that she considered the moratorium so that city staff could put their energy into finalizing a form-based code for the City Council to review.

City officials are working to refine a form-based code to restructure the process of project approval downtown from zoning based on use, to zoning based on form or appearance.

One example of this code and master plan distinction is the East Village, where Core Spaces attorney David Pierson has urged the city to change its zoning laws to accommodate two additional Bogue Street student housing towers neighboring the Hub on Campus.

Dempsey said the East Village isn’t considered as a part of the form-based code process at this point. A moratorium would stop the pending application for the additional housing developments.

The timing of the moratorium concerned Pierson because of how that rule would affect the Bogue Street project.

“There are some elements of the East Village that are frankly out of date because it was unused for ten years,” he said. “We’ve only got so much time that we can control the property and get it approved.”

After Meadows asked how long a change to the East Village would take to go through the city government, Dempsey said the approval process would take about 60 to 90 days if an ordinance were to be introduced June 18, which — as of now — it isn’t.

“This moratorium is going to be off by the time that they can do anything anyway,” Meadows said.  

Altmann said one of the goals with the form-based code is to increase opportunities for administrative approval of projects downtown, so that East Lansing can qualify for redevelopment-ready community status.

He said the current timeline for completing a new downtown code was wildly optimistic and called for delays to gain more community buy-in.

“People need to be confident that those approvals are going to be in line with the values of the community,” Altmann said. “If we’re thinking of doing that, then we’re not talking about this September for the form-based code, we’re talking about next September.”

Downtown developer David Krause said he was against the form-based code after reviewing it.

“It’s one of the most confusing documents I think I’ve ever read,” he said.

Krause said he was concerned about how a code would determine architecture decisions are determined.

Altmann said, “I think we’re in trouble if we have a code people can’t understand.”

Draheim said discussions on changes at the master-plan level should occur on a broad scale, instead of a case-by-case basis.

“It is a very technical document,” Draheim said. “But I think there are some key areas where we are talking about changes … and I think we just need to take that on and own it.”

Altmann didn’t reject the premise of changing the downtown code, but sought to allow projects to reach the City Council in the meantime.

Fehrenbach said the planning commission subcommittee tasked with creating a form-based code for the city to consider has done thorough line-by-line review and is preparing for initial steps of community outreach with architects and developers.

“Does that mean that our timeline is reasonable right now? It’s a dynamic process, we’ll see,” Dempsey said.