Property Owners Expressing Concerns about Possible New Zoning Code

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From left: Planning Commissioners Chris Wolf, Dan Bollman, and Cynthia Williams working on the draft Avenue Form District plan at a meeting in July 2019. The three served as a special committee of the Commission.

East Lansing’s Planning Commission and the City’s Planning staff are continuing to spend significant amounts of time trying to come up with a new zoning code for a large swath of the most densely developed section of town. The area includes what is generally called “downtown” and “the East Village,” along with parts of the City’s older neighborhoods, including Brookfield Heritage, Bailey, Oakwood, and Chesterfield Hills.

As the map shows, the area re-envisioned for a new type of zoning and redevelopment includes parts of four Historic Districts and extends in one section of Bailey all the way north to Burcham Drive.

To see the draft map and plan, click here.

In this process, the Planning Commission is struggling to design a new system that, in the words of Vice Chair Kathy Boyle, is “more efficient and [involves] less review” than the current zoning code.

East Lansing’s existing code and approval system has been described by many property owners and developers as cumbersome, costly, and frustrating. The Michigan Economic Redevelopment Corporation (MEDC) has been hoping that East Lansing and other municipalities will adopt streamlined form-based codes to be “redevelopment ready” (that is, more likely to see redevelopment).

The goals of the form-based “Shaping the Avenue” code include:

  • to define many required design standards (“form”) at the outset;
  • to back off on “use” regulation (regulating what owners must do with the insides of their buildings in terms of things like retail use or bedroom-per-apartment limits); and
  • to shift many more types of projects to approval by staff or by Planning Commission, rather than having them go to City Council, in order to streamline site plan approvals.

But now that the draft “Avenue Form District” plan is open to more intensive public comment, a number of owners of East Lansing commercial properties are weighing in with concerns, hoping to change the draft plan before it ends up with a Council decision. Their concerns cover specific design requirements, review and approval processes, and the big picture of economic redevelopment.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood associations implicated have so far been pretty quiet. But that may change as more take note of the desire to spur specific types of redevelopment in residential areas, which some may see as exciting and others as concerning.

Planning Commission won’t have the final say on any of this. A majority of Council will. And a majority of Council could ultimately decide to completely reject or significantly change whatever the Planning Commission recommends to them.

But the general expectation is that, after years of work on the part of volunteer commissioners, City Planning staff, and hired external consultants, Council will replace the existing code for this area with this new zoning code in some form. Planning Commission Chair Dan Bollman regularly refers to “when” the Avenue Form District plan is enacted, not “if.”

Some of the concerns being raised are about the restrictions on design.

The draft code requires that buildings be built using particular stylistic elements – specifying, in some cases, materials that can be used, how elements are spaced, minimum heights, and so on.

Reviewing drafts of the plan, local architect Tim Mrozowski has been pointing to a number of design elements he finds overly restrictive, including for example exceptionally costly glass requirements for windows, limits on where vents for HVACs and dryers can go in terms of building exteriors, and rules not allowing the use of aluminum doors on commercial buildings.

East Lansing’s downtown now has buildings of many different heights, styles, and ages. Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.

Similarly, landlord/developer Matt Hagan of Hagan Realty has pointed out what he sees as numerous overly-restrictive requirements in the draft code. He’s questioned restrictions on the number and spacing of windows, on the width of townhomes, and on the requirement to put roofs over porches in new construction.

In some cases, the Planning Commission has agreed with Mrozowski, Hagan, and others and removed recommended restrictions – now allowing, for example, aluminum doors for stores.

But in other cases, a recommended design is being seen as too important to give up. Such is the case, for example, with roofs on porches; Bollman has said he thinks porches are more likely to be used if they are required to have roofs, and pushing porch use is seen by him as important for how the new required design will lead to desired behavior.

Then there’s worry about whether the current draft plan could cause strange-looking redevelopment for generations, rather than (as intended) creating a more uniform streetscape.

The theory behind form-based code is to create enough uniformity along streetscapes to make them pleasing to the eye and inviting to the user. But that uniformity depends on redevelopment actually happening steadily along a given stretch. In practice, East Lansing may continue to see relatively slow redevelopment in the Avenue Form District area, which could mean patchy implementation of the new standards.

Let’s take a specific example: In an attempt to get to a better-designed city architecturally, the draft Avenue Form District plan calls for many commercial buildings to be set back farther from Grand River Avenue than many currently are. The idea is to require (in new construction) the creation of welcoming frontages where shops can put out chairs and tables, or advertising sandwich boards, or tables for sidewalk sales.

In residential areas, by contrast, townhouses and “cottages” that are built to replace older houses may be required to be built closer to the sidewalk than most existing houses on these lots, to give more of a new urbanism (brownstone) feel favored by the Planning staff and Commission.

A close up of one part of the Avenue Form District rezoning map, indicating where various new design and setback requirements would be implemented.

But the reality is that these significant design changes would only occur when a property is redeveloped. The draft new code, which changes requirements for setbacks, could result in streetscapes that have buildings set back and forth in a strange pattern as some are redeveloped and some are not. In residential areas, this could mean new townhouses built nearer the sidewalk interspersed with hundred-year-old houses with deeper front lawns.

Writes the architect Mrozowski in a memo to the Commission, “Perhaps in one hundred years all the building fronts will line up, but for many years street lines will be fairly random looking.”

Historically, form-based code has been most heavily used in areas that are “greenspaces” being newly developed or areas with substantial blight where existing structures are very likely to be torn down. In both cases – greenspaces and blighted areas – constructing new buildings is economically more feasible because property values can only go up. That can lead to rapid redevelopment and more uniformity.

But it is unlikely that these sections of East Lansing’s downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods will rapidly see new construction, given that many properties in the Avenue Form District are considered successful, and their owners are not interested in redevelopment.

Bollman has said that East Lansing’s Planning staff might be able to provide examples of where form-based code in a densely-redeveloped, low-vacancy area like this one has been implemented and succeeded. So far, staff has not provided such examples.

This means that East Lansing may be undertaking a substantial experiment with this new code.

On that point, some owners are expressing concern about how the new code could hinder reinvestment and redevelopment.

In response to questions, the Planning Commission has indicated that they do not believe it is their job to analyze what major economic impact this draft plan might have, if adopted. They have decided that this is a question Council should consider.

But some property owners want this issue considered now.

The team at Hudgins Realty, which owns many rental properties, has written to the Commission to warn that this code is likely to stall redevelopment the way the East Village form-based code did. The City hoped that new code would lead to major redevelopment of the area (which is also generally known as Cedar Village).

But that code sets up such a tall order that it simply costs too much to attempt redevelopment with most East Village properties.

For years, no redevelopment happened under the form-based code for the East Village. Then Core Spaces got the code changed enough to build The Hub.

“In most instances you simply can’t justify removing the existing improvements economically,” Hudgins Realty’s team writes. That’s what has happened in the East Vaillage.

Planning Commissioners have rejected analogies of the East Village experience to the Avenue Form District, because the origins, development process, and content of the two form-based codes differ significantly.

Still, Hudgins and others have noted that, as under the East Village special form-based code, to make a project economically viable under the draft Avenue Form District code, one would in many cases have to assemble many adjacent parcels. This makes it harder for smaller property owners to undertake redevelopment, and it may make redevelopment less likely.

Hagan has also weighed in on the economics, questioning requiring “nice aesthetic feature(s),” like how stores manage what’s shown in their windows, when many businesses are now struggling to survive.

To take the specific example of store windows: the Planning Commission wants to stop stores from doing what Target and CVS have done – covering windows in order to use the interior space along exterior walls for product shelving. By contrast, the new 7-Eleven at The Hub has been required to keep its windows unblocked under the East Village code, and the new Walgreens at The Abbot was pushed to keep the windows unblocked.

Planning Commission doesn’t want store windows used the way CVS has done, preferring the look and feel of Walgreen’s see-through windows. The draft code currently looks to regulate how stores use interior space next to windows.

Planning Commission believes this aesthetic regulation of interior use creates livelier public spaces along the sidewalks, so they feel it important to regulate interior use in relation to shop windows.

Hudgins’ team and Hagan also both questioned the continued prohibition of apartments that have more than three bedrooms. Writes Hagan, “Limiting developments to 3 or fewer bedrooms while in a lot of cases requiring [minimum] building heights that will have to have elevators and sprinkler systems is going to make redevelopment economically challenging – to say the least.”

If the new code results in stalling economic redevelopment, that could have big long-term impacts on the tax revenues of East Lansing and other local taxing jurisdictions.

One reason the MEDC has been pushing for the implementation of form-based code around the state is to try to spur, not stall, redevelopment to increase taxable values. But that kind of spurring would occur with a code that makes redevelopment cheaper and easier, while a code that is very complex or demanding can make redevelopment expensive and harder.

Mark Fisk, who owns a number of student rental properties, actually worries that the new code could make building of more student housing too easy by (possibly) removing barriers to that kind of redevelopment. He wrote to the Commission, “Any changes to code that incentivize more student housing units will further exacerbate this problem and have serious negative consequences for the town.”

The Planning Commission is now spending hours at each meeting working on the draft Avenue Form District plan.

The team is taking the work very seriously because the Master Plan for East Lansing that the Commission adopted in 2018 calls for implementing a form-based code for this area. So, commissioners are continuing to discuss not just specific design features like cornices and eaves, but also administrative changes about who will approve various types of projects if the code is adopted.

Many big questions remain, including:

  • What will be required of redevelopment (or forbidden) in terms of parking?
  • Will Council retain the right to override a project approval by the Planning Commission?
  • Will the City maintain the complex Special Use Permit system for various uses?
  • What happens with neighborhood rental overlay districts that overlap with the Avenue Form District?
  • Will the areas that overlap with designated Historic Districts be removed from their districts?
  • Will the City maintain the special district that allows buildings up to 160 feet tall, 40 feet more than what the adopted 2018 Master Plan called for?
  • Will the City maintain the rule instituted in Ordinance 1384, the law that requires big downtown housing projects to dedicate at least 25 percent of housing units to senior (age 55+) housing, owner-occupied condo apartments, or low/moderate-income housing?

And that’s just a sampling. The task of creating this new code is a huge one, as the outcome is meant to represent a big and positive change for East Lansing for decades to come.

You can see the latest version of the draft code and correspondence here. The issue is expected back at Planning Commission on Feb. 24, 2021. Public comment can be made at that virtual meeting by phone and can be emailed to Senior Planner Darcy Schmitt at dschmitt@cityofeastlansing.com.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2021: The original version of this article said that the new Walgreens at The Abbot was required to keep its windows unblocked. It was not required, but was subject to pressure to do so when applying for a Special Use Permit to sell alcohol.

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