Small business owners and other members of the community packed the Wednesday (Aug. 9) East Lansing Planning Commission meeting to express their opposition to the affordable housing apartment project proposed to be constructed at 530 Albert Ave. (Get the background on the project from ELi in this special investigative report.)
The timing of the project, the loss of surface parking, Mayor Ron Bacon’s written support for the project before a public hearing, and a lack of notice to the public were the major concerns of the over 50 people who attended the meeting in the Hannah Community Center.
Interim City Director Tim Dempsey presented the proposal to the commission, allowing members to ask questions prior to hearing from the public.
Members of the commission asked for clarification on the parking available in downton East Lansing, the economic impact of the project, the current ownership of the lot and the project’s construction timeline. Dempsey attempted to respond to as many questions as possible, but said the developer of the project would have more in-depth answers.
American Community Developers (ACD) Vice President Chris Young presented the project proposal and addressed many of the commission’s concerns.
“The project is a five-story, 122-unit, all-affordable development,” Young said. “It’s for people who are in between 40 and 80% AMI, area median income, [and] has to average [at most] 60.”
Young said this would mean the apartments are restricted to individuals or households making a total of between about $30,000 and $80,000 per year.
The cost of the project is expected to come to approximately $35.2 million, with financial support coming from MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) and the state of Michigan through ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act).
“It’s an investment we’re making in the community. It’s what we do,” Young said. “We’re thinking long-term generational.”
Young said students would not be allowed to rent under the federal regulations that enable the public funding for this project. “Student” is defined as anyone who is enrolled in classes five of the last 12 months, including graduate students. Young explained the only exceptions are student-dependents of parents who are the primary tenants and pregnant students. These are rules set by Congress, Young said.
The major concern expressed by the business owners on this block and by community members was the loss of parking the project would cause.
The site for the project, currently known as the Bailey Street lot or Lot #11, is a surface parking lot with 86 parking spaces on the privately-owned subject site and an additional 35 spaces on the city-owned parcel to the east. If the project is built, only about 31 spots will remain in the public lot.
Sally Potter, general manager of the Eastside Food Co-op, received lots of support from the audience as she voiced her opinions about the project taking away parking. Potter is also a musician and, according to her website, “a community cheerleader.”
“Surface parking is everything to small business,” Potter said. “If you pass this, all 15 small businesses in the 500 block are done.”
Other business owners in the area came to the public hearing to express similar concerns. These included Splash of Color Tattoo Studio owner Kris Lachance; Flat, Black & Circular owner Dave Bernath; and Wild Inn Bed & Breakfast owner Al Bay.
“The thought that the parking lot’s going to disappear out back, it scares me,” Bernath said.
Addressing the parking issue, Young expressed it is the developers’ understanding that this parking lot is “going away” regardless of whether this development is approved.
Commission Chair Joseph Sullivan asked Young, “I just want to go back to the first thing you said about the current owners [of the privately-owned site] that have been using it as a parking lot. So they don’t intend, once the lease expires, to use this as a parking lot, that’s your understanding, regardless of what happens with this proposal?”
“That is correct,” Young said. “It is our understanding – not our understanding, it is a fact – that the parking lot is going away.”
Concerns were raised about this decision being made in the midst of multiple leadership changes in city government.
With city employment losses and the City Council election approaching, East Lansing is undergoing a wave of leadership change and community members are asking that this decision be put on the back burner until they know who is running their city.
“We have electors that are going to make a decision [in November’s Council race] and, in that decision, they are going to focus on the candidates, and they’re going to ask specifically, ‘Where do you stand on this issue?,’” community member Graham Larson said. “And you people here [the Planning Commission] are going to hear arguments from the public, from the candidates, and you’re gonna know where we’re going, you’re gonna know where everybody stands.
“I want to make a recommendation to the City Council that this be put off until we have an election,” Larson said. “Let the people’s vote count.”
Planning Commission makes a recommendation to City Council, and Council makes the final decision on applications like the one proposed by ACD. While Planning Commission must adhere closely to state law in terms of the legal bases for its recommendation, Council has much more latitude.
Although the majority of public comments were community members who oppose the project, there were a couple people who shared their support for new affordable housing apartments in this location.
“As someone who lives in the Downtown Development Authority’s boundaries, my family and I want to express our support for this proposed development,” Nathan Werner said.
Werner lives in a condo just across Bailey Street from the parking lot in question.
“We moved to East Lansing expressly because of the active community that’s offered,” he said. “We encourage the planning commission to consider this unique opportunity in front of them, to consider how to diversify and foster positive community, population growth in the downtown district.”
Werner expressed his concern for parking as well, but noted there are “existing, underutilized parking structures within walking distance.”
“Delaying positive housing change in the downtown area until a perfect parking solution is achieved is not a reasonable path forward,” Werner said.
Nearly 20 members of the community shared their thoughts and feelings on this project, alongside 10 written communications sent to the commission regarding the same topic.
Planning Commission members plan to revisit the proposal at their next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 23.