Now a “Stakeholders Committee” Will Work with Developers on Evergreen Properties

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River Caddis Development's concept drawing of The CITADEL.

A special committee of “community stakeholders” will work with River Caddis Development to see if it’s possible to come up with a viable and acceptable plan for the East Lansing Downtown Development Authority’s Evergreen Avenue properties.

The members of the Evergreen Properties Project Team will be appointed by DDA Chair Peter Dewan and are expected to include representatives of the DDA, City staff, MSU, the downtown business community, Peoples Church, and the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood.

The developers have said they want to build a 250,000-square-foot commercial building including some type of food service on the first floor with office space above, with about 250 parking spots inside the building.

They call their concept The CITADEL, which stands for “Central Innovation Technology & Arts District of East Lansing.” They’ve produced a video high on production values but low on specifics:

The promotional video produced by the River Caddis team.

As part of the work he’s doing to build consensus, John McGraw of River Caddis recently met virtually with Oakwood homeowners.

In the hour-long meeting, the group asked questions about what McGraw anticipates in terms of building design, commercial tenants, traffic, and public subsidies, including tax increment financing (TIF). They also questioned whether the project is really viable for this location in this economy.

But McGraw indicated he’s not ready to provide answers until he has more meetings with more stakeholder groups.

The DDA owes over $5 million on these properties, debt incurred a decade ago when the DDA bought the properties as a way to support the failed City Center II redevelopment project.

City Center II involved a complex public-private deal that East Lansing’s City Council and DDA made with developer Scott Chappelle of Strathmore Development – a deal that led to years of blight and economically depressed properties at East Lansing’s main downtown corner.

The two buildings now under construction in the area labeled “The Park District” are being developed by DRW Convexity. The blight they are replacing was caused by the failed City Center II project that also led to the DDA buying the Evergreen Ave. properties and incurring millions of dollars in public debt.

Old-timers who lived through those years of controversy point out that John McGraw’s father, Kevin McGraw, was partnered with Chappelle and was a principal in Strathmore Development during that period.

But now the father-and-son team at River Caddis has come to the DDA after years of developing projects in other cities, seeking to offer a solution to the last problems left from the City Center II deal (without ever mentioning that history).

 In late April of this year, the DDA opted to enter an exclusive 90-day agreement with River Caddis, preventing the DDA from seeking other developers during that time.

The DDA’s Evergreen properties include a series of older rental houses. Council voted 3-2 in February to remove the properties from the Oakwood Historic District.

The plan for the stakeholders group – to be called the Evergreen Properties Project Team – was  formally established yesterday afternoon through a resolution passed narrowly in a 5-4 vote at the DDA’s virtual meeting.

Voting in favor were Chair Peter Dewan, Vice Chair Jim Croom, City Manager George Lahanas, Mayor Ruth Beier, and Jill Rhode. Those in favor argued this was an efficient means by which to try to hammer out a deal that is both viable and acceptable to the various stakeholders.

Voting against were Lynsey Clayton, Greg Ballein, Mike Krueger, and Luke Hackney. They generally preferred having the full DDA actively participate in these rounds of talks.

In the debate preceding the vote, Mayor Beier said she sees the task of redeveloping these properties as “a vital part” of redeveloping downtown – that the properties are “not something we just want to unload.”

Beier has said that she very much likes the idea of The CITADEL, but has also sharply warned she doesn’t want the developer coming back later with a radically different concept than was sketched out at the outset, as has happened with other development pitches.

Rendering by River Caddis Development

The rendering by developer River Caddis for “The CITADEL.” This is looking northeast, as if looking from the back of Peoples Church.

Croom echoed these remarks, referring to the DDA having now “been around the track with developers changing the program mid-stream.”

“That’s my concern,” he said. He said the special Project Team could be useful in terms of “making expectations clear to the developer, assuring they know what we are interested in.”

As if speaking to River Caddis, Croom went on, “We want to know your financial viability and don’t want to wait ninety days from now to know that you have a funding problem, or that you want a bajillion-dollar TIF, or that you want to build something else.”

In the last iteration of project talks on these properties, the DDA spent over a year trying to come to terms with developers Royal Properties and Vlahakis Development. The Royal Vlahakis team’s proposal started out with a 12-plex movie complex, office space, high-tech robotic parking, and condo apartments.

After many months, the Royal Vlahakis team announced this concept wasn’t financially viable – something critics had been saying from the start. Royal Vlahakis came back with a halved project involving a fewer flashy elements. Talks dragged on at the DDA until Council finally killed the deal.

Dewan has not yet announced exactly who he wants to have on the Evergreen Properties Project Team or when the team will start meeting. But he (and the resolution) made clear that group will meet in public – virtually if necessary – and will follow the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

The current 90-day agreement with the DDA will expire in July.

Disclosure: Alice Dreger owns a home in the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood.

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