The Michigan State University Federal Credit Union’s proposal for a new office building at the northwest corner of Abbot Rd. and Albert Ave. was unanimously approved last night at City Council.
Construction on the seven-story office building is expected to start in January 2021. The ground floor will include an MSUFCU branch office as well as space for some other unnamed retail tenant. The second floor will have space open to the community at the discretion of the credit union and above that will be office space.
Mayor Aaron Stephens asked about whether there is a tenant identified for the portion of the first floor that will not be used by the credit union. He was told only that it would not be a restaurant or bar.
The sale of parking lot #4 to the credit union for this use – a sale approved by voters in March of this year – will bring in $810,000 to the City’s general fund, and the project will also generate property taxes and income tax for the City.
It will also bring an undetermined number of office workers downtown each day, helping with economic development there. Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said this will be especially exciting during ordinarily-very-quiet summer months.
Council member Ron Bacon asked for specifics about the projected economic impact of the structure. Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach answered that there had been no economic analysis because the expectation is that it will be very positive. Bacon said he would like to see that quantified.
Council members praised the credit union as a community partner and talked about how the project will improve walkability and liveliness in the downtown core. All in all, enthusiasm for the project last night was quite high, even as Council members did express some concerns about elements of the design and about what more construction could mean for downtown businesses.
At the outset of the discussion, Fehrenbach explained that talk of the project began when he and City Manager George Lahanas had a “business retention visit” with the credit union in mid-2019. He said that MSUFCU staff expressed interest in building on Lot 4, and the concept went from there.
Architect Dave Mefford explained the final design to Council, pointing to features aimed at making the building feel welcoming and open and not too big. He also noted “green” aspects of the design, including numerous energy-efficiency features.
Jeff Tuley, who is managing construction for the credit union, said the site is “extremely tight” because the building will come to the property line on all four sides. The plan is to use a crawler crane along with a “just in time” delivery system for construction materials, because there is virtually nowhere on site itself to store materials.
The construction will involve lane and sidewalk closures for over a year along Abbot Rd. and Albert Ave., and big trucks will necessarily be coming and going as many as a few times a day to make material deliveries.
Only one person came forward to speak from the public about the project last night – specifically to suggest a community art mural for the north wall. That is currently designed as a windowless brick wall with a grey and green brick design.
Stephens supported the idea of a banner artwork that could be removed if the property next door (Dublin Square) is redeveloped. But Gregg, an artist, warned that weather can do a lot of damage to banner projects.
Erin Bowdell, MSUFCU’s Vice President of Infrastructure Planning, said her team is definitely interested in doing something to make the north wall more aesthetically pleasing, but she said the public art requirement would be met with a sculpture, not with whatever might be done in terms of temporary art for the north side.
Council members also asked about parking and traffic. The plan is for users of the building who drive to park in the City’s ramps.
Responding to a question from Council member Dana Watson about parking, Fehrenbach said that “unfortunately” there is plenty of parking capacity in the City’s ramps. (It is “unfortunate” because the City is not seeing the type of revenues it wants.)
Watson also asked if there was a shadow study of the proposed structure. To that, Planning staff member David Haywood answered that staff didn’t think it was needed because The Abbot, across Albert Ave., had had one and doing one for this building would simply represent replication in his view.
Council member Lisa Babcock said about the proposal, “I don’t like this building. I think it is just too big for the site. It’s just too big.”
But, Babcock said, it was too late to do anything about that and she believes people will “acclimate ourselves” to the building once it is constructed. She said she was excited about the project, but that if she could go back in time, she would shrink it in every direction.
Watson expressed concerns about traffic flow in the area, particularly with regard to the left turn from eastbound Grand River Ave. onto northbound Abbot Rd. Babcock seconded that concern and said she was also worried about traffic being shunted into the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood to the northwest.
About traffic, Stephens said he was also concerned but that “we don’t know until we know” how the traffic will play out. City staff did not require a traffic impact study for the proposal.
Director of Public Works Scott House said he hoped that what will happen is that people will continue to move downtown to use non-motorized means of transport and that drivers will adjust to avoid congested areas. He said various traffic control measures could be taken in the future to try to address problems that develop.
MSUFCU CEO April Clobes praised her team and spoke to the company’s practice of building in an environmentally responsible fashion and in a way that takes care of the credit union’s employees, customers, and neighbors, including in terms of promoting economic development.
She said she understood the concerns about the northside brick wall but called creation of a permanent mural on it “economically impossible.” She said some sort of temporary art there might be possible.
Before all voting in favor, City Council members again praised the credit union and talked about how excited they are at the idea of having lively, occupied new office space at a central location downtown. Lahanas also praised the credit union and project.
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