Planning Commission splits 4-4 on Center City District recommendation
The East Lansing Planning Commission — and the community — are equally split on the Center City District project.
By a Wednesday night vote of 4-4, the commission failed to recommend City Council pass the project’s site plan and special use permits.
The project will go before council regardless on May 9, but will require a super-majority of at least four “yes” votes to pass.
“Above all, we very much respect the Planning Commission’s decision, they had a lot of due diligence,” Mark Bell, CEO for project developer Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors, said. “With large projects, there’s naturally a lot of opinions and I think that was very evident tonight, both from the commissioners as well as the public. … We firmly believe still that this is going to be, if ultimately approved, a dynamic, transformational development for the city of East Lansing.”
Many citizens commented prior to the hearing, some in favor and some opposing the project. Arguments centered around the economic impact and transformational nature of the new development, the as well as the potential for the construction period and buildings' 12-story heights to disrupt the community.
George Brookover, an attorney for the company that owns the building containing Lotsa Pizza and Urban Outfitters, submitted a letter containing several reasons his client remains opposed to the project. Among other reasons including the height of the buildings, Brookover's client objected to the use of public property for the project without allowing other interested parties to submit proposals for its use.
“This is not Columbus, this is not Duluth, this is not Rochester," Brookover said. “This is not the type of city that you saw presented tonight. This city has ... very specific needs and requirements, and I suggest to you respectfully that this development does not meet those.”
Three local union representatives pledged their workers’ support of the project, which has committed to contracting construction jobs based on “prevailing wage” standards.
Pat Riley, owner of P.T. O’Malley’s and Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub, said the future of his businesses during construction has been cited as a concern by critics of the project. He spoke in front of the commission to clarify his position.
“I’m here to tell you I support the project, both businesses support the project, I personally support the project,” Riley said.
Riley said he wants a more diverse mix of residents, and as such likes the student and 55+ housing components of the project. Riley said he receives proposals to develop his property every month, which he believes proves there is a demand for more housing downtown despite public concerns of a saturated market.
“There is sufficient demand for this type of housing downtown, or these people would not continuously come to me on a monthly basis, and I am not exaggerating, every month I get a proposal on developing our property," Riley said.
Before going to a vote, several commissioners passionately explained their votes. Commissioner Kathleen Boyle voted "no" and cited concerns about the project's size.
“My opposition is grounded in the size of the two buildings and their impact on the downtown,” Boyle said. “We are putting an enormous building on Grand River and it’s not providing something that the city needs. The fact that the 140 foot height requires the vote of four out of five councilmembers tells me that a building this tall should only be approved in exceptional circumstances, and I don’t think they’re exceptional circumstances in this case.”
Commission Chair Laura Goddeeris had several reservations about the project, but decided to vote yes.
“Admittedly with some trepidation about such a big change, but also excitement that the growth which once seemed really far in the distance may now actually be upon us, I am going to vote to recommend approval of this project as is currently before us, knowing full well that difficult decisions about the finances still lay ahead,” Goddeeris said.
The vote split straight down the aisle, the tie forcing the commission not to recommend. Despite the lack of a recommendation, Bell said he believes the project is still strong and that productive changes can be made in wake of the vote.
“Yes, we’re disappointed, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to be good listeners and to react (to) what we’ve heard and to continue down the course,” Bell said. “I think it’s important to go back to the drawing board on some of the smaller details that we’ve learned, that we can still adapt to to make this a more compelling project.”