MSUFCU’s Downtown Office Proposal Coming to Council for Decision

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Rendering from MSUFCU

Rendering showing the north side of the proposed MSUFCU building, where the property targeted for construction meets the property of Dublin Square.

Just days before City Council is set to hold a public hearing and likely vote on a downtown office building proposal from MSUFCU, representatives of the credit union have provided ELi with a rendering of what the building would look like from the north along Abbot Road.

The rendering (above) also gives a sense of how tall the wall would be compared to Dublin Square restaurant. The brick design on the wall would be in gray and green.

MSUFCU is still pursuing the project despite national conversations about the uncertainty of office space and office use in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal has generated some excitement because of the possibility of having office workers coming downtown all week long – which could in turn positively impact retail and diversify the population of residents downtown.

The proposed MSUFCU building looking northwest, with Dublin Square shown to the right.

The seven-story building, approximately 105-foot-tall, would be constructed on the City’s parking lot #4, just south of Dublin Square. The building would be constructed right up to the north-side property line. Because Dublin Square’s property could later be developed with a tall building, the credit union’s architects have designed a solid wall.

If built as proposed, the building would feature a credit union branch on the first floor, along with retail space rentable to another business on the ground floor. The second floor is a space for “community” events allowed at the discretion of the credit union. That space could be used for nonprofit board meetings, concerts, and the like. Floors 3-7 would provide more office space for use either by MSUFCU or office tenants.

The original design called for uniform brick on the windowless north wall.

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi showing the space now, with the rendering of the project shown below the photo. This is looking southwest along Abbot Road roughly from the southwest end of City Hall.

But, responding to concerns raised by the Planning Commission, the design includes “a visual pattern on the North wall to provide visual interest,” according to Erin Bowdell, MSUFCU’s Vice President of Infrastructure Planning and Facilities. 

The possibility for art along that wall had been raised, but according to Bowdell, the project’s required public art component is likely to be “a sculpture for the building.” It’s unclear where this would go given that the proposed building has a footprint that does not leave much open space.

The proposed MSUFCU office tower rendered as if looking northeast across Albert Ave. (Right now from this vantage point, you would see a parking lot and the dining deck of Dublin Square.)

The mass and footprint of the building was an issue raised at Planning Commission by Commissioner Chris Wolf, who cast the lone vote against recommending the project to Council at the Aug. 12 meeting.

“We are hearing over and over about how tight the site is,” Wolf said, speaking to how many elements of the building required exceptions or creative interpretations of the City’s zoning code. “What I’m getting from that is that the building is too large for the site.”

The proposal had to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to get around a setback requirement and received the required variance.

City staff has also made an unusual argument about the “open space” requirement in the code being met by the interior “community space” on the second floor. Wolf objected to that interpretation, but Planning Commission Chair Dan Bollman called it a “clever solution.” (Read more.)

Wolf told ELi by email, “This is an important, but already congested, corner that really needs the open space required by code in order to enhance the streetscape. I’m tremendously disappointed that my Credit Union is taking shortcuts on this project, rather than going for a truly first-class presence downtown. I really hope that City Council will work with them to reduce the footprint of the building.”

MSUFCU is a valued business locally and a number of people who work in development in East Lansing have commented to ELi that MSUFCU’s good reputation, plus the economic development prize of new occupied office space downtown, are the reasons the project has undergone what seems to be less scrutiny than most big downtown projects experience. The pandemic has also probably added to a relative lack of scrutiny, as it has disrupted normal processes. 

The shut-down was cited as the reason the Transportation Commission did not review the project at a public meeting. The City’s engineer elected not to ask the developers for a full traffic impact study under the logic that the lack of parking at the site means the project will not have an “appreciable negative effect on the adjacent street system.”

The building would eliminate 33 existing parking spaces. The City’s zoning code actually prohibits building in new parking in big redevelopments downtown unless special permission is given. The idea behind that part of the zoning code is to push parkers into the City’s public garages. 

With the current design, there is no designated place for drivers to drop-off or pick-up passengers on Abbot Road or Albert Avenue for this proposed building. 

One lane of Abbot Road and one lane of Albert Avenue will be closed during construction for use as a staging site.

City staff also apparently neglected to undergo the process required by law of inviting the Commission on the Environment to provide a formal review of this proposal. Inquiry by ELi about that suggests that Planning staff has been forgetting to take this step on all new site plan reviews in the last several years, including for all of the tall buildings built downtown. 

In March of this year, on a margin of about two-to-one East Lansing voters agreed to sell Lot 4 to the credit union for construction of an office building. If all goes as planned, the credit union will pay $810,000 to the City to buy the land. That price was determined by an appraisal done in advance of the ballot and the price was named on the ballot. 

City Council will hold the public hearing on this proposal on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Council can approve the project at that meeting or do so at a later meeting. Members of the public will be able to participate by telephone. (We will post the meeting access information here when it becomes available.) Written comments can also be sent to City Council by email.

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Note: The original version of this article had misstated directional perspectives in two captions. They have been corrected.

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