Plans for Valley Court Park Remain in Flux, as Two Commissions Express Hopes and Concerns

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Dylan Lees for ELi

East Lansing's Zoning and Planning Administrator Peter Menser is engaging with city commissions and the public on the evolving plans for Valley Court Park.

East Lansing city planners are continuing to seek input on plans for the renovation of Valley Court Park, including a plan to add a large covered pavilion for the farmers’ market. But both the Planning Commission and the Historic District Commission declined this week to take any votes on the matter, wanting to see revisions and more information before they take action.

Planning Commissioners raised numerous questions and concerns on Wednesday.

At their regularly-scheduled meeting this Wednesday, Nov. 9, East Lansing Planning Commissioners expressed continued concern about some aspects of the initial design, along with excitement about renewing the park to meet community needs.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser summarized feedback received so far: “More green space, less parking, in a nutshell. So, we have shared the feedback with the consulting team, they are busily putting together kind of the next iteration of this plan.” He said he “wished he had something more substantial to share” at this time.

Commissioners made clear it will be important to provide any new plans well in advance of public meetings so the public has time to digest and respond. Menser agreed and said staff has also heard the concern that people want drawings that include the entire park to provide clearer perspective.

Commissioner Cindy Williams said she wanted “to make sure we don’t lose sight of the other thing that I heard repeatedly at the public hearing, in addition to preserving the green space and less parking – a dedicated performance space. That came up over and over again.”

East Lansing Planning Commissioner Cynthia Williams (Dylan Lees for ELi)

Agreeing that was a common theme, Menser said the challenge is how to incorporate such space. He said there has been consideration of putting something like an amphitheater in the northeast corner, where the tennis courts are now.

“I just want to make sure that whatever comes of this – and it’s a very exciting project – doesn’t foreclose the opportunity to move in that direction in the future,” Williams said. 

Menser called her point “well taken and well received.”

Does the farmers’ market need a pavilion, and does it have to be in Valley Court Park? Not everyone is sure.

Responding to Commissioner Chris Wolf’s “extreme curiosity” about what the farmers’ market vendors themselves think of the plan, Menser said staff’s meeting with current vendors resulted in “mixed reactions.” While vendors expressed interest in having a better set-up, the vendors had concerns about elimination of green space and replacing green space with parking spots.

Commissioner Chelsea Denault, who ran a farmers market in Chicago, expressed skepticism about the wisdom of paving green space for a farmers’ market pavilion. The one in the current proposal adds only two vendor spaces, but a much larger area of paving.

East Lansing Planning Commissioner Chelsea Denault (Dylan Lees for ELi)

“The largest farmers market in Chicago is also in a park, but it sits on unpaved land,” said Denault, referring to Green City Market in Lincoln Park. She said she didn’t see why improving the farmers market requires paving over park land.

Menser said the designers are looking at ways to preserve more green space, possibly incorporating the basketball court into the farmers’ market paved area. He also said there’s continued interest in designing the pavilion to be “modular in nature” so it might be enclosed in the future.

Commissioner Matt Boyd raised a question about flooding in the park and asked if there is data on that issue. Denault also asked about flooding and whether there has been an environmental review of the existing park.

East Lansing Planning Commissioner Matt Boyd (Dylan Lees for ELi)

Noting that even after a light rain, the park “can be a squooshy walk,” Menser said he would check to see what environmental studies the city has for the park.

“The green infrastructure that has been discussed so far would be bioswales that would treat the runoff from any new paved surfaces,” Menser said. (Bioswales are channels designed to manage flooding and avoid runoff of harmful materials.) He said he’s not sure much more than that will be done in terms of stormwater management in this iteration of park renovation. 

As the discussion continued, Commissioners expressed some reservations about the current plan. 

The strongest reservations came from Commissioner Wolf. “I’m not crazy about the fact that it pretty much splits the park in half,” he said. 

While he is glad for the idea of spending money to improve the park, “Paving over too much of the park is a step backwards.” He suggested an indoor farmers’ market could be built somewhere other than a green space.

Wolf also asked if it isn’t time to get rid of the old BWL substation building given it’s been in that spot for about 15 years, the city has to keep spending funds to keep it from deteriorating and no use has been found for it other than storage.

“I’m wondering if it might be time to give up on that, which would give us more flexibility possibly to put the pavilion down at the west end of the park,” Wolf said.

Left to right, East Lansing Planning Commission members Chris Wolf and Vice Chair Joseph Sullivan (Dylan Lees for ELi)

Vice Chair Joseph Sullivan said he agrees with many of the comments, including the suggestion it might be time to get rid of the BWL building. “That site in particular would be really good for a performance area for the community,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan suggested the possibility of a half-basketball court instead of a full one and liked the idea of a multi-function pavilion that could be used in winter.

One thing that wasn’t discussed – but was a theme in submitted public comment – is the idea of adding a dog park (a fenced play area for dogs) at Valley Court Park. Several residents in the neighborhoods of Oakwood and Glencairn favor this idea.

Another layer of review is coming at Planning Commission.

At this week’s meeting, Menser also advised the Planning Commission that state law requires a special “Section 61 Review” of the proposal considering the “location, character, and extent” of the plan and whether it is in keeping with the city’s Master Plan. 

The City of East Lansing has not been undertaking Section 61 reviews, so the Planning Commission was unfamiliar with the process. In the discussion, Menser noted that many municipalities do not seem to follow this state law. Given that and the absence of an updated plan, the commission decided to put off that review pending more information.

The Historic District Commission also took no action the next night.

While the Valley Court Park pavilion project managers received feedback on their plans at the Thursday, Nov. 10, Historic District Commission meeting, they did not obtain the Certificate of Appropriateness they sought from that board. Valley Court Park is a part of Oakwood Historic District, which means any changes in the park will need to be allowed by the Historic District Commission. 

At the meeting, Menser focused on two parts of the project: changes to the old Lansing Board of Water and Light building in the park, and the larger pavilion project. 

The City’s “project area” map highlights just the section where the pavilion has been proposed, but in fact changes are suggested for a wider area of the park, including the BWL building to the far west.

Menser said project managers were pretty set on some changes they’d like to make to the park, but unsure what those changes would look like exactly. He mentioned additions of the pavilion, public art, picnic areas and relocating the playground as changes likely to be made. 

Historic District Commissioners seem intrigued by the idea of adding the pavilion, but said they need more defined plans before they could vote. A request was made for a more concrete description of what the final project will look like, and detailed renderings of the pavilion and other changes. Echoing what happened at the Planning Commission, multiple Historic District commissioners said voting at the meeting before plans were defined would be premature. 

“You’re wanting us to vote on, this evening, the construction of this pavilion,” commission Vice Chair Jessica Flores said. “I don’t see any dimensions, I don’t see any building materials.”

Menser said project managers currently only have a concept plan and they likely will not have more detailed plans until the community and City Council agree on how the project will be laid out. 

“We may not have those until much later in the year,” Menser said.

“That would be the time for us to vote on this,” Flores responded. 

Menser said project managers are waiting for plans to be more solidified before having detailed drawings done because those renderings are expensive. 

One concern commissioners had about the current plan is how close the parking lot is to the relocated playground in the park. Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Cathy DeShambo said they’ve heard from others with the same concern and that designers will continue to look at the plan’s layout. 

The City’s initial proposal for the park redesign has resulted in a number of concerns being raised, and revisions are in process.

Despite not granting a Certificate of Appropriateness, multiple commissioners at this week’s meeting said they are open to allowing the project once it is made clear exactly what changes will be made. 

A performance space for the park?

As has been the case in past public hearings, Historic District commissioners expressed concerns about the amount of green space the plan would pave over and that there is not a performance space included in the plan. 

Menser said he is considering the project in phases and there are no immediate plans to add a performance space, though that may be added later. 

“I think they’re all very good comments, for [adding] a music venue,” he said. “As of now, in this phase, I’m not anticipating that’s going to be added to the plan.” 

The Historic District Commission seems to expect the BWL building to be maintained.

About the BWL building, Menser said in the current phase, project managers are just looking to do repairs that will stop the building from leaking and to prepare the building for expanded use in the future. The building is currently used for storage, but can only store items that can get wet.

Image from the City’s proposal for the Valley Court Park rehabilitation showing the fixes planned for the old BWL building at the park.

“The scope is to only repair this building to ensure that it is ready and viable for a future, unknown, to-be-determined use,” he said. 

Menser was clear there are not many details about what repairs to the building will look like. However, he said repairs to the building’s roof, brick siding and gutters may be necessary. He also said the building’s stone work may be “cleaned up” and entry stoops could be made more accessible. 

Menser expects to come back with the proposal to the next Historic District Commission meeting, Thursday, Dec. 8. He said he’s hopeful he will have enough details at that meeting for the commission to take action. 

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