Make Redevelopment Faster and Easier in East Lansing? Council Is Split

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Dylan Lees for ELi

Everyone seems to agree big downtown redevelopment should require significant review and City Council's approval. But what about smaller projects?

East Lansing Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser made a strong pitch to City Council Tuesday, Oct. 4, aimed at simplifying and quickening commercial redevelopment in the city. Menser’s presentation during the regular meeting of Council indicated East Lansing has an inefficient, costly, and noncompetitive system in place for approving and rejecting developers’ proposals.

“The overall mission of this initiative is to make it easier to do business with the city, frankly,” Menser said. “To me, that doesn’t mean we approve every project that comes along. It means establishing a process that’s predictable and easy to follow. It means eliminating duplicative processes and unnecessary delays.

“Nothing changes in the scrutiny by which we review development projects,” Menser assured Council. “Faster does not mean we overlook issues or bend the rules. We continue to take advantage of the professionals on the city team to vet and scrutinize projects, to ensure we get the best product for the community and all viewpoints are heard along the way.”

But – although Council has named as a current “strategic priority” weeding out inefficiencies in the zoning code and the redevelopment process – several Council members seemed skeptical about the idea of allowing staff or the Planning Commission to be given more power of approval and rejection.

Nevertheless, Councilmembers’ responses indicated a majority might tolerate some changes, for example, allowing more Historic District renovation applications to be approved by staff rather than going to the Historic District Commission and allowing staff to approve more renovations on commercial buildings. 

If Menser’s ideas are approved by Council, Planning Commission could also be empowered to approve things like drive-thrus, rather than requiring that all such applications go to Council.

These changes would make the process cheaper and faster for property owners, including commercial property owners and homeowners in the historic districts. 

But all of these changes would depend on support from a majority of Council. And right now, it’s unclear what a majority would support.

East Lansing makes redevelopment unusually difficult.

Menser told Council that “redevelopment ready” practices – aimed at making redevelopment simpler and less costly – are being adopted by municipalities around the state following the guidance of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). He said East Lansing “needs to move in that direction to remain competitive and attractive to investment.”

Echoing what commercial developers, property owners and construction professionals have told ELi over the last eight years, Menser told Council East Lansing’s process makes it relatively expensive and difficult to get commercial redevelopment done here. In his slide presentation, he showed the complicated chart of how redevelopment review currently works in East Lansing.

A slide from Peter Menser’s presentation on Oct. 4, 2022, showing a flowchart illustrating the complexity of East Lansing’s approach to redevelopment proposals.

Many Michigan municipalities allow some or even much commercial redevelopment “by right.” In other words, if municipal staff confirm a proposed project meets the terms of the zoning code for a specific property, the project doesn’t have to go beyond staff for review and approval. 

Meridian Township, for example, allows many types of redevelopment by right. But East Lansing does not allow any type of commercial redevelopment “by right.” 

In East Lansing, every commercial site plan application has to go through the multi-layered review and ultimately be approved by Council. That adds significant time, uncertainty, and costs, making redevelopment in East Lansing a risky endeavor.

Some of the added costs of East Lansing’s process end up borne by the city taxpayers, as extra city staff are needed to handle all the layers. 

The rest of the added costs are absorbed by the developers who then, to cover the added cost of doing business here, end up charging higher rents, making housing and commercial space less affordable in East Lansing than other locales.

Menser stressed staff would not go rogue on review and approval. 

He repeatedly reminded Council that staff would carry out “robust review” to make sure a project meets the zoning laws as determined by Council. And, he said, Planning Commission could be empowered by Council to decide on some types of proposals that might be more controversial than the ones that would require only staff approval. (Planning Commissioners are appointed by Council.)

Slide from the presentation by East Lansing Zoning & Planning Administrator Peter Menser on Oct. 4, 2022.

Public input would still be sought, Menser said, but it could be done in new ways, such as  holding public hearings that are led by staff and dedicated to specific projects. 

One possibility would be that only really extraordinary projects would require Council approval. These might include, for example, projects that involve very large or very tall buildings, the sale of alcohol or marijuana, fraternities and sororities, and any project seeking local tax incentives.

Ultimately, Menser would like to see the process of submission to approval (or rejection) take 30 days for most projects.

But Council members had mixed reactions.

Councilmember Lisa Babcock said she understood “the need for streamlining process and the frustrations” many express about East Lansing’s process. But she wondered if “cramming” the public process into 30 days might be risky.

Councilmember Watson asked  how long the process currently takes. Menser answered it takes about three months now. But that’s assuming all the boards, commissions and Council are in regular session, which doesn’t happen, for example, around the end of the year and in the summer.

Answering a follow-up from Watson, Menser said Kalamazoo, which is often cited as following “best practices,” has many projects staff-approved in 30-45 days. At Watson’s request, Menser said he could pull together some examples from East Lansing’s experience of projects that might have been handled more efficiently.

Screenshot from Zoom meeting

East Lansing Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser at the Oct. 27, 2021, meeting of Planning Commission.

Praising the ideas put forth in Menser’s presentation, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg called East Lansing’s existing process “cumbersome.” She said the current process “was not envisioned as a way to block development from East Lansing, but it was an attempt to give East Lansing the highest quality projects.”

“The unintended consequence of that level of complexity is that it has really favored very large, well-funded developers to do business in East Lansing,” Gregg said. “And it has kind of worked against our goal of including a more diverse business base, people who are starting up at an entrepreneurial level.”

She noted the many public meetings required for review in East Lansing costs applicants extra as they have to bring along their legal team and other support staff and pay them for all that time. The unpredictable outcomes mean that only well-funded developers can afford the high-risk scene.

Gregg described herself as “wildly in favor” of what Menser was presenting as alternative approaches. 

“The truth is that the best training and the best understanding of what development means in East Lansing really comes at the staff level,” she said. She wants to see Council’s approval be required only in a small number of cases. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon (right) and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg listen to public speakers during the Sept. 6, 2022, city council meeting.

Mayor Ron Bacon said he wants to make sure the zoning code gets fixed along with the process.

“I would hate to build a new process and have all of the other underpinnings broken or outdated,” Bacon said. “So, I think this is far more extensive than simply revising the process, probably, because we’re doing to discover other things are broken as we try to move through that.”

He did not give examples of what is “broken” but added he wanted to make sure the process was slow enough for concerns like environmental impacts to be considered. 

“I’m one for speed,” he said. “That’s a ‘yes’ for me on that part, but not obviously losing quality or breaking rules out of the seeking speed.”

Councilmember George Brookover was adamantly against Menser’s suggestions.

“I guess to be blunt about it, I thought one of the reasons I ran for the City Council and got beat by Ms. Watson [in terms of number of votes] was because I wanted to be a decider,” Brookover said. He sharply questioned the idea of taking power away from the City Council.

“With all due respect to Ms. Gregg, I don’t really think everybody has to bring an architect or anything like that, but that’s a different issue,” Brookover said. “So it seems to me that one of the benefits of the system we have right now is the plurality of opinions we’re able to get during the process. And the fact of the matter is a lot of our citizens don’t know what’s going on.” 

Brookover said 30 days is too fast to get citizens aware and involved and that this won’t make it easier to get citizen involvement. He said he was “very concerned about this” and would prefer Menser spend his time “on something else.” 

In response, City Manager George Lahanas pushed Council to at least consider some changes that would make approvals more efficient for “the customer,” including increasing staff authority to approve renovations to existing buildings.

But at this point, Bacon supported what Brookover had said, indicating he didn’t want to “give away the power of future Councils” and wanted to “protect the city from bad actors.”

Council also approved rezoning for a commercial project, renamed a park (again) and went into closed session to discuss Lahanas’s job performance.

Council unanimously approved the conditional rezoning of a 2.41-acre parcel on the east side of West Road. The applicant, John Gentilozzi, explained that the business next door, Atesteo (which does automotive research and testing) needs more space, so he is relocating his own businesses, 3GT Racing and Gentilozzi Real Estate, to the plot being rezoned. (Read the application here.)

Rendering submitted by John Gentilozzi.

Rendering of a building on a northside site that Council approved on Oct. 4, 2022 for conditional rezoning. This is the kind of property that could see a simpler and faster redevelopment approval process if Council approves ideas being floated by City development staff.

Council also changed what will be the new name of Abbot Road Park. After Council’s Sept. 20 vote on the matter, the park-naming committee learned “from fluent Indigenous speakers, the appropriate spelling for the intended interpretation of the name should be Azaadiikaa,” according to a staff memo. The renaming ceremony is set to happen Monday, Oct. 10, on the day Council recognizes as Indigenous People’s Day.

At the end of the meeting, Council went into closed session to conduct a personnel evaluation of Lahanas. This is the first review since Council voted in September. 2020 to give Lahanas a new four-year contract with a big compensation bump. 

At that time, Lahanas negotiated a “golden parachute,” which specifies that if Council fires Lahanas for any reason other than “gross malfeasance” or fails to renew his employment with a substantially similar contract, the city must pay him one year’s salary, and provide him and his family with health, dental and life insurance for a year.

See the entire agenda here, and watch the video of the meeting here.

Update, Oct. 6, 2022, 3:20 p.m.: The original version of this article said that Lahanas received “a big salary bump” in 2020. It has been corrected to read “a big compensation bump.” See the red-line amendment of Lahanas’s contract here to see all the changes that occurred in his contract in Sept. 2020.

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