East Lansing planners have identified a section stretching north from Grand River Avenue into the Bailey neighborhood that they would like to see redeveloped.
The section, which currently contains chiefly older rental houses and a hodgepodge of dated retail spaces, is “ripe for redevelopment” in the words of East Lansing Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser.
Menser and planning commissioners are hoping to use a revision of the zoning code for just this area to spur redevelopment there. Planners hope the special code will bring about attractive-looking commercial and residential redevelopment that increases the downtown’s population density while creating an environment that encourages walking, biking and the use of public transit.
If this new kind of code succeeds in this test district, then it may be rolled out for other areas of East Lansing, too.
The new type of code would be a form-based code, with specific design requirements for individual structures.
East Lansing’s current zoning code is a traditional style, focusing on how buildings will be used, rather than how they look, and it requires that all commercial redevelopment go through a protracted and unpredictable approval process. This adds costs and uncertainty for developers, and it means the projects coming forward for approval have no unified look or feel.
By contrast, a form-based code approach to zoning in this special district would specify what the city wants to see in terms of how buildings sit on parcels of land and how they look and function relative to the street.
A form-based code would, at least in theory, pay less attention to how buildings are going to be used on the inside in exchange for demanding more from developers about how buildings are designed on the outside.
Under the new code, the city would effectively be telling developers, “If you’re willing to build what we’ve specified in this code in terms of look and design, we’ll grant you easier, predictable approvals.”
All of this is still theoretical, though – especially the question of whether East Lansing’s City Council would approve a code that gives up some degree of control over use and approvals in exchange for getting a look and feel they want out of redevelopment.
And, to some degree, City Council has for many years already been making demands about the look and public-facing feel of new commercial structures. So, those in the commercial property business are wondering whether the new code would really make redevelopment easier in East Lansing.
A southern section of the Bailey neighborhood is being identified for a test of the new code.
The geographical section being considered for the test runs north from Grand River Avenue, stretching from the alley just west of Orchard Street to the alley just east of Spartan Avenue. Where it would end on the north is still a point of discussion, but the maps currently identify it as running up to at least Albert Street and likely to Ann Street for the most western section.
Currently along this stretch of Grand River Avenue, the eclectic mix of commercial spaces house such businesses as Little Ceasar’s Pizza, VIP Tanning, Conrad’s Grill, Starbucks Coffee (the one with the drive-thru), Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Bell’s Pizza, the empty former Quality Dairy space, Yum Yum Bento and more. The area also contains dozens of rental houses and some owner-occupied single-family homes.
The city hasn’t yet adopted a new code for this area, but what planners have been discussing is implementing a form-based code here to encourage the demolition of old rental housing stock to replace that with small apartment buildings and townhouse-style homes.
Along Grand River Avenue, the code would also encourage developers to replace run-down and outdated commercial spaces with more attractive, modern styles that typically push the parking to the back of lots.
The idea of this “test” area of the form-based code was introduced by Menser at the Dec. 14 Planning Commission meeting, and the discussion is set to continue at this Wednesday’s meeting, Jan. 25.
“I don’t mean any offense to the people who live there and own the properties,” Menser told the Planning Commission on Dec. 14, “but…the stock’s a bit tired. It’s primarily rentals now.”
He said he wants to see the city “encourage redevelopment of this area” and “add to density.”
Commissioner Chris Wolf asked Menser to confirm his impression that “part of our thinking in choosing this area [is that] it is perhaps a prime or an above-average area in terms of being desirable for redevelopment.”
“That’s my logic,” Menser answered.
Commissioner Ed Wagner agreed this was a good area to try to spur redevelopment, saying that when he looked along that Grand River Avenue frontage, “A lot of places are derelict.”
There’s a long backstory to this idea of implementing form-based code.
The original impetus for the current discussions was a major regional design initiative called “Shaping the Avenue” – an attempt to reimagine the miles-long corridor that stretches from the Michigan Capitol in Lansing along Michigan Avenue to Grand River Avenue through downtown East Lansing into Okemos.
The Shaping the Avenue plan was supposed to result in widespread adoption of form-based code that would improve the appearance and function of public spaces and make it easier for developers to know what would be approved. It was advertised as a win-win. Developers would see costs and approval times fall. The public would see attractive redevelopment of the sort local governments had specifically said they wanted in terms of look.
The City of Lansing has instituted a form-based code throughout that city. But East Lansing is looking at a much more conservative approach with this “test area.” East Lansing’s rezoning could later be expanded to a larger area highlighted in a 2021 Shaping the Avenue report.
Menser told the Planning Commission a main reason the test area was selected is because most of the homes in it are not owner occupied. He also named as factors for its selection the area’s proximity to downtown and Michigan State University’s campus.
The City of East Lansing’s goals through the form-based code were highlighted in the Shaping the Avenue report. The city has said it wants to add mixed-use spaces for commercial, residential and office use, and would like redevelopment to be transit-friendly.
The report also says the city hopes to increase and diversify the housing stock. Additionally, redevelopment should minimize traffic congestion, inefficient surface parking lots, infrastructure costs and environmental impacts while creating a pedestrian-friendly district.
And, the form-based code should also simplify and streamline the redevelopment review process and increase predictability, according to the report.
East Lansing’s Planning Commissioners are generally supportive of this test-area idea.
At the Dec. 14 meeting, Commissioner Wagner said he likes the test area proposed for the most part. However, he expressed a concern that a block on the northwest corner of the map on Orchard Street has many owner-occupied homes. He recommended removing that part of the neighborhood from the test phase.
Commissioner Chelsea Denault also asked if a smaller area could be considered for the test phase. Menser said all options are still on the table.
Notably, the Planning Commission only has the power to recommend this idea to City Council. It is ultimately the council’s decision whether to go through with the test concept, and to decide exactly what is in the form-based code.
Part of the proposed area falls in the Bailey Historic District. Menser said there are no plans to remove this area from that historic district. So, for the part that is in the historic district, any redevelopment would have to be okayed by the Historic District Commission, adding a layer of complication and unpredictability that the form-based code is theoretically supposed to minimize.
Commissioner Denault raised the question of whether it really makes sense for this area to be in a historic district, telling Menser on Dec. 14, “It would be helpful to know if the city has done a historic resources survey [of this area] within the past 10 years.”
Areas like this were put into historic districts by the city decades ago largely as an attempt to stop landlords from “remuddling” older houses, turning them into ugly structures that would only ever be used for student rentals. While the historic district restrictions have helped preserve the character of houses, few of the rentals would currently attract anyone other than student renters.
Before any recommendations are made to the City Council, commissioners and Menser agreed there should be more public engagement of these concepts.
The form-based code has been discussed at some city meetings and received feedback from a few property owners and developers in years past, but has not received much public attention beyond that.
“Our subcommittee that worked on it had open meetings, but we had very, very few members of the public attend those meetings,” Wolf said at the Dec. 14 meeting. “We never had a community-wide announced meeting about it.”
Planning Commission Chair Daniel Bollman (now the Vice Chair) noted that because they were reviewing the form-based code during the pandemic, it was generally impossible to hold large meetings for public comment.
“Before this was implemented, this was going to see a lot more daylight,” said Bollman, meaning it had been anticipated there would be a lot more public comment before any decisions were finalized.
Menser suggested the commission could hold an open house or invite property owners to a work session to talk about the rezoning.
“That will tell us more about what legs this has,” he said. “If the owners in that area aren’t supportive of this, it would certainly be an uphill climb.”
Wolf said the draft code presented previously was not considered finished by commissioners. He said the commission had wanted feedback from City Council before completing it, but there has been “very little” public review of the draft so far.
Making matters more complicated, because the conversation about the rezoning has happened over several years, only a few of the current commissioners and Council members have been a part of that discussion and so they will need to be familiarized with the ideas. Menser proposed going over the language of the draft form-based code over the next few planning commission meetings.
Before the discussion came to a close, Wolf noted City Council may want to be careful not to give up certain elements of the existing zoning code when it implements the form-based code.
“For example, our requirement for electric vehicle chargers to be installed in certain businesses or apartments that have parking above a certain size, that’s in a separate part of the code and it specifically lists which zones it applies in,” Wolf said. “Of course, the form-based code zones are not on that list. So, if these were rezoned to that, it would no longer apply to them.”
Menser also recommended cross-referencing current provisions with the Shaping the Avenue plan to see if there are any changes that should be made.
The matter is scheduled to be up for further discussion at this Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting (Jan. 25). The commission is also set to discuss revisions to the Valley Court Park plan that night. Public comment is invited near the start of the meeting. Find the agenda here.