Remaining Park District buildings unlikely to be demolished by year's end
With new apartment buildings and businesses rising along Grand River Avenue, East Lansing has seen growth across its downtown. But students returned this fall to see the lot of the blighted places still standing. Though windows and doors are still boarded up and the Thai Hut sign is still flaking off, Park District might see some progress in the coming months, although the buildings will likely stay standing by the end of 2016.
Park District, also known as City Center II, which also encompasses abandoned buildings on Evergreen Avenue, saw demolitions during the summer. Former apartment buildings on Valley Court and Evergreen Avenue, owned by Chicago-based development entity DRW Trading Group, were demolished in July. The former bank at 303 Abbott Road, owned by the city’s Downtown Development Authority, was demolished in August.
A late deadline
In April, the City of East Lansing and WGR Finance, LLC, operated by DRW, reached an agreement to demolish the remaining buildings they own by the end of the year.
Still, the original demolition goal of Dec. 31 for the corner parcels might not be hit, Tim Dempsey, director of planning, building and development, said. DRW is in the process of preserving a 10 million dollar Michigan business tax credit, and no progress can be made on the developments until the tax credit is approved.
“In order for them to get approval and get that in place, that all has to happen before demolition occurs,” Dempsey said. “The challenge they’re up against is they only have four months to go through the process.”
The process requires approval from the city’s planning commission and the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, a type of tax-increment financing, or TIF. It also needs approval from City Council and the state of Michigan.
“The 120 days between now and then is likely not going to be sufficient,” Dempsey said.
Also slowing down the project is DRW’s revision of its originally proposed plan. The original plan was to develop only the corner buildings with parking underground. Now, they plan to incorporate the properties on Evergreen Avenue into the project and possibly buy another lot on Evergreen Avenue from the DDA to use as a parking ramp.
What’s in store for the urban blight
The current plan in the works is a 12-story structure on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbott Road. The plan includes a hotel, some apartments, first floor commercial space and possibly office space. In line with the city’s ordinance for senior housing, the parcel of land on Valley Court will be made into an eight-story housing development for residents age 55 and older.
“There’s currently a proposed revision to an ordinance that would require any housing that’s done in a project in this core downtown area, that 25 percent of it has to be either senior housing or owner-occupied housing,” Dempsey said. “The goal is to diversify the housing mix downtown so it wouldn’t be just student housing, and they would achieve that if they had a project here that’s dedicated to just senior housing.”
The plan has not officially been submitted yet, but DRW and city officials have been working closely together, Dempsey said.
“They’re working on those plans currently,” he said. “We expect to see something from them mid-September but we haven’t seen anything on paper yet that incorporates that larger area. We’re just waiting for that.”
Once DRW’s proposal is submitted, a public hearing and planning commission will likely discuss it during mid-October, Dempsey said. The hearings are open to all residents and Dempsey said students are encouraged to come.
City Manager George Lahanas said the meetings will be the first of many. Because this is such a large project, planning commissions and other hearings will be held frequently to discuss following ordinances and other effects on the city, such as traffic flow.
“Over the next weeks, months, you’re going to see a lot of discussion, deliberation, public hearings, for all of this property,” Lahanas said.
DRW is interested in purchasing half of the lot at 303 Abbott Road, one of the properties already demolished, to expand the building further. The city plans to use the other half of the lot to straighten out Albert Avenue as it crosses Abbott Road, since it is crooked at the intersection, forcing drivers to face oncoming traffic head-on.
Lahanas said part of the challenge of such a large project are the many owners and land parcels involved. The city and private owners have to work together to progress the development effectively and people don’t see that, he said.
“People talk about this like it’s one big thing,” he said. “They say, ‘Park District — when’s something going to happen?’ Well, there’s different people involved. There’s private ownership, part of it’s the DDA. It doesn’t make sense for them to go alone because it’s all mixed.”
DRW’s head of real estate David Nelson agreed. He said he knows everyone wants progress to be made on the site, nothing can be done until the plans are sorted out.
“The only way this project is going to move forward is there’s a lot of public roadway, a lot of infrastructure work that doesn’t only apply to us,” Nelson said. “So there’s things we need, whether it’s TIF financing, municipal financing, tax credits – there’s a lot of things that had been given to the prior development and the city.
“They’ll understand that there’s work that shouldn’t be 100 percent borne by a private party, so those are the tax credits — at no fault of anyone. You have to get the plans, you have to follow rules, code and take that to the state. All of that process is underway. Just administratively, at no fault of anyone, that process will just take time.”
A revitalized downtown
DRW wants their building to become an asset to the community and downtown, Nelson said. He also said they want to create a unique entrance to downtown.
“What we’re trying to do is utilize the entire parcel, create what would be a gracious courtyard component,” Nelson said. “It would be the opening to what we perceive to be the middle of the city and would access the retail corridor. That’s our plan to create a park, if you will. Not public necessarily, but just an open area.”
With all its planned uses, Nelson said it will create a hub of amenities for downtown East Lansing. He said he wants the retail space to be something interesting to the downtown area.
“I’d definitely like it to be something energetic, so not some boring store that closes at 5 o’clock,” Nelson said. “Something that’s engaging to the community and not just purely commercial, boring use.”
Because of their location and expected price of rent, the apartments will not be marketed as student housing. Nelson thinks it will be marketed more towards professors, university faculty or graduate students.
“When you think about it, it’s kind of a lifestyle center,” he said. “It would have a 24-hour a day, 365 days a year atmosphere.”
In the meantime, some residents are worried about the effects of construction. Caleb King, an assistant general manager at Menna’s Joint, said he does not mind the construction as long as it doesn’t affect his commute.
“I just kind of hope they get it done quick because traffic and getting to work is kind of a pain now,” King said.