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Council approves ordinance to limit city building heights, keep downtown skyline

April 5, 2001

East Lansing may be maturing as an urban area, but it’s not growing up.

After more than one year of discussion and planning, the East Lansing City Council approved an ordinance at its Tuesday regular meeting that limits building heights throughout the city.

The height limits have been reduced from eight stories, or 14 with a city permit, to four stories, or 10 with a city permit.

The ordinance also allows the city council to make exceptions for projects that would be beneficial to the city but require more height.

Councilmember Sam Singh said the change would help protect residents living near the downtown from the shadows of tall buildings, while still leaving the city open to new development.

“I think the downtown can handle some more considerable heights, especially on the Grand River (Avenue) side, but as soon as you get down around Albert (Avenue), you start to encroach on neighborhoods,” he said.

“We’ve had the opportunity to have buildings of considerable size and it just hasn’t happened.”

Orilla McHarris, a resident of East Lansing’s Bailey neighborhood since 1965, said she was pleased with the decision to hold on to the small-town atmosphere that can be ruined by tall buildings.

“Our neighborhood is generally in favor of keeping the buildings low and letting everybody get some sunshine and fresh air,” she said. “A city has to have people living downtown, and people on the streets.”

Aside from residents staying out of the shadows, businesses around the city are satisfied with the city council’s decision to lower the limits.

“I think people want it to stay more small-townie,” said Cory Curtis, owner of Cool Creations, 209 M.A.C. Ave. “If they start building these huge buildings, it’s going to look kind of odd. There’s not a lot of area between the housing, the downtown and the college itself.”

Only four off-campus East Lansing buildings exceed the new four-story height limit, with the seven-story Marriott hotel at University Place, 300 M.A.C. Ave., standing the highest.

Early proposals for the $30 million City Center Project, which is set to open in 2002, showed buildings as high as 12 stories. City officials opted for the four-story project that was more consistent with other city buildings instead.

More serious work began on the ordinance last year when a local developer proposed a 14-story entertainment complex including more than 234 upscale apartments to the East Lansing Planning Commission.

East Lansing Planning and Zoning Administrator Bob Owen said the ordinance came at a time when developers are looking skyward, forcing the city to take action as soon as possible.

“We’re trying to look down the road to the future and anticipate what’s coming in,” he said. “We’re more urban in character than we were in the ’60s. Time goes by, cities age, mature, develop, and going up is part of that. We’re past the suburban stage.

“You’ve always got someone who has a dream and wants to build the Empire State Building - well, it’s good to have dreams, but this is not the right place to anchor those dreams.”

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