The Latest Scoop on Downtown East Lansing Development and Happenings

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The outdoor rooftop space of The Rock bar at the new Graduate Hotel in downtown East Lansing in a photo taken in June 2021.

The Graduate Hotel is open but still doesn’t have a liquor license. The MSUFCU downtown office tower project is supposed to kick off soon, which means the demolition of three publicly-owned buildings is imminent. The social-space lane-closures on Albert Ave. are being extended through mid-August, with the Art Festival to take place Aug. 7-8. What about food trucks downtown, beyond the festivals? Those maybe coming soon.

Read on for details!

The Graduate Hotel is open. And, as we learned, if you hang out in the hotel lobby for an hour and listen to the comments of people coming in, you will hear a lot of “wows.” The lobby-level cafe is open now and welcomes the general public, not only hotel guests.

The lobby cafe of The Graduate Hotel in downtown East Lansing.

ELi recently got a sneak peek at the second-floor ballroom and the rooftop bar (shown above), but we also confirmed on Thursday that the hotel’s liquor license still has not come through from the state, so the Rock Bar on the rooftop is not yet open for service. Council gave the local approval for sales of liquor back in May.

The MSUFCU project is expected to start this month. According to East Lansing Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins, all the agreements have been signed and the project – just south of Dublin Square and just northeast of The Graduate Hotel – will “kick off” this month. That building will include offices, community-gathering space, and an MSUFCU branch (replacing the one near Peanut Barrel), with no on-site parking as the City hopes to have more people use its under-utilized ramps.

Rendering from MSUFCU

Rendering showing the north side of the planned MSUFCU building, where the land to be redeveloped meets the property of Dublin Square. (Dublin Square is shaded in, to the right.)

Expect imminent demolition of three publicly-owned buildings along Evergreen Ave. just west of the project site – demolition approved by a majority of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in March. To deal with the challenges to the credit union’s project posed by Paul Vlahakis, owner of Dublin Square, the 7-story credit union office building will be built three feet short of the property line shared with Dublin Square.

The future of the DDA’s Evergreen properties, on which over $5 million is still owed, remains uncertain. Public records indicate that the DDA’s income from the Evergreen Ave. properties will plummet with the demolition of 314 Evergreen Ave., shifting the debt burden to local property taxes.  Once the MSUFCU building is complete, the building will generate new property taxes, some of which will be tax-increment-financing captured and directed back to the DDA. The MSUFCU project may also pay additional income tax to the City, assuming that project does not only shift work and workers from other East Lansing spaces.

Meanwhile, there is no clear plan for redevelopment of the DDA’s Evergreen Ave. properties. The land will be worth even less with the demolition of the apartment building at 314 Evergreen, but that is probably part of the unspoken strategy; devaluing the public properties will allow for a bigger Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deal for whatever eventually happens with the properties, because a TIF plan captures the difference between a pre-development and post-development taxable value.

314 Evergreen Ave., a three-story apartment building owned by the DDA, will be demolished to facilitate the MSUFCU project’s construction needs.

The latest exclusive deal to possibly redevelop the Evergreen properties is held by River Caddis Development, but that deal expires in July. River Caddis said in January that the anchor tenant for their concept of “The CITDADEL” (an office building) has backed out. According to Cummins, the DDA will be having “a conversation” about the Evergreen properties and the agreement with River Caddis at its July 22 meeting.

The City will keep the Albert Ave. outdoor social space going through at least Aug. 15. That means it will continue through the weekend of the East Lansing Art Festival, which this year will take place on Aug. 7 and 8.

The space between Abbot Rd. and M.A.C. Ave., being marketed by the City as “Albert EL Fresco,” provides “outdoor seating and tables, rocking chairs, hammocks, decorative lighting and shade amenities,” according to a recent press release. “The space also includes a variety of fun activities and games, including giant Connect 4, cornhole and hopscotch.”

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Albert EL Fresco play space in downtown East Lansing.

The City is expecting to provide live outdoor music downtown this summer. See the schedule here.

You can catch Saturday morning free outdoor yoga at the Albert Ave. space at 9 a.m., starting on Saturday, July 9, while Friday evenings downtown feature “Trivia on the Street.”

At the Ann Street Plaza, MSU’s Wharton Center for Performing Arts is putting on a free dance party to Disney’s “Frozen” on Tuesday, July 6, from 5:30-6:15 p.m. That’s at the clock tower at the corner of Albert Ave. and M.A.C. Ave.

Cummins told the DDA at its June 24 meeting that the reworking of downtown spaces – led by his efforts – has been recognized by the Michigan Municipal League with a finalist nomination for their Community Excellence Awards. Only four cities in total made the cut. Cummins also told the DDA there has been a “significant increase in downtown foot traffic” from the public space upgrades.

Food trucks may yet come downtown. For years, downtown restaurant owners have in general been against allowing food trucks downtown because of the concern that trucks will draw away their profits while also not paying into the tax and fee systems that weigh on brick-and-mortar businesses in downtown East Lansing.

But now, the DDA appears to be moving in the direction of wanting to at least try another pilot program. Cummins told the DDA that research suggests that food trucks can help East Lansing’s downtown brick-and-mortar businesses by getting people to see coming downtown as a regular fun activity.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Krystal Jackson of Krystal’s Kitchen poses near her food truck, which currently sells food in Lansing and other nearby communities.

Several DDA members said at the June 24 meeting that they are particularly in favor of having food trucks on days that are especially unlikely to see trucks draw business away, like Mondays. DDA member Reuben Levinsohn – whose office is in REO Town in Lansing and who is an investor in Blue Owl Coffee there and in East Lansing – told the DDA that he is strongly in favor of food trucks because he believes it will boost the whole business area economically. Outgoing DDA Chair Peter Dewan agreed, saying “we are building a bigger pie.”

City Manager George Lahanas said he also doesn’t think it is “a zero-sum game” between trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. The City charges fees to food trucks to try to even out the fairness in terms of costs, but those fees may prohibit some trucks from being able to make the economics work, based on past experiences.

At the June 24 meeting, the DDA did not discuss the option of trying to lower costs for all the businesses, but the City Council has pulled back, during the pandemic, on fees charged to bars and restaurants. Levinsohn said it is costing Blue Owl about $7,000 per month to operate in downtown East Lansing and he said the addition of food trucks needs to be a long-term strategy.

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