Proposal for New Downtown Office Building Begins Review and Approval Process

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The proposed MSUFCU office tower rendered as if looking northeast across Albert Ave. (Right now from this vantage point, you would see a parking lot and the dining deck of Dublin Square.)

We now have more details about what’s being proposed for the new 7-story office tower that Michigan State University Federal Credit Union wants to build on the parking lot just south of Dublin Square, at the northwest corner of Abbot Road and Albert Avenue.

And, because the project came before East Lansing’s Planning Commission on Wednesday and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) on Thursday this week, we also have a sense of what kinds of questions are on the minds of people participating in the review and approval process.

Those include some concerns about how the building would occupy this particular downtown space, including concerns about the 7-story windowless brick wall on the Dublin Square side.

That said, all in all, the reception appeared quite positive at both boards, and no one came forward from the public to raise objections to the proposal – rather unusual for a tall downtown building (although no others have been reviewed during virtual meetings brought on by a pandemic).

The credit union is asking for no tax incentives on this project. The project if built as proposed will generate substantial property taxes for local taxing authorities and the activities in the building will generate income tax along with “personal property tax” (a special local tax on businesses).

The building’s facade is proposed to be made of brick masonry, glass, and an “aluminum curtain wall system.” The brick would be similar to other brick styles in the downtown area.

Seven tall stories of non-residential space downtown

In keeping with language on the March 2020 ballot that East Lansing voters overwhelmingly approved, electing to sell this lot to the credit union for $810,000, the credit union is proposing a 7-story office building just north of “The Abbot,” an apartment building expected to be occupied in late August.

Map showing development in the area, including where MSUFCU wants to build the new office building.

It would be about 105 feet tall (about 35 feet shorter than The Abbot, which is being built immediately to the south) and would have about 88,000 square feet of internal space.

Because there are now so many tall buildings immediately south, and because voters approved the idea of a building up to 112 feet in height, the height is not expected to present a roadblock to approval.

At 18-feet in height, the first floor would hold an MSUFCU branch at the Albert/Abbot corner (replacing the branch next to Peanut Barrel) and leasable office space along Albert Ave. The credit union’s representatives say they have not yet pursued possible tenants for that extra ground-floor space or upstairs office space MSUFCU doesn’t currently need, but gave as examples of tenants nonprofit organizations or physicians.

At 16-feet in height, the second floor would hold “community space” including a large meeting room and smaller conference spaces. This space would be open only to groups and events approved by MSUFCU.

“In general, we [would] offer that community room to local organizations and community partners,” MSU Vice President Erin Bowdell told the Planning Commission. “That space would be used for conferences, training sessions, financial education, and group meetings.” Performances are also a possibility.

Floors 3-7, each 14-feet in height, would hold office space. Some of the space would be occupied by MSUFCU at the outset, with remaining space leased.

Business hours are proposed to be 6 a.m. – 11:59 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the expectation that the building (including the community space) would be closed on Sundays. That could change.

No on-site parking, no traffic study

The project would eliminate 33 public parking spaces now at the site and include no on-site parking. The plan is for building users who drive to the location to use the three City-owned parking ramps on Albert Avenue, Grove Street, and M.A.C. Avenue (under the Marriott Hotel).

The area’s parking options in an image provided by the City of East Lansing.

There is no designated place in the design for ride-share services to drop-off or pick-up people along Albert Avenue or Abbot Road, and no place designated for people with disabilities to park nearby.

Sixteen bicycle parking spots would be provided on racks along Abbot Road.

Deliveries and trash services would happen on the west side of the building, accessible from the alley. Dumpsters would be kept in an enclosed space when awaiting service.

The City’s engineer has decided that MSUFCU doesn’t have to produce a traffic study for this project. The designers say to expect the building to cause about 100 extra car trips during the a.m. rush hour and 100 extra during the p.m. rush hour.

Neither the DDA nor the Planning Commission discussed the proposed construction plan for the project, which includes closing off a lane of Albert Avenue and a lane of Abbot Road during the year-long construction period.

A project with as big a footprint as possible

The property is less than a third of an acre and the proposal calls for maximizing the building space on that site.

In response to that, Planning Commissioner Chris Wolf noted in Wednesday evening’s discussion that the proposal exceeds the ground coverage limits for the B3 zone (which is how this is zoned.) Wolf noted that the code indicates that if this exceeding of the ground coverage limit is to be allowed, the property owner is supposed to provide a public amenity in exchange, like a public plaza or open green space.

A view of the proposed structure looking northwest, with Dublin Square shown to the right along Abbot Road, and Albert Avenue shown to the left.

The credit union suggests that the “community space” on the interior second floor would satisfy that requirement for a public amenity space. But about this, Wolf said, “The use of community room as a way of gaining additional ground coverage is a little troublesome.”

Wolf asked staff to compare this proposed “public space” provision to what has happened with approval of other tall buildings in the area, and staff indicated that they will have that information for the next meeting. (The Planning Commission is likely to vote at their Aug. 12 meeting whether to recommend the project to City Council, which makes the final decision.)

Across from the alley on the west side sits 314 Evergreen Avenue, a 3-story apartment building that is anticipated to be knocked down at some point for redevelopment of the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties (which include 314).

The red block shows where the new MSUFCU building would go.

Because 314 Evergreen Ave. is zoned residential, the code calls for a proposed next-door 105-foot building to be well set-back above the fourth floor from that neighboring residential property.

The widespread expectation is that the Zoning Board of Appeals will give an exemption for that setback requirement – an idea supported unanimously by DDA members on Thursday.

The north side would be a 7-story brick wall with no windows

Of concern at the DDA was the fact that, while there are windows proposed for three sides of the building, there are none for the north side (the Dublin Square side). This would mean that anyone approaching downtown and the main entrance to MSU from the north would be met with a 7-story brick windowless wall just a block north of Grand River Avenue.

According to the City’s Planning Dept. staff report, “A mural is tentatively proposed for the north side of the building to fulfill the Percent for Art requirement.”

But at the DDA meeting, MSUFCU’s representatives said they weren’t sure that space would be used for art.

The credit union’s representatives told the DDA that the brick wall is necessary because the building is being built right up against the property line where the owner next door might eventually also build a new building. (Nothing is currently proposed for redevelopment of the Dublin Square property.)

The credit union’s representatives said the windowless wall was designed out of consideration of the neighboring property owner.

DDA Chair Peter Dewan questioned the aesthetics of this wall, for which no renderings have been offered. (Planning Commissioners did not ask for such a rendering, and MSUFCU has not provided one in response to requests from ELi.)

The proposal includes this “elevation” drawing of the north wall, showing it to be a 105-foot-tall brick wall. This would be right next to the deck of Dublin Square.

In response to this issue, DDA member and City Manager George Lahanas said this kind of thing had to be accepted “in an urban environment” because it was what the credit union must do to be “good neighbors” to the Dublin Square property owner. Lahanas said he hopes citizens “will forgive it” as part of the design.

DDA member Jeff Smith, who works for the MSU Foundation, suggested the north wall could be used for a “marketing moment,” potentially one that would be income-producing (like a billboard).

DDA members, including the Mayor and City Manager, are unanimously enthusiastic about this project

At Thursday’s meeting, the DDA indicated strong support for the proposal, with Lahanas praising the credit union as a “great employer” in East Lansing and saying a downtown office building would be enormously important for the downtown.

DDA member Mayor Aaron Stephens called it a “rare project” because he said the public had gotten to vote on it. (The public voted on a sale to MSUFCU with this basic outline, not on the details now available.) He said he had heard a lot of support from residents for the proposal and found the height reasonable for that location.

DDA Vice Chair Jim Croom said the project will be great for the city center and noted that people working at the building could walk there from homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

Chair Peter Dewan also indicated strong support, but asked for “sensitivity” by the credit union “to address the northern wall.” He said he hoped they would contemplate artwork for that wall.

The DDA voted unanimously to recommend Council approve the proposal and the Zoning Board of Appeals approve the variance.

What’s next?

The Planning Commission is expected to take up the project with a likely recommendation vote on August 12.

The Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to take up the request for the setback variance in late August.

The project appears likely to come to Council for a public hearing and vote in September.

Want to weigh in? You can speak during public comment at any public meeting. You can also write to the Planning Commission, write to the Zoning Board of Appeals, and write to City Council to share your thoughts.

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