East Lansing’s City Council members unanimously voted on July 13 to deny permission for a new outdoor features plan for Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub at 131 Albert Ave. because the plan does not fit within the limits of the City’s pandemic-inspired temporary outdoor seating approval process.
But at their July 13 meeting, several Council members made clear they do want to see some version of the proposal approved by Council after review by other bodies, including the Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
Harper’s owners are interested in using a space that includes about 45 feet of frontage along Grove Street, from what is now a parking lot. They are looking to convert that space “to an outdoor seating area of approximately 4,500 square feet in total size with 26 tables and seating for up to 156 patrons,” according to the staff report to Council on the matter. The owners also want to see a “new outdoor bar, relocated dumpster, and food trucks” along with outdoor televisions and space for live music in that Grove Street-fronted space.
Mayor Aaron Stephens summed up the sentiment of members, stating, “What I’m hearing from everybody is that this is really cool, this is a really good idea in theory,” he said. “But the process of making sure that everybody has the right input, the public’s in the know, the surrounding businesses are in the know, wasn’t there because this was meant as a temporary process to really streamline it due to Covid, but this is a more permanent thing.”
The motion to deny approval was made by Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and supported by all five members. (Before discussing and voting on the matter, Gregg disclosed that her fabric store is right next to the space in question.)
Council’s decision followed the recommendation of City planning department staff who sought for Council to deny the current application and instead direct the applicant to submit a “concept plan,” Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser said at the meeting.
Menser’s office had approved a plan in March to allow the parking lot along Grove Street to be used to seat 156 customers, spanning the 4,500 sq. ft. But after talking to the owner, Menser said what he heard them to be planning was larger in scale rather than just the outdoor seating plan.
“The outdoor seating ordinance was established during the time when we were trying to get restaurants open and getting some space outside,” Menser said. “It didn’t necessarily envision a long-term permanent investment to expand into an outdoor area,” including a permanent new outdoor bar. Menser said later in the meeting he does “feel obligated to honor that approval” for the outdoor seating expansion.
According to report submitted to Council on the issue, “Staff is generally supportive of allowing food trucks both on this site and other locations in the community under certain conditions, however the City does not currently have an ordinance allowing food trucks on private property in the B3 zone; therefore, food trucks may not be placed on site until an ordinance has been adopted.”
The staff report explains, “The concept plan process will ensure the public has an opportunity to share input on the project while also giving the property owner some surety in the proposal prior to making a significant investment in the site, including the survey and architectural renderings that would typically be required of a formal Site Plan submittal.”
Additionally, “The concept plan process includes public hearings with the Planning Commission and review by the Downtown Development Authority and City Council, along with the requisite notices to nearby property owners, residents, and businesses. If Council ultimately finds the outdoor seating proposal favorable and approves the concept plan, then the applicant is granted 18 months to apply for a formal modification to the Site Plan.”
Menser said after going through the DDA and Planning Commission, the plan could be expected to return to Council in September or October.
What Council members and the public had to say:
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Council member Jessy Gregg, who is set to become mayor on August 11, said she doesn’t want Harper’s to be denied temporary outdoor expansion seating, since other restaurants have expanded outside. She also clarified this is not outright denying the request for Harper’s.
“I love the idea of having a diversity of dining options downtown. I love the idea of having a more informal beer garden style service outside downtown,” Gregg said. “There’s aspects of this I am fantastically in favor of, and then some other concerns that would be appropriate to go through the appropriate planning channels.”
Four members of the public plus two members of the Harper’s team spoke during Public Comment on the matter. Two citizens who live in close proximity to Harper’s said they were supportive of the food trucks and outdoor seating but were concerned about additional noise.
Several supported the proposal and also praised this summer’s outdoor seating expansion along Albert Avenue. They shared their excitement for the idea of food trucks and an outdoor bar and said this would bring diverse food options.
Council member Ron Bacon said that it is important to understand Council is seeking to “get to yes” on the proposal, and said noise concerns should be considered. Bacon also said he does not want businesses to be discouraged from exploring new concepts.
“I’m not the person who is gonna change the speed of government today, but we want to encourage this type of innovation to the best of our ability,” he commented at the meeting.
Stephens said that activating outdoor spaces are good for the City and he wants to see the revised proposal return soon to Council.
“Over the past year, especially over the past few months, encouraging these types of ideas is exactly what we want to do. And it’s really exactly what we want to see, because this kind of stuff is of course something that we always want, but we have to make sure that we follow that up with when the ideas are there, we’re incubating them,” Stephens remarked.