Plans for a major renovation of Valley Court Park – including installation of a permanent pavilion – will go to East Lansing’s City Council to see what that five-member governing body has to say, according to Interim Planning Director Peter Menser.
Council will be asked to weigh in at a so-far-unspecified discussion meeting not because Menser thinks the plan is ready for final approval but because public and commissions’ reactions to the plan have continued to be mixed. Some people remain very unhappy with the idea of paving over the center of the park for the new pavilion, while others are excited by the design.
The East Lansing Planning Commission spent nearly an hour discussing the updated plans for Valley Court Park at its Jan. 25 meeting. Despite much back and forth between commissioners and Trevor Bosworth of Grand Rapids-based VIRIDIS Design Group, the design firm that created the plans, the meeting ended with little hope of the currently proposed plans getting an endorsement from the commission.
At its November 2022 meeting, the commission weighed in on initial plans, providing their own feedback along with concerns they’d received from the wider community. This was their first chance to weigh-in on the updated plans.
At that November meeting, both commissioners and residents complained about the lack of green space that would exist after construction. They also raised the issue of flooding in the park and whether construction would worsen it.
At the Jan. 25 meeting, Menser stressed that this planning commission session was not one for action, only discussion.
“There’s been a lot of public comment on this project and all of it is well received and we’re not ignoring it,” he said. “This is very much a work in progress. It can get kind of messy along the way as the project proceeds through some of the public process.”
Menser appeared overwhelmed at times, unable to respond to specific questions from the commissioners concerning grant restrictions or other finances. With little notice, after the recent departure of Planning Director Tom Fehrenbach, Menser was given oversight responsibility for five East Lansing departments in a city that also has no permanent director of human relations, no permanent finance director, and no permanent city manager. Additionally, two staff members in Menser’s home department of Planning recently resigned their positions.
“I don’t have all the answers tonight and I can get those for you,” he said. “I don’t have the financial part of the equation. I just don’t have it with me right now.”
East Lansing Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Cathy DeShambo stepped in to answer Planning Commission Chair Joseph Sullivan’s query concerning restrictions in the $1 million grant received from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to improve Valley Court Park
“It is specifically for infrastructure,” she said. “The project has to be allocated by 2024 and [grant money] must be completely spent and [construction] completed by 2026.”
ELi requested complete information about the MEDC grant under the Freedom of Information Act on Jan. 17, in order to share with the public the parameters of the grant, but the City has not yet provided the materials.
DeShambo cautioned planning commissioners against letting the idea of the farmers market overwhelm the project.
“In terms of the pavilion, and I know that we’ve all fallen into this trap of referring to it as a farmers market, but it’s meant to be a very flexible space that can be used in many ways at a pavilion in the Valley Court so it can be used beyond just market use,” she said. “We did ask that it maintain the size of the current market and possibly allow it to grow by a couple vendors. [We] also asked that it have bathrooms and some storage that we don’t currently have in that park. We also asked that the farmers market does have a performance space. It is a small performance space, it’s meant to be an intimate performance space. We didn’t ask for an amphitheater or anything large like that.”
Once Bosworth took the floor via Zoom, he walked commissioners through the revised plans that addressed several of their concerns, including drainage and tree removal.
“We’re minimizing the impact and minimizing the impervious area of the park to keep as much open space as possible,” he said. “In the original plan, there was a bay of parking on either side of the pavilion, [here] there are 24 dedicated spaces on market days and 24 for parking, 20-foot by 11-foot spaces based on current vendor needs.”
Bosworth explained that in the current plan, only two mature trees would be removed, a red maple near the existing basketball court and a white pine by an existing sign. Thirty-nine trees would be added, ultimately netting an increase of 42,000 square feet of urban canopy, according to his calculations.
Drainage would be addressed with an increase of 14,000 square feet of native plantings, utilizing rain gardens and bioswales to “uptake and cleanse that stored water and ultimately reduce the amount and the volume ever leaving the park.”
Existing honey locust trees at the edge of Valley Court would remain untouched.
Commissioner Matt Boyd inquired about the existing playground equipment, wondering if it would be replaced or merely updated.
“Our certified safety inspectors [determined] the cost of replacing what’s there would be similar to building new, and by building new it does give us a few more options,” Bosworth said. “Whether nature-based or tailored for specific groups, based on the scope that we’ve heard from the city, it should be more universally accessible.”
In response to another question from Boyd concerning updating the athletic courts, Bosworth said another plan would need to be developed to look at any repair or resurfacing of the courts.
There is also no plan to restore the ramp from Oakhill Drive to the park on the north.
Earlier in the meeting during public comment, East Lansing resident Doug Heilman expressed his frustration concerning the project.
“I’m very disappointed that not more was changed from the initial proposal,” he said. “I was told it was going back to the drawing board from the comments I heard from other people and the comments I had expressed. I’ll reiterate [that] the pavilion is too big, it’s not placed in the proper place [and] it’s in your face.”
In the middle of his impassioned remarks, Heilman paused to compose himself before he continued.
“I want to know where the data is and the studies are that have made people believe that this is the right size for this market. I’ve been to the farmers markets over and over and over and even when it’s busy, it’s not so busy that we need all these extra spaces,” Heilman said. “It’s overkill. They’re not a long-term solution to anything. You can buy organic produce at the supermarket and local produce at the supermarket. And the park needs money to maintain it as it is.”
“It should be a glowing beautiful green space that East Lansing is proud of and to put the money to it,” he said. “Always been a problem with drainage. It’s a weed patch. It frequently goes unmowed for weeks and weeks. If you can’t maintain the park as it is, how are you going to maintain the park and the pavilion? I will be doing everything I can to see that it doesn’t go through the way it is.”
Bosworth and DeShambo stressed the flexibility of the future structure.
“[The pavilion can host] different types of markets, art fairs and music events,” Bosworth said. “[And] 250 to 350 people can fit under the pavilion. It really is a multi-purpose pavilion.”
“The ability to gather outside has become so much more important [during the pandemic],” DeShambo said, “and to have some protection from the weather, some kind of covered space, and to use [it] to gather. We may be able to incorporate some screening or pull-down doors to make [usability] last into the cold weather months.”
Commission Chair Sullivan ended the discussion with his own thoughts.
“[I’m a] big fan, big proponent of having broader uses of the building,” he said. “[But] there’s just too much for this park. It just doesn’t have much of an identity [and] there’s a lot going on here, [the] BWL building, the tennis courts, basketball [court], roundabout gardens. I would ideally like to see the [pavilion] building not in the smack dab middle of the park. I think that’s a consistent theme we’re seeing here. If there’s a way to put that in the west end by the BWL building or by the tennis courts – for the life of me, I can’t figure why the bandshell is facing out into the middle of nowhere.”
In earlier meetings, Heilman had recommended the same idea – putting the pavilion toward the west end of the park, preserving the central green space.
“As someone who lives just a few blocks north of here, I spend a lot of time in this park,” Sullivan said. “Take into consideration what the public is saying.”