While there is much excitement about the possibilities for improving Valley Court Park under a plan to spend $2 million on renovations, members of East Lansing’s Planning Commission and Downtown Development Authority expressed concerns this week about some of the ideas pitched by the project team.
Concerns centered on the plan to pave over a wide swath of what is now the center greenspace of the park to create a new market pavilion with parking for food trucks and cars circling around it and the lack of details about dedicated outdoor performance space.
The project as currently designed would install a permanent covered market pavilion (with open sides) in a new location, add public restrooms, create drainage management features and add other infrastructure to enhance the downtown area. The pavilion could be used for other uses when the farmers market is not in session. But a main goal of the project is to help increase turnout at the farmer’s market, which is held in the park on Sundays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., June through October.
If the project is carried out as currently imagined, the new paved area would stretch almost from the existing basketball court to the existing tennis courts. There would be 24 pull-in pavilion spaces for vendors (adding a total of two more spots for market vendors over current capacity), 15 new parking spaces on the west end of the park to be used by food trucks and 13 car-parking spots east of the pavilion to be used by attendees.
The proposal also removes 17 parking spaces adjacent to the Valley Court Community Center and 14 spaces on the road to the south of the park. Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser said there will be a net gain of 21 spaces, though many of those would be taken by vendors during the farmer’s market, leaving a net loss of car-parking spots during the market.
The project is funded in part by a $1 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The City of East Lansing must find matching funds for the grant, meaning there will be $2 million available for the renovations.
Excitement expressed along with concerns at Oct. 26 Planning Commission.
“I view this as kind of the centerpiece of future projects for this part of the city,” Planning Commission Vice Chair Joseph Sullivan said during Wednesday’s meeting.
But despite much excitement over the project, the plan was questioned by some commission members and other citizens. A top concern was the placement of the pavilion in the middle of the park and paving over parts of the park.
“You can add my name to the tally of people who are somewhat skeptical about the need for new additional parking or additional paving in what is currently a green space,” Planning Commission Chair Daniel Bollman said.
While several commissioners acknowledged the need for parking in the area, some wondered if this is the best way to add spaces.
“I was surprised, though, to see that in this initial plan we’re going to be paving over green space in the park to put more cars in,” Commissioner Ed Wagner said. “I understand that you need rows for the vendors, but I’ve never seen more than one or two food trucks, and to have space for five or 15 seems a little grand.”
East Lansing resident Douglas Heilman pushed back against the decision to put the pavilion and additional parking in the center of the park. He also attended the Downtown Development Authority’s meeting the next day to reiterate his concerns.
“Putting this right in the middle of the park is going to eliminate so many options in the future,” he said to the Planning Commission. “I think it’s a big mistake.”
Heilman said he believes the project needs to be pushed to one side of the park to help preserve green space throughout the rest of the park.
The project plans also include repairs to the old brick Lansing Board of Water and Light building in the park. The plan is to do minor repairs to the building so it can be used as a dry storage space. At the Thursday DDA meeting, city staff said they are sorely in need of storage space in the downtown area.
Down the road, the BWL building could be used as a public space if more significant renovation occurs. At the Planning Commission meeting, Menser gave the example of using the building as a seasonal space for vendors, but was clear there are no plans in place for that sort of usage.
There are hopes for improved performance space at the park.
Members of the public and planning commissioners were excited by the potential of adding an outdoor performance space in the project. Resident Elinor Holbrook suggested events for the East Lansing Jazz Festival and East Lansing Film Festival could be held there. Heilman has suggested a bandshell-type design.
However, the proposal as it currently exists does not detail any new performance space.
“We want to have a performance space in the park,” Menser said at Planning Commission. “At this point, the concept plan is flexible as to how that happens and where it goes. I recognize there is no covered space for performance right now.”
Another concern is the potential for serious flooding in the park. The park sits in a low-lying area that has drainage problems, with the large green space turning soggy in heavy rains. The current proposal is causing concerns because of how much additional impervious surface would be added.
The plan does include channeling storm water through native plants that will absorb water, explained Trevor Bosworth to the Planning Commission. Bosworth is a principal with VIRIDIS Design Group, one of the two companies brought in to implement the project. VIRIDIS will work with Mayotte Group Architects. Both companies have worked on various projects in East Lansing, including on renovations at the Hannah Community Center and analysis of the problems at the Valley Court Community Center.
Wednesday’s public hearing at Planning Commission was just the start of an intensive review process for the project. Because the park is in the Oakwood Historic District, the Historic District Commission will need to grant a certificate of appropriateness before work can proceed. The project will also need to be approved by the City Council after Planning Commission makes a recommendation.
Discussion at the DDA on Oct. 27 mirrored that at the Planning Commission.
Menser presented the project to members of the DDA during Thursday’s noon meeting, conveying to them the concerns that had been raised at Planning Commission the night before.
Menser emphasized that the project is currently “conceptual with a capital ‘c.’” He said the project team very much wants feedback from the public to improve the design, calling it an “iterative process.”
In response, several members of the DDA provided their feedback. Luke Hackney said he was concerned that there is no active plan to restore a path from Oakhill Avenue down to the park for people using strollers, bicycles and other wheeled vehicles. Menser said such a path might come at a future renovation stage, but it’s not in the current design.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, sitting in for Mayor Ron Bacon, said she wanted to make sure people understand that some parking near the community center would be turned into new greenspace and that the pavilion could be used by families and organizations like the pavilion in Patriarche Park. She also named the drainage problem as an issue that needs to be adressed.
DDA member Jeff Smith said he was concerned the new paved parking area would simply become a parking lot for MSUFCU employees once that building opens. He wasn’t excited about the farmers’ market design, saying, “I think paving more in the area in downtown is heading in the direction opposite of where the trend is taking us [in terms of urban design].”
Several members asked for a good performance space design and less paving over greenspace.
But Lahanas, who is also a member of the DDA, said he thinks the design as presented “is a great concept.” He said the use of pop-up tents at the farmers market “is not doing it justice” and the park’s greenspace is “underutilized.”
Lahanas also argued for removal of the tennis courts, which are expensive to maintain. He suggested taking out the tennis courts and replacing them with a bandshell. Others suggested moving the basketball court to where the tennis courts now stand.
City staff were wanting the DDA to vote on Thursday on a recommendation of the project to City Council. But DDA members said they aren’t ready to provide a recommendation to Council.
The city is seeking public participation in the design process.
The coming days will see several opportunities for residents to learn more and share their thoughts on the project proposal.
City Council reconvenes Tuesday, Nov. 1, with public comment open at the start of the meeting.
The project staff will hold a dedicated community input session from 4-6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Valley Court Community Center. All are welcome to attend.
Planning Commission next meets Wednesday, Nov. 9. Commissioners are expected to vote on formal recommendations to Council at that meeting, and public comment is open at the start of the meeting.
Then, the Historic District Commission meets Thursday, Nov. 10. This commission wields a fair amount of power on this project under the law, as it has the ability to withhold permission to proceed. Public comment is open at that meeting.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission will meet Wednesday, Nov. 16. It is expected to discuss the project then after receiving public comment.
There is a tentative plan for a public hearing and vote on the site plan at the Tuesday, Dec. 6, City Council meeting, but that could change depending on adjustments project implementers need to make.
Community members are encouraged to learn more about the project at cityofeastlansing.com/pavilion and email their reactions and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. City meeting schedules and agendas can be found here.