As a long-awaited affordable-housing building finally nears the start of construction near Valley Court Park, City staff is looking to hire an external consultant to gather “stakeholder” concepts of how the park itself should be reworked.
The area at issue is on the west side of downtown and, as many noted at City Council’s discussion of it on Tuesday night, it involves the largest City-owned downtown green space. Currently, Valley Court Park hosts a playground, basketball courts, tennis courts, the weekly farmers’ market, small performances, and a community center that is home to Helping Hands Respite Care.
The community center on the park’s north side is in serious disrepair. The City recently removed a ramp from Oakhill Avenue down to the park just behind that community center, because, the City said, the paved ramp was in too poor condition to keep open and too expensive to replace with ADA compliance.
When the City removed the path, workers added a fence to stop anyone from using the open green space to enter the park that way. The rainbow stairs are now the only option to get into the park from the north, short of traversing several blocks to the east or west, and it now appears that it will be several years before any ramp access for strollers, bikes, wheelchairs, and scooters will be provided by the City for those who want to reach the park from the north.
A new affordable-housing apartment building, near the southeast corner of the park, should see construction start soon.
Chicago-based developer Convexity confirmed to ELi on Tuesday night that their plans for “Building C” have been moving forward. This is the third and final building in DRW/Convexity’s “Park District” redevelopment project which also includes The Abbot apartment building (on Grand River Avenue at Abbot Road) and The Graduate Hotel.
Building C – yet to be bestowed a more marketable name – will be constructed at 341 Evergreen Ave., across Valley Court Drive from the park’s tennis courts. Until now, contractors have been using that fenced parcel as a construction staging site for The Abbot and The Graduate. Both of those buildings are now up and running.
So, now comes Building C, which will satisfy the City of East Lansing’s Ordinance 1384. That’s the law that requires that 25 percent of housing units in new, big downtown developments be (a) for people with low or moderate income levels or (b) for people age 55 and up or (c) sold as owner-occupied condo apartments. (This is the law under which a different development team – Harbor Bay Real Estate and Ballein Management – elected to build the senior housing at Newman Lofts so as to get permission to build the student rental building called The Landmark.)
Developers DRW/Convexity were allowed to build The Abbot because the developers promised to build affordable housing units at Building C. That structure will consist of six stories, including one level of parking with about 34 spots for 99 apartment units. The housing will include 74 income-restricted rental apartments designed for families earning 80 percent or less than the area median income, plus 25 open-market rental units. (Read more.)
Convexity Director of Design Chris Oakley told ELi in a message on Tuesday evening that “The final site plan was just approved” by requisite members of City staff.
But in his statement – which came to ELi just before Council’s discussion of the park plan Tuesday night – Oakley also said that, “given the substantial expense of construction plans, it would be best to know what the City plans for the park and surrounding properties and access will be” before construction starts on Building C.
It’s not at all clear how that would happen.
Council’s discussion led to the conclusion that there should be a fairly elaborate and open-ended, stakeholder-involved re-envisioning of the park. That re-envisioning process – with the finding, hiring, and use of external consultants – will take a year at a minimum, as Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach told Council he expects it will include “design concepts, public input, Council and Commission input, [and] design approval.”
But according to DRW/Convexity’s agreement with the City, the developers have only until June 2022 to “pay the required fees and submit the applications for building permits and plans for Building C.” That deadline falls well before the park re-envisioning is expected to be complete.
Additionally, the Development Agreement between the City and DRW/Convexity says Building C must be fully constructed by January 1, 2025 – although the agreement, signed in 2018, made a provision that the developer could have more time in the event of an epidemic (no kidding), which means they might be granted more time if they asked.
ELi has asked Oakley and Fehrenbach about how this coordination of planning is expected to work and is awaiting their respective responses.
Regardless of other plans, don’t expect a new ramp from Oakhill Avenue to Valley Court Park anytime soon.
In Tuesday night’s discussion, Council members Lisa Babcock and Dana Watson asked if there’s hope of having the removed ramp replaced soon.
Watson asked City Manager George Lahanas, “When you talk about envisioning putting [a ramp] in, does that mean, like, in the far future? Like, is it something that can happen sooner?”
“The problem with the placement of the [recently removed] ramp was that it cuts along a majority of the large swath of the parcel that may well be for future redevelopment,” Lahanas answered. “So I think you’d probably want to figure out a way to design it into a project, so that you don’t put a costly – you know – [put] a ramp in and then tear it back out.”
Mayor Jessy Gregg asked, “If memory serves [the ramp] was pretty steeply unnavigable and it doesn’t appear that there is really enough space to wind it?” She also noted, “One of my children got a pretty bad skinned knee taking a bike down it.”
Lahanas agreed, saying, “It was a maintenance issue, it was not in good repair, but that’s why it simply can’t be added back in because it cuts across the entire parcel. You can look to put it back in, I just don’t know how it can be done” with redevelopment of the parcel.
Following Council’s expressed wishes last night, external consultants hired for the re-envisioning process will be specifically asked to consider the problem of wheeled access from the north.
But based on East Lansing’s history of redevelopment timetables and the desire to carefully plan the whole area before any redevelopment of the community center parcel, that will mean at least three or four years with no wheeled access down the hill from the north.
Council wants a pretty open-ended discussion to happen about the park.
In seeking Council’s “blessing” for issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) for external consultants, the question put to Council by Planning Director Fehrenbach was specifically this: “How might we develop a Community-driven urban design concept and future use of the City-owned areas in the Park District Planning Areas?”
Fehrenbach had included specific items in his “Key Concepts for Inclusion,” such as “Non-motorized access/connectivity,” “Continuation of Helping Hands services,” and “Performance venues.”
But Gregg said she wanted “a blanker slate” for soliciting community feedback.
Newly-appointed Council member Shanna Draheim agreed with Gregg, saying she doesn’t want the RFP to presuppose specific design elements. She also wants data accumulated by the City to be used in the process, including data from the Housing Study and from studies done by Parks & Rec.
Council member Ron Bacon said he wants to make sure that all ideas take into account the impact on the green space, noting that he wants to avoid unintended consequences in terms of environmental impact.
Fehrenbach told Council that staff believes the best way to start this is to have the properties surveyed, the utilities documented, and relevant title records searched. He wants those in hand before an RFP is issued – which suggests it will be a few more months before the RFP is sent out.
It does not appear that a draft RFP will be made public before the call for proposals is issued.
Today (Wednesday, Sept. 15) from 5:00-6:30 p.m. there will be an open house at Patriarche Park to discuss possible affordable live-work space for artists in East Lansing. The Valley Court Park community center is one of the spots being considered for that type of new development. Read more from ELi.
Disclosure: Alice Dreger owns a home just north of Valley Court Park and is one of the leaders of the Oakwood Historic District. At Council on Tuesday, she asked about replacement of the removed ramp.