Surprising 6-1 Split Vote on MSUFCU Project at Planning Commission

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Rendering of the proposed building as seen from the southeast. Dublin Square is shown to the right of the proposed structure.

We expected that, at Planning Commission last night, the MSUFCU proposal for a new 7-story office building downtown would come to a vote on whether to recommend that City Council approve the project.

What we didn’t expect was that Commissioner Chris Wolf would cast a “no” vote.

MSUFCU is proposing to build, at the northwest corner of Albert Ave. and Abbot Rd., an office building that would have a branch office and leasable office space on the ground floor. On the second floor would be space for “community” events allowed at the discretion of the credit union. Floors 3-7 would provide more office space used either by MSUFCU or tenants.

The building would replace public parking Lot 4, eliminating 33 parking spaces and providing none on site. (Drivers to the new building are expected to use the City’s parking lots and nearby garages.) The voters agreed in March to sell Lot 4 to the credit union for this purpose for $810,000.

The building as proposed would top out at about 105 feet. But it’s not the height Wolf has an issue with. It’s that, in his read, elements of the building go against what’s in the City’s zoning code.

The elements Wolf sees as problematic are caused, according to the architects, by putting a lot of building in a small space.

The project’s architect, David Mefford of Neumann/Smith Architecture, repeatedly explained in response to questions from commissioners that they’ve done the best they can fitting what the credit union wants onto this small lot.

Architect David Mefford at Planning Commission on Feb. 18, 2020 (photo by Raymond Holt for ELi).

Mefford said the reason there can’t be any area set aside for dropping-off and picking-up visitors to the building is that there just isn’t space for it on the small lot, given what the building must contain according to the credit union.

Mefford had a similar explanation for why the north wall – facing Dublin Square – must be built all the way up to the property line and be a solid 7-story windowless wall.

He explained that the small lot means a shallow building north-to-south, and so the designers had had to put all the “backstage” elements along the building’s north interior to create aesthetically-pleasing walls facing Albert Ave. to the south and Abbot Rd. to the east.

Just inside the windowless north wall will be things like the staircases and a lot of building equipment. On the outside will be solid concrete panels with brick embedded in them. This side has not been rendered by the designers, but the following image, which shows Dublin Square to the right, gives some sense of scale of the brick wall as compared to Dublin Square.

Wolf asked if the brick could at least be varied in color with a design that breaks up the visual mass. Mefford said some small accommodations in that regard might be made.

Elevation drawing of the proposed building’s north wall.

Erin Bowdell, the credit union’s Vice President of Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, added that art might go on that side, although she suggested that the credit union doesn’t want to install art only to see it made invisible later by later redevelopment on the Dublin Square site.

The west side of the building, along the alley, will have a loading dock for delivery trucks, including armored vehicles, and an alcove for trash and recycling pick-up. Inside the alcove will be various types of electrical equipment including a transformer.

Wolf noted that the City’s zoning code requires screening for the electrical equipment that is otherwise going to be visible within the open alcove.

The code indicates, “Loading docks, loading spaces and other service areas and external utility and mechanical equipment shall be located and screened to minimize noise, vibration, or visual impacts which may affect adjacent properties or residents within the development.”

But Mefford said they would have to cut more feet into the building’s first floor “programmatic” elements to achieve this. He said again that the site is extremely tight for what the credit union wants to build.

“Fitting all the key components [that the credit union has requested] into a building that’s more than a hundred feet tall and seven stories [on this small lot] is rather difficult task,” Mefford told the Planning Commission last night.

Wolf said he was “disappointed and surprised” by the communications that led to the failure to follow the code with regard to the alleyway screening.

The City has been trying to improve alleys, and all other developers have been required to do screening of service areas off alleys.

Wolf said the architects should find a way to follow the code on the screening. But Mefford said they could not eliminate more of the office space in the building to use for the screening.

Planning Commission meeting, July 24, 2019.

What tipped Wolf into a “no” vote related to the argument being made by the developers and City staff with regard to the “bonus allotments” question. This issue requires some background explanation, including two definitions:

Building coverage is defined as the percentage of a lot covered by a building. Ground coverage is defined as how much of the lot is covered by the building and all its features, including things like patios and paved walks.

If a new building in this zoning district (B3) comes to more than 80% of maximum building coverage or 85% of maximum ground coverage, East Lansing’s zoning code says it is supposed to offer a “bonus allotment” of a size calculated according to a special formula.

The bonus allotments are supposed to provide “public or private open space, free movement of pedestrian traffic, abundant light and air, and other related elements.” The idea is that a building is taking up lots of light and air when it is very large compared to its lot – so it should provide “extra” light and air via special features.

The MSUFCU proposal calls for 90% building coverage and 100% ground coverage.

Image from the site plan application showing how the new construction footprint would cover 100% of the lot land.

So, according to the formula in the zoning code, the building must also provide a “bonus allotment” of at least 4,050 square feet according to the code’s formula.

The credit union’s representatives and City staff are arguing that the interior second floor “community space,” which can be used for events specifically approved by the credit union, is the “bonus allotment.”

But this enclosed space does not provide extra light or air to make up for the mass of the building, so Wolf said he was “still unconvinced” of this argument as a way to meet the code’s requirements.

“We are hearing over and over about how tight the site is,” Wolf said last night. “What I’m getting from that is that the building is too large for the site.”

Wolf concluded he was “very disappointed because I was looking forward to this.” He said he has been a member of MSUFCU for 50 years, and, “I was really excited to see that they were coming into downtown East Lansing with an office building, which would be a boon to the city – something we have not had – but I just can’t vote in favor of it because of the ground coverage.”

In contrast, Dan Bollman, Chair of the Planning Commission, said he found the staff’s and architects’ arguments and justifications convincing. Bollman said he found calling the community space an answer to the bonus allotment requirement a  “clever solution.”

Bollman also said the concern about having a space for drop-off and pick-up (like with rideshares) was a reasonable concern for residential buildings but not so much for a commercial building like this.

The proposed MSUFCU office tower rendered as if looking northeast across Albert Ave. (Right now from this vantage point, you would see parking lot 4 and the dining deck of Dublin Square.)

Ultimately Commissioner Jack Cahill moved to recommend approval of the proposal to the City Council, and Jeff Kusler seconded it. Also voting in favor were Bollman, Kathy Boyle, Joseph Sullivan, and Cynthia Williams, bringing the vote to 6-1.

Boyle said that Lot 4 was a challenging site to develop because of its small size and she said the project would be a great benefit to the City. (It is being built without tax incentives and will bring in a significant sum.) She said she uses the community space provided by MSUFCU at other locations and sees community space at this location as a great addition to downtown.

Cahill indicated agreement with Boyle’s comments, and no comments were made by Sullivan, Williams, or Kusler.

If approved by Council, construction would be expected to start later this year and to take about a year. A lane of Abbot Rd. and a lane of Albert Ave. adjacent to the property will be closed for about a year for construction.

The construction containment plan in the application (above) calls for a closure of one lane of Abbot Rd. and one lane of Albert Ave., along with sidewalk closures, during construction. (The road closures are confusingly marked “permanent lane closures” on the image.)

A date has not been set for when Council will hold a public hearing on the project.

Mayor Aaron Stephens has been saying that the voters already voted on this project and approved it.

But the people who went to the polls on the land sale question voted on a general concept, not the details of this site plan.

It is Council that will cast the deciding vote on the details.

Note: Two seats are currently open on Planning Commission. Read more here.

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