New Merritt Road Marijuana Shop Gets Built, Hotel and Other Retail in Limbo [Updated]

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Julie Seraphinoff for ELi

Developers of the High Society Dispensary on Merritt Road expect the business to open within the next four months.

NOTE: This story has been updated at the end.

A developer who got permission to build a new marijuana shop on Merritt Road had told East Lansing’s Planning Commission and City Council the land would also include a hotel and additional retail space. Now, according to what he told the Planning Commission on Wednesday, Oct. 26, the pot shop is getting closer to opening, but nothing is happening on the hotel and additional retail.

The site of the development has been watched closely for quite some time in East Lansing, after the land was sold by the City via eBay in 2019 and only a handful of potential buyers were notified. The land previously held the city’s Department of Public Works headquarters, which relocated to State Road.

The development across from Costco was proposed to happen in three phases, with the first phase being a marijuana dispensary, the second phase a large retail space and the third a four-story hotel. That’s how it was approved by Planning Commission and City Council in 2019.

Julie Seraphinoff for ELi

To the east of the High Society Dispensary project, across Park Lake Road, is the bustling Costco gas station and warehouse store.

The marijuana facility at the site is progressing in its development. Andy Andre with Avanti Development Group, the project’s developers, spoke at the Planning Commission meeting last week. Andre said he is hopeful the facility, which will be called “High Society,” will be open within the next four months. 

Andre said the shop’s building is up, the roof is on, utilities are about 95% installed and light poles will soon go up. Along with the facility, pathways will be installed along Merritt Road and Park Lake Road. The main entrance to the business is from Merritt Road.

Andre was at Planning Commission because, while his team already has the City Council’s permission to sell medical marijuana at that location, they now want permission to sell adult-use (recreational) marijuana, too. That requires Council’s approval and, before that can happen, Planning Commission must make a recommendation to Council. 

The facility is being built only about 700 feet north of Pleasantrees, another marijuana facility that sells both medical and recreational marijuana. City Council previously approved a zoning change that allows marijuana facilities along Merritt Road to be built with just 500 feet between them. In other parts of the city, a distance of 1,000 feet is required. 

Council made this exception for this part of town because it wanted to increase the value of the city’s land by making it eligible for marijuana industry use before it was sold off. (Pleasantrees was already in the works when the unusual zoning was enacted.)

Building the two facilities close together has been a topic of controversy. Randall Buchman, the CEO and Founder of Pleasantrees, wrote to Council in 2021 to express his displeasure with allowing the new facility to be built so close to the Pleasantrees dispensary and displeasure with the delays in construction. 

“Obviously, I am not thrilled about another marijuana retail location on an abutting property to my own,” Buchman wrote. “However, I am even more disappointed witnessing the developments that unfolded up until now. As a business operator and supporter of seeing the city thrive economically, I wanted to be sure to raise my voice this time. It is critical that the current Council composition has full context and is advised of the potential pitfalls and unforeseen circumstances.”. 

While the marijuana dispensary is well under way, the other two phases of the project are still in flux, Andre told Planning Commission. 

Drawing from Avanti Development Group application

The building of the marijuana dispensary is well under way, but not the retail space and hotel.

The second and third phases, the larger retail space and hotel, have no timeline in place. The site plan approval deadline to start construction on the second phase was Sept. 1. The passing of this deadline means developers must go back to the city to again receive approval for the projects if they want to move forward with those phases. 

Andre said the requirement to come back for approval is not a major concern for Avanti. 

“We’re totally fine and I think in agreement that it would be best to come back subsequently for phase two and incorporate that as part of a separate submittal at a later date,” he said. “It gives us a little bit more of an opportunity to be thoughtful of what’s going there and how it’s going to go there and what’s the best long-term use.”

Andre said after the marijuana shop is completed, the developer’s focus will shift to phase two, the retail space. He said developers could build the space and then work to lease it, or find a partner before starting construction.

“Do you build it and they will come?” Andre asked. “Or do you get a tenant, have something more tangible in hand and then we can certainly move forward and construct it.”

Andre said developers would prefer to have a partner in place to custom build the space and to avoid having an empty building that acts as an eyesore. 

One concern raised at the meeting is soil erosion at the construction site. With open soil at the two large parcels of land designated for phases two and three of the project and no clear indication of when construction on those projects will start, there is the possibility of dirt washing away during heavy rainfalls. 

Julie Seraphinoff for ELi

A rainy Oct. 31, 2022 fall day adds to the mud at the Merritt Road project site.

Andre said developers are aware of the challenge and have worked out a plan to stabilize the soil to protect the seeds, mulch and other substances that may be washed away. 

Looking ahead, the city will await developers’ plans for the retail space before developers can turn their focus to phase three of the project. Andre said the intent for phase three is still to build a hotel and utilities for the project have already been extended to that location. But the property was approved for a lot split in 2021, which means the other parts could also be sold off. 

Planning Commission took no action on the request for the Special Use Permit to sell recreational marijuana at the location, employing the usual approach of stretching the application across two meetings. Planning Commission is expected to vote on a recommendation to Council at its next meeting, Nov. 9. After that, the matter will go to Council for a public hearing and vote.

Update, Nov. 11, 2022:

At its Nov. 9 meeting, East Lansing’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend City Council approve the applicant’s request for the Special Use Permit to sell recreational marijuana.

Commissioner Chris Wolf was the only person to comment on the matter, saying that Council had set up the law for these permits to be “automatic” in terms of granting recreational sales permits to businesses that already have medical sales permits. He noted that this does not come “with a whole lot of controversy.”

Council is already set to hold a public hearing on the matter on Dec. 6, at which time it is also expected to vote on the permit application.

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