Both building plans include rental apartments and condominium units for sale. Vlahakis Development and Royal Apartments USA back the project.
After the announcement of Park Place in August 2018, the developers passed their first bureaucratic hurdle in December, purchasing property from the Downtown Development Authority, or DDA. However, as with any proposed development, challenges remain before the master plan can become a reality.
The developers seek a special use permit to begin development of the towers, a move that would allow the project to bypass a city ordinance restricting building heights to six stories or 96 feet.
Special use permits allow for buildings to be eight stories or 112 feet, except in cases where the city council finds ‘significant public benefit’ where the height allowance is extended to 140 feet.
However, the zoning district where developers would build Park Place is exempted from that bonus height allowance, which blocks the project from proceeding.
A proposed ordinance would eliminate that exception and expand the 140-foot bonus height to the rest of the B-3 City Center District. The ordinance failed in last Tuesday’s city council meeting 2-2.
Vlahakis Development president Paul Vlahakis said he believes the council will reconsider the ordinance in the next month or two.
Plans for Park Place East, at 159 feet, are still above that limit. A separate ordinance was introduced this month aiming to resolve that issue by increasing the bonus height limit to 160 feet.
Park Place West, at 135 feet, is just below the current maximum.
Planning, Building and Development Director Tim Dempsey agreed it is likely the council will revisit the issue of increased building heights, whether through individual ordinances or a comprehensive review of downtown height requirements.
Vlahakis said he believes the planned heights are necessary to sell the condominium units at the top of the towers.
“When you have such an expensive piece of dirt, it’s very difficult to make the numbers pencil out unless you can add more leasable space,” he said.
Another reason for increasing the height from the original plans was the city’s desire to raise an overhang above the proposed public plaza, Vlahakis said.
“The city wanted a 24-foot ceiling over the public plaza, so in order for us to give them that we had to push the building up,” he said.
Dempsey said the raised ceiling suggestion was important to create a sense of openness in the plaza.
“To do that adequately, you’ve got to go up at least a couple stories,” he said.
In the meantime, members of the East Lansing Planning Commission are skeptical that the towers’ heights need to be increased after closed-door discussions they had with Vlahakis before developers purchased the DDA property.
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At a Jan. 23 meeting, commissioner Dale Downes was outspoken against the Park Place plans.
Going nearly 50 feet over the city’s height guidelines “just seems, to me, excessive,” he said. “I think you would have a better argument if you hadn’t exceeded (the height restrictions) by 20 percent.”
Downes said Park Place West — the shorter tower — was more palatable but still felt the developers did themselves a disservice by exceeding the height requirement.
The commission requested a shadow study, which renders the shadow of the proposed buildings to determine the impact building height could have on natural light received by residential properties below.
Vlahakis defended the project’s proposed heights and disagreed with the perceived consequences of new towers downtown.
“I think people are really getting tripped over this height thing. It’s really not anything that is going to negatively impact anybody in the community — certainly no one on the ground,” he said.
Commission Chair Daniel Bollman didn’t reject the plans outright but requested more information from the developers including the shadow study.
“Our packet in terms of the documents that we were provided with is incomplete,” he said.
Ultimately, even if the city were to maintain its current height restrictions, Vlahakis plans to continue moving forward with Park Place.
“Will we just scrap the project? Probably not,” he said.
The main public concern at the commission meeting was not about height, but traffic.
Aron Sousa, an Oakwood neighborhood resident and an associate professor of medicine at MSU, said after meeting with neighbors that the “fundamental concern” of most of them was the increased traffic the project would create.
Dempsey said there were unanswered questions about a traffic impact study, as well as the plan’s impact on public parking availability.
In addition to the former DDA property and other private properties purchased for the project, three city parking lots would be rezoned to complete the project. Some city parking would remain, however.
Lot 8 north of the People’s Church has 80 spaces in it, according to Dempsey. Lot 15 on the north end of the project has 50 spaces and Lot 4 south of Dublin Square has 33.
Lot 8 would connect Albert Road to Valley Court, as developers would convert the in-between portion of Evergreen Road into a pedestrian walkway, according to Vlahakis.
Half of Lot 4 would become the public plaza, while the other half would be leased out. Lot 15 would become an entrance to the parking area in Park Place West.
Park Place would also include an automatic parking structure. The developers played a demonstration video for the commission.
Vlahakis says the system has been working in California for over a decade.
“I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with the city manager at the city of West Hollywood, and they absolutely love the system,” he said.
In total, the project would provide 458 total parking spaces, around 100 of which are planned to be public.
Creating a cinema
The west building would house the only movie theater in East Lansing. Currently, NCG Lansing Cinema in the Eastwood Towne Center and Studio C! in Okemos are the closest theaters.
At the commission meeting, vice chair Kathleen Boyle said she was unsure if the city could handle a theater given her conversations with Susan Woods, head of the East Lansing Film Festival and a former East Lansing City Council member alongside Boyle.
“It was always her position that East Lansing could not support a movie theater,” Boyle said.
Vlahakis spoke more optimistically on the theater’s prospects, saying the MSU student population would provide a solid supply of customers.
“We believe that this community can support that,” he said. “I think this movie theater would be a good outlet for a lot of these kids.”
Commissioner Joseph Sullivan said he was excited about the prospect of a theater, calling it "something that the city needs."
With the ambitious Park Place proposal, Vlahakis aims to bring a development to the city he believes is long overdue, he said.
“In my mind, it’s 30 years behind schedule,” Vlahakis said. “There’s a reason why every major student housing developer in the country is trying to develop here.”
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