East Lansing’s City Council was busy this week, responding to a newly-launched lawsuit, approving a modernistic new office building on the north side of town and much more.
While most of the votes taken at the Tuesday, March 21 meeting went through 5-0, one was more controversial: whether to make it easy for restaurants downtown to have outdoor seating. That vote went 3-2, for reasons explained below.
In a highly unusual move, Council went into closed session and then immediately voted to stop enforcing a law.
Attorneys from the Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Roman Catholic public-interest law firm, brought a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of local landlords Hagan Realty. (Disclosure: The Hagans have been donors to ELi for several years.)
The suit objected to an unusual law in East Lansing that requires landlords to give new tenants voter registration forms and voter information, and argued the law is unconstitutional.
Just minutes into Tuesday’s meeting, Council went into closed session to discuss the matter. Upon returning to open session, Councilmember George Brookover immediately moved to approve a resolution suspending enforcement of the law.
City Attorney Tony Chubb read the resolution, which established a moratorium on enforcement of the law. It briefly described the lawsuit and said Council has determined the law “is not actively enforced by the city” and “has largely been replaced by online voter initiatives and is further unnecessary due to changes in state law allowing for same-day voting.”
The resolution also formally directed the city attorney to immediately begin the work of repealing the ordinance.
Council all voted in favor.
The Interim City Manager briefly mentioned some progress in hiring.
In his report, Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro told Council that, with regard to interviews of candidates for finance director – a position that has been held by Interim Finance Director Audrey Kincade for nine months – “those will be held in the very near future and [we are] looking to fill that position.”
He also acknowledged the departure of Assistant Director of Parks, Recreation & Arts Wendy Wilmers Longpre, thanking her “for her many years of service.” (ELi reported last week that Longpre is taking a job with a consultancy firm.)
The north side will see construction of a new industrial building.
With no citizens coming to the public hearing to speak and no substantive questions from members, Council voted 5-0 to approve an application from Gentilozzi Real Estate to construct a new 23,000-square-foot industrial building at 3400 West Road.
The building will include 19,200 square feet of industrial space and 3,800 square feet of office space and will be occupied by 3GT Racing and Gentilozzi Real Estate. The lot is currently vacant and the plan is to build a modern-looking building (as shown in the featured graphic) that will stand out as unusual for East Lansing.
Not everyone agrees on the wisdom of more outdoor seating downtown.
East Lansing Community and Economic Development Specialist Matt Apostle asked Council to approve a policy resolution that would make it relatively easy for East Lansing restaurants to get approval to add outdoor seating.
The policy was originally established in temporary form during the early years of the pandemic and has been renewed several times with the stated goal of “help[ing] restaurants struggling with occupancy limits stemming from the pandemic by allowing them to expand outdoor seating capacity.”
Brookover asked why the language is still referring to “occupancy limits stemming from the pandemic” when special public health occupancy limits were lifted years ago. Mayor Ron Bacon agreed the language is “antiquated” at this point. Talifarro said the language could be updated.
Councilmember Noel Garcia Jr. had concerns beyond the language, saying downtown on St. Patrick’s Day, “It was elbow-to-elbow down there.” Speaking as a former police officer, he said he was worried that, with a lot more outdoor tables and chairs, public safety could be compromised.
Saying he “hated to be that ‘what if’ guy,” he worried what would happen “if things go wrong,” like with a shooting. “That concerns me a little bit,” he said, also raising concerns about the NCAA basketball tournament and what that could bring in terms of public disruptions.
Councilmember Dana Watson seconded Garcia’s concerns.
“It’s a lot of fun to be out there, and it’s a family environment,” Watson said, but the police “have pointed out that it seems like there’s a shift at certain times [of the night[ and so we should definitely, you know, keep that in mind and support the ELPD.”
But Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg responded she would be disappointed to see Council pull back on outdoor seating.
“The bar lines are, I think, a totally different problem,” Gregg said. “And it is a problem.” But, she said, she doesn’t want this policy of supporting more outdoor seating to fail based on fear.
Bacon said “the same thoughts are on all our minds” with regard to safety, adding that “weapons and density are also impacting” downtown. “It is something we’re having discussions about and around to try to address any of those concerns,” he said.
Ultimately, the vote came down 3-2, with Brookover and Garcia voting against the policy resolution.
Also at the meeting…
The City’s financial adviser told Council what happened with the refinancing of the Downtown Development Authority’s bonds, debt acquired to purchase the Evergreen Avenue properties in 2009. The adviser said the refinance was necessary to avoid a “catastrophic situation.” Check out ELi’s separate report on that.
Without discussion, Council approved a resolution honoring Women’s History Month.
A public hearing was established for April 18, 2023, for Council to decide on a Cluster Development and Site Plan Application for FP Investors, LLC, to construct four three-unit dwellings in the city’s northern tier. That application is causing stress for long-time residents of Falcon Pointe who are dealing with housing insecurity because their manufactured homes were established on land they don’t own. ELi will bring additional reporting on that story before the public hearing.
Council approved a $35,000 contract with Artspace, engaging that Minnesota-based nonprofit to continue its study of whether to construct affordable live-work apartments for artists in East Lansing. Twenty thousand dollars of the cost is coming from the city’s general fund and the rest from the DDA’s budget.
Council also voted 4-1 to extend conditional rezoning for an affordable apartment rental project that has been planned for construction for Valley Court Park for about five years. ELi explained in a separate report that the plan is for a new, specialist developer to take over that project and construction is not expected to start for at least another year.