Newman Lofts’ Tenants to City Council: Please Deny Harbor Bay’s Request

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Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors' Mark Bell (left), Newman Lofts, and Greg Ballein of Ballein Management. Bell and Ballein are co-developers of Center City, and Ballein is on the DDA and BRA and is recused when the matter comes up.

Twenty-two tenants of Newman Lofts have sent a letter to East Lansing’s City Council telling them not to give in to demands from the Center City District developers – Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors and Ballein Management – to remove the 55+ age restriction on that building.

“We remain steadfast in our determination to keep Newman Lofts focused on 55+ residents of the City of East Lansing,” reads the tenants’ letter, dated Sept. 5 and released in this week’s “communications to City Council” packet.

“Harbor Bay Real Estate agreed to a deal with the city for the entire mixed-use development,” continues the letter. “They need to abide by the terms of this agreement.”

The tenants have told Council that they “like this building and its location” and that they “embrace the city’s vision and see downtown East Lansing as a destination for residents other than only young students.”

ELi broke the story in mid-April that developers Harbor Bay and Ballein Management were looking to get out of the 55+ age restriction on the building. At the time, all five members of Council told ELi they were unequivocally opposed to the idea, although since then, two members of Council have resigned and been replaced.

ELi reported last week that Harbor Bay’s Mark Bell said in 2017 that he had a market study plus professional experience which left him confident of the plan’s viability. Now, Bell says, the pandemic has made renting out the senior housing near impossible.

Mark Bell and Steve Willobee of Harbor Bay have not responded to requests from ELi for comment, nor have and Brad and Greg Ballein of Ballein Management.

In their letter to Council, the 22 Newman Lofts tenants doubted Harbor Bay’s claim that the developers have spent months “searching for creative viable options” to draw more tenants.

On the contrary, the tenants say, several of them have “reached out to Harbor Bay with suggestions about how to improve rapport with current and prospective renters, and how tenants could help Harbor Bay with market research such as focus groups since some of us have decades of professional experience in advertising research, marketing science and social science. There has been no response by Harbor Bay to these overtures.”

The released communications packet shows a response to the tenants from Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg indicating that she had previously suggested Harbor Bay convene a focus group of residents to obtain ideas about marketing. She said she appreciated knowing that Harbor Bay’s “‘creative solutions’ have not included getting feedback from their current residents.”

Besides the Neman Loft tenants, this past week an additional four East Lansing citizens sent individual letters to Council with the same basic message.

Michael Polzin wrote that “Harbor Bay seems to expect the City of East Lansing to cover their exposure to risk. I think the City of East Lansing has already risked enough.”

Polzin argued that the developers are pointing to the pandemic as “a convenient excuse for the shortcomings in their hastily developed business plan and agreement with the city.” He called the developers’ approach a “bait and switch request.”

Marcus Fields also called the attempt by Harbor Bay and Ballein Management a “bait and switch,” and added that he also “find[s] their tactics of attacking our community members and community organizations on Facebook deplorable.” (Harbor Bay has launched a campaign against East Lansing Info, which has resulted in a formal response from ELi’s Board of Directors.)

Fields explained to Council that the age-restricted housing was “an important reason why I supported the project,” and that, “We need to stand as a community and show these developers that we will not be bullied into their demands.”

“As reasonable people,” Fields wrote, “we can recognize that the pandemic has made many industries suffer, and we all feel for the developers on this front because we are all feeling those same effects. We can also recognize that if in four years’ time the struggles continue, then a public discussion of this issue should take place. But as of right now, Harbor Bay and Ballein Management have not put in a good faith effort to meet the requirements under which the project was born.”

In his emailed letter, Bernie Schupbach wrote, “I am disgusted by their attempt to demonize ELi and plead poor regarding their Newman Lofts,” adding, “I am tired of the taxpayers of East Lansing being forced or cajoled into more concessions for developers.”

Donna Rose wrote to tell Council that the developers are struggling to rent the apartments “because the rent is too high compared with other senior and non-senior rentals in our area.”

Referring to Harbor Bay’s lead developer Mark Bell, Rose wrote, “I feel he should have done his homework in the first place and [I] would not let him out of his contract. He needs to lower his rent so seniors who might like the amenities of the downtown area can actually afford to live there.”

You can see the full set of letters here. This week’s packet of communications to Council included no letters supporting Harbor Bay’s efforts.

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