Why Is the Planning Commission Debating the Regulation of Dinnerware? Meet East Lansing’s Special Use Permits.

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Graduate Hotel (foreground) will have a rooftop restaurant called The Trophy Room.

East Lansing’s Zoning Code doesn’t require – or even suggest – that the Planning Commission weigh in on whether a bar should serve beer, wine, and cocktails in glass or plastic. But last Wednesday, the Planning Commission got into this very subject.

The discussion centered around the concern that a customer at the soon-to-open Graduate Hotel’s rooftop restaurant/bar – to be called The Trophy Room – might throw something over the balcony outside and hurt or even kill someone on the sidewalk, ten stories below.

The Graduate Hotel already has obtained the state-required liquor license to serve alcohol. But in East Lansing, a Special Use Permit (SUP) is also required. That’s why the matter is before the Planning Commission – for a recommendation to City Council, which will make the final decision.

East Lansing’s Zoning Code specifies what should be taken into consideration in an SUP application of this sort. The parameters are fairly limited. The Zoning Code says, for example, that nearby churches should be consulted. Peoples Church, right next door, was, and they gave the go-ahead.

Other than that, this is the major concern the Zoning Code says should be considered for this application: “The establishment shall not cause or continue an undue concentration of similar uses in the neighborhood such that liquor establishments and trade become a dominant influence or feature of the district or neighborhood.”

That concern didn’t come up last Wednesday. What did come up is plastic versus glass. Why? In practice, SUP applications have turned into opportunities for Planning Commission to recommend, and City Council to enact, lots of special conditions on business operations. This is done under a zoning code clause that allows for consideration of “the use and enjoyment of adjacent properties” with regard to possible “pollution or nuisances.”

SUP approvals for restaurants have varied in conditions and have included conditions such as those restricting hours of business operation, requiring the drafting of security plans in collaboration with the police, and even mandating how outdoor furniture be stored out-of-season.

In East Lansing, it has become a regular thing for applicants to be asked to submit draft menus with SUP applications. And the menus get discussed, as they did last week for The Graduate Hotel’s application.

In East Lansing, SUPs aren’t used only to regulate restaurants selling alcohol.

They’re also required for some shops that sell alcohol, marijuana operations, fraternities and sororities, and tall buildings.

Responding to objections about how the SUP system leads to what some see as over-regulation, City Council did recently vote through an ordinance change backing off regulation of the sale of packaged beer, wine, and liquor. Now, only if a shop wants to use more than 25% of its floor area to sell alcohol must it go through the trouble of getting an SUP.

But many other types of commercial uses still require SUPs. And, in many cases, City Council has approved SUPs with conditions that restrict all sorts of things that the Zoning Code doesn’t specifically suggest they regulate.

Is this a case of overreach of East Lansing government into private business, enacted through the Zoning Code’s SUP system? Or is it a case of Planning Commission and City Council carrying out their fiduciary responsibility to protect the public good?

That all depends who you ask.

A view of the rooftop area, still under construction, at the not-yet-open Graduate Hotel in East Lansing. (Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.)

That the Graduate Hotel wants to serve alcohol comes as no surprise.

Initially at last Wednesday’s meeting, when the Planning Commission formally considered the SUP from The Graduate Hotel to sell alcohol in the Poindexter lobby café and rooftop Trophy Room, it seemed as if the SUP application was going to sail through without much discussion.

The plan for a rooftop bar was clear to everybody from the start of this particular project’s proposal years ago. The site plans recommended by Planning Commission and approved by City Council in 2017 and 2018 were for a new Graduate Hotel and included plans for a lobby-level restaurant and rooftop bar-restaurant.

But last Wednesday, Commissioner Jack Cahill asked whether perhaps a condition of SUP approval should require the use of plastic dinnerware in the outside rooftop bar area, to avoid anyone on the ground being hurt by a dropped or thrown glass.

Commissioner Joseph Sullivan responded that the idea of plastic glasses “might clash with the upscale restaurant vibe they’re going for,” and Commissioner Cynthia Williams agreed.

At that point, Commissioner Chris Wolf rejoined that, “Looking at the upstairs menu, I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘fine dining.’ Maybe the vibe they want is that, but the food doesn’t seem to show that.”

Several commissioners pointed to the jello shots on the menu.

Chair Dan Bollman then raised a question about whether the choice of dinnerware products falls into the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission. He invited Vice Chair Kathleen Boyle’s opinion.

Boyle said she agreed that the menu suggested “casual dining,” and noted that many restaurants use plasticware outdoors. But, she said, she thought that was their choice, not necessarily a matter for the Planning approval process.

Boyle said she would be interested to see if dinnerware regulation has shown up in other SUPs. City staff said they would look into it.

Segments of the draft menu for The Trophy Room of The Graduate Hotel.

Williams then said she really didn’t think it productive to “regulate to the least common denominator” in terms of behavior. She said the risk being discussed was ultimately the hotel’s liability problem.

But Cahill objected, saying that an object dropped from the tenth floor is “potentially fatal.” Commissioners Ed Wagner and Lauren LaPine indicated they shared Cahill’s worry.

Boyle then raised a new although related concern – about the height of the barrier around the rooftop, a feature that was designed and approved years ago.

Well into the discussion, representatives of the Graduate Hotel were asked to speak to the issue by Commissioner Wolf, who at that point in the conversation said he was feeling uncomfortable mandating specific dinnerware materials, as it approached “meddling.”

In response, the Graduate Hotel’s representatives said they had experience elsewhere – including with rooftop bars – and suggested this had not been a problem. The chain’s business model is specifically to provide near-campus hotels in college towns aimed at celebrating alumni.

Where will the decision land?

Last Wednesday’s meeting was only the first discussion of this application at Planning Commission. Before the matter can go to City Council for the final decision, the Planning Commission will typically discuss an SUP application during at least two meetings, and sometimes several more.

Some SUP considerations have gone on for months at Planning Commission, a particularly challenging situation for small businesses and local franchise owners that don’t have the deep pockets of chains like The Graduate.

The current City Council did recently take action to reduce SUP requirements for packaged alcohol sales, as noted above. Might they take further action changing the approach to SUPs?

On the whole, the SUP requirements could be reduced, or theoretically even increased, depending on what happens with the new zoning code proposed for a large section of East Lansing’s downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods. But whether that new “Avenue Form District” form-based code will be adopted – and in what form – remains to be seen.

Last week’s Planning Commission meeting saw no discussion of the “Avenue Form District” code.

Want to learn more and weigh in?

You can find the Graduate Hotel’s Special Use Permit application, including menus, here. You can write to Planning Commission via Community Development Analyst Jake Parcell, and you can also speak at public comment during any public meeting.

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