Planning Commission Tackles Sorority Dumpster, Frat Conversion, Plasticware at The Graduate, and That Ugly Spot

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

View of the rooftop bar at the new Graduate Hotel in East Lansing, under construction.

East Lansing’s Planning Commission dealt with requests for three Special Use Permits (SUPs) – used to regulate restaurants, bars, fraternities and sororities, and marijuana dispensaries – at a three-hour meeting this week (Mar. 24) – for a sorority dumpster, a frat conversion, and a hotel rooftop bar. The Commission also objected strenuously to the aesthetic outcome of a Consumers Energy project and said farewell to a staff member. Here’s a rundown.

Consumers Energy project near Marble School condemned as an eyesore:

Back in January, an ELi reader wrote in to ask if the Consumers Energy infrastructure rebuild at the northeast corner of Hagadorn Road and Burcham Drive was going to get any more landscaping, or if it would remain as unsightly as it appears to many now. We asked Consumers Energy’s rep. to answer, and he told us that what you see now is how the site will continue to look.

Well, at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting, Consumers Energy came forward with plans on a similar project for 1498 S. Harrison Road, and Commissioner Jack Cahill took the opportunity to speak to the ugliness of the other project across the street from Marble Elementary School.  

Raymond Holt for ELi

Consumers Energy’s natural gas pipeline station at the northeast corner of Burcham Drive and Hagadorn Road, shown when it was under reconstruction.

Cahill said he hoped that the utility’s representatives present at the meeting would “take it back to corporate headquarters to say we built something awful at Burcham and Hagadorn, and as matter of public spirit, we would hope they would do something to make it look better.”

Commissioner Cynthia Williams seconded the suggestion, saying, “Every single time I drive by it, I am disappointed.” She said it “really does look terrible.” Others agreed, including Chair Dan Bollman, who suggested he regretted his role in the matter.

Consumers Energy’s representatives explained that what had to be built there, in terms of the new technology, made it challenging to provide more landscaping screening, but they also indicated that they would convey the distress expressed to corporate headquarters to see if anything can be done. The Commission voted unanimously in favor of the new project on Harrison Road.

The Graduate Hotel’s request to serve alcohol moves on to Council next:

Commissioner Cahill also featured in our report from last week on the Graduate Hotel’s request to serve alcohol at its lobby café and rooftop bar. This week, he again expressed numerous concerns about people dropping things off of the roof when patronizing the not-yet-open rooftop bar.

Cahill repeatedly suggested he wanted the balcony railing raised from a planned height of 54” before Chair Bollman finally acted to cut off the discussion and moved the group to a vote.

In the end, Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that City Council approve the request from the Graduate Hotel for an alcohol-serving Special Use Permit, but not without including 17 conditions. That includes one condition that requires a minimum number of food items on the menus in order to meet East Lansing’s zoning code definition of a “restaurant.”

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Graduate Hotel (foreground) will have a rooftop restaurant called The Trophy Room.

The Graduate Hotel’s representatives said they were voluntarily going to require that glassware not be used in the outdoor area of the rooftop bar, but Planning Commission has now suggested Council make that prohibition an actual legal requirement of the Special Use Permit.

Planning Commissioners said they were happy to have the hotel and the representatives of the hotel said they were happy to be opening in East Lansing soon. City Council will get the final say on this matter.

Sorority dumpster request opens can of worms:

Now comes Pi Beta Phi FHC Michigan Gamma LLC, a sorority, with a request for the property at 343 Harrison Road to move the existing dumpster approximately nine feet closer to Huntington Road. This is the sorority at the northwest corner of Harrison Road and Huntington Road in the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood.

Moving this dumpster requires approval of a change-of-site plan and SUP. But this sorority appears to predate that approach, so many legal questions were raised about how you “change” a site plan and an SUP that don’t exist. Where the dumpster is now doesn’t meet the zoning code, and Cahill pointed out that where they want to move it also doesn’t seem to meet the code.

That the applicant revealed last night that the dumpster move was desired in part to create an extra parking space led to more legal questions, since the change of a parking plan is a different kind of SUP alteration request.

From City of East Lansing packet for Planning Commission

Image showing location of 343 N. Harrison Road. (Huntington Rd. is erroneously labeled “Oak” in this image.)

Diane Wing of the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood wrote in and spoke against the request, saying the dumpster is already a smelly eyesore and will only be a bigger public nuisance if moved closer to the sidewalk. Linda Pivarnik also wrote in with objections, saying the request should be denied.

Commissioner Chris Wolf said he went to the site with a tape measure and the diagrams provided by the applicant are not accurate with regard to the location and spacing.

No decisions were made, so this one will come back to Planning Commission if the applicant wants to persist in this request.

Fraternity wants permission to live as a fraternity while living as a fraternity:

This one is another case of a legally-confusing SUP request. The agenda summarized the matter as being “Consideration a request for site plan and special use permit approval from MJW Investment, LLC, for the property at 128 Collingwood Drive to establish a Class A multiple family residence (fraternity).”

So, the request is to allow what is now an apartment building to be used as a fraternity. But a fraternity is already occupying the building and using it as a frat house. According to the staff report, “The property owner has a lease with the Alpha Sigma Phi for 5 years with the ability to extend for another 5 years at the end of the first lease.” The frat started living there last summer.

128 Collingwood as photographed on March 9, 2021.

A representative for the property management company told the Planning Commission on Wednesday night that they had “no clue” they were supposed to get an SUP to rent the building out as a fraternity house.

According to Commissioner Wolf, the fact that the building is being used as a fraternity already does not represent a violation of the zoning code because a group can legally rent out an entire apartment building.

City staff explained that this building has fourteen 3- and 4- bedroom apartments in it, and no central gathering space. But then the frat president said that the building managers had converted one apartment to become a central gathering space for meetings and the like.

That means the managers have changed the interior in a way that now also implicates their rental license for the building – because the total number of bedrooms has changed – so that will be a separate issue that must be addressed.

The neighbor who lives across the back alley from this building, Richard Schomaker, vigorously objected to this conversion to a frat in a letter. Schomaker has had problems with prior tenants of this building and built a sort of barricade around his property that led to the City repeatedly fining – and finally jailing – him for a zoning violation under prosecution by the City Attorney who was fired last summer. (Schomaker is, as far as we know, the only person in East Lansing to have been jailed for a zoning violation.)

Planning staff member Darcy Schmitt explained on Wednesday night that one reason for the SUP request is that the City is “running into a situation where there is a shortage of fraternity and sorority houses to lease,” so frats and sororities are increasingly renting out blocks of apartments, or even entire apartment buildings, as in this case. The current president of Alpha Sigma Phi explained that they had been living at 131 Bogue Street but that their landlord there wants to demolish that house for redevelopment.

While Schmitt said there was plenty of parking in the area – parking is a perennial concern about frats and sororities when it comes to the neighbors – owners of a nearby business came forward to say they are weary of the tenants of this building using their parking illegally and disrupting their efforts to do business. They don’t object to the frat, but want this problem solved so they don’t have to keep calling for enforcement when their business is harmed.

No decisions were made on this matter and so it is expected to come back to Planning Commission for further review.

A new zoning code is still in the works:

By the time the Planning Commission got to the issue of the emerging recommendation for a new form-based zoning code for a large swath of the most densely developed portion of East Lansing, it was nearing 10 p.m., and they kept the discussion brief.

Chair Bollman acknowledged objections raised by Deborah Ann Stuart, a homeowner on Grove Street, in writing and in person, to what the plans would mean for homes like hers in historic districts absorbed into the “Avenue Form District” (see page 38 of this PDF). Bollman said the Commission continues work to address concerns from other property owners as well, including commercial property owners.

Detail of the Shaping the Avenue map. The new zoning code area would overlap with multiple residential historic districts.

Schmitt said the Commission is awaiting opinions from the City Attorney on a number of items. A report by City Manager George Lahanas to Council on March 12 confirmed that, saying, “The Planning Commission has nearly completed their review of the draft form-based code. The document is now with the City Attorney for review of specific requested issues by the Planning Commission.”

On Wednesday night, Bollman requested that staff include more rationale for why a new set of architectural standards should be incorporated into East Lansing’s zoning code under this project.

Finally, a staff member is bid farewell:

This week marked the final meeting for East Lansing Planning & Zoning Administrator David Haywood, who is leaving the City’s employ to work full-time at his family’s farm business. Commissioners thanked him, praised him, and wished him the best.

Haywood, in turn, praised this and prior East Lansing Planning Commissions. He said that candidates for his job are still being interviewed, and he would anticipate someone new might be seated in his position by May. In the meantime, the rest of Planning staff will have to make up for his absence.

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