Council member George Brookover’s comprehensive argument against approving a site plan and Special Use Permit (SUP) to establish a fraternity at 532 Ann St. won the day by default on Tuesday, as City Council voted 2-2 on the application — and thus not approving it — in a meeting chock full of housing business and discussion.
Mayor Ron Bacon was absent Tuesday (he also missed the March 8 Council meeting) and the tie vote doomed the application. Brookover and Council member Lisa Babcock voted against the site plan and SUP.
The denial of the application came after a number of residents spoke out against more approvals of SUPs for fraternities and sororities in general and cautioned Council to consider the impact of Greek houses on neighborhoods and the ability of law enforcement to respond.
And while Council didn’t approve the fraternity on Ann Street by virtue of a tied vote, they did unanimously approve the site plan and SUP for a fraternity at 251 W. Grand River Ave on Tuesday.
Further, approvals for three Class III rental licenses were pulled from the consent agenda and deferred until mid-April, to permit the City Attorneys from Giamarco, Mullins and Horton to review a number of legal concerns brought up by Brookover.
Brookover’s main concern about the Ann Street fraternity application was “shoehorning” a fraternity into a building that wasn’t designed for this type of communal living.
After making the motion to approve the site plan and SUP — motions must be in the affirmative — Brookover announced that he would vote against it, counting off that his negative vote was for “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight reasons,” as he thumbed through the site plan review.
Brookover, during the public hearing portion, had grilled the applicant — Paul Schultz of Delta Psi Alumni Housing Corporation — about the nature of the building. In essence, it has 14 beds and individual, locking rooms, along with a main kitchen on the first floor and an additional, smaller one on the third. It is currently being used as additional boarding space — an annex house — for a sorority, Schultz said.
Going through the site plan and requirements for the SUP, Brookover explained how he suspected each point would fail to be met.
“Traffic access: The site shall be designed and developed to provide safe and effective access for all forms of travel and to minimize impacts on adjacent public facilities,” Brookover said. “Well, c’mon, who are we kidding? We have a 40-person fraternity, which can’t meet at the fraternity house, is going to try to figure out some place to meet across the street. No offense to you guys, I understand this. No offense to the fraternity, I’m sure it’s a great fraternity. But I don’t believe any more in sticking a square peg in a round in East Lansing, in these neighborhoods.”
He continued, specifically honing in on the lack of a large, central meeting area.
“Again, I don’t think this site or this building was designed to be a fraternity or a sorority house or a co-op or a group living situation,” Brookover said. “And what we’re now starting to develop is a hybrid group living thing, because of something that happened across the street. And I don’t think that this is what this site was designed for or is compatible with.”
Fully on a roll, he summed up his argument against approving the site plan and SUP.
“Now I wanna say something,” Brookover said, pausing, “not that I didn’t say anything just then. To me, the difference between this site and the last one is the last site was specifically built to be a group housing situation. It was planned with parking, it was planned with specific bedrooms. It had a large getting-together or community space. And this particular type of use doesn’t have those things. Down the line, I’m really concerned that if we keep doing this, we’re going to have a fire or something like that in a space like this and we’re all going to be sorry.
In the end, Brookover moved Babcock to vote with him, as she had a similar concern given the shared kitchen and other fire risks.
Brookover explained that he was OK approving the fraternity at 251 W. Grand River because the structure was specifically designed for group living with appropriate parking, meeting space, bedroom design, commercial kitchen, and so on.
Babcock was supportive of the fraternity application for the Grand River fraternity because the location is amid a number of other student rentals and Greek houses. This is not the case for the 532 Ann St. building.
Issues raised by non-student residents primed the overall conversation about housing and students.
Two Bailey neighborhood residents spoke during public comment, where they expressed concerns about the proliferation of student housing and asked for Council to take action.
The first, Cindy Herfindahl, outlined how in the 34 years she and her husband have lived on Meadowlawn, the number of “rentals” in the six adjacent houses has tripled, going from one to three. She noted that she lives in a rental overlay but it doesn’t seem that way. She noted that parents of Michigan State University students are buying houses for their children to live in while they attend school. Herfindahl added that this practice is legal, but that with it the “intent of the overlay is diminished or non-existent.”
“Frankly, I’m tired,” Herfindahl said. “I’m tired of having to go deliver cookies to new student residents. Tired of asking them to be more aware of their behavior and their neighbors. Tired of having to call P.A.C.E. And tired of the upheaval when the property turns over. And residents find themselves being the impetus for enforcement because we’re the ones living around it.”
Herfindahl told the assembled Council members that she and other neighborhood leaders had partnered to address these issues and were working with Tonya Williams, a neighborhood resource specialist on the East Lansing Police Department’s Community Engagement Team.
Along with Herfindahl, Ed Wagner spoke to Council as a representative of the Bailey Community Association Board, reading from a letter sent to Council.
The letter — which ultimately requests Council put a moratorium on approving SUPs for fraternities and sororities until the policies and procedures for doing so are improved — cites a number of issues caused by the presence of Greek houses: “As long-time residents of the Bailey neighborhood, we know first-hand what it’s like to live near fraternities and sororities. The apartment building at 128 Collingwood recently transitioned from an apartment complex into a fraternity. Since the transition, there has been much more litter on the lawn and sidewalk, broken glass on the sidewalk and road, large amounts of garbage in the alley, and an increase in traffic in the area as students look for parking to attend parties. In November of 2021 a student died in our neighborhood after a fraternity party in Bailey. This tragic event and irresponsible behavior lead us to believe that creating or expanding additional fraternities would be detrimental to our neighborhood and could undermine the academic purposes of the University’s 2-year on-campus residency policy.”
Another Bailey resident, Konrad Hittner, spoke during the public hearing on the Ann Street fraternity application, but was mostly concerned with the fraternity at 251 W. Grand River Ave. that Council had just approved.
Hittner had two concerns: The ability for law enforcement to respond to issues and address them, and primarily that under MSU’s current rules regarding sophomores living on campus, an approved frat is effectively approved off-campus housing for sophomores.
“I think you basically need to assume is what you’re really authorizing isn’t a fraternity composed of freshmen pledges, sophomore residents and upperclassmen who also reside in the house,” Hittner said. “I think you have to assume that the typical business model of fraternities — and sororities, as well — is that the sophomores are the ones that live in the house. And the upperclassmen are the ones who live in what Mayor Pro Tem has aptly described as ‘annex houses.’ So when you just approved a 40-bed fraternity house for Grand River Avenue, you’ve now given the license to that organization to have 40 sophomores move off campus into that house with a commensurate number of upperclassmen scattered nearby or elsewhere. So I don’t know that consolidation is an appropriate characterization of what is likely to happen. I think what you’re doing is you’re expanding sophomore off-campus housing opportunities.”