July 18 2012 12:00 AM

Big talk boils down to a handful of options for the Red Cedar project


Thunk, plop, thunk, plop, thunk. 

Last week, Lansing received five proposals to develop 12.5 acres of the former Red Cedar Golf Course on the city’s eastern fringe. With sky-high hopes for regional transformation riding on the project, the proposals plopped on the porch with a lighter thunk than expected.

Even before Lansing voters approved selling part of the golf course last November and keeping the rest as a park, the parcel’s strategic location and size attracted big talk the way mud holes draw elephants.

Former Lansing mayor David Hollister, who tried to develop this key stretch of Michigan Avenue for years, called the decision “probably one of the most critical decisions of the Bernero administration up to this point.”

“The potential for making that a gateway and connecting MSU to the capital would be a dream fulfilled,” Hollister said. 

Another big thinker, and a member of the panel that will choose the project, is Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. His master plan to clean up the polluted Red Cedar River would envelop 49 acres of parkland surrounding the development and stretch into the Frandor shopping center to the north, making the project an environmental as well as an economic watershed. Lindemann said the Red Cedar project needs to “meet the vision of something spectacular.”

“We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s spectacular,” he said. Without blushing, he compared the project’s potential to boost the area’s economic activity, tourism, environmental cleanup and regional cooperation to the 1969 moon landing.

However, a quick rundown of the proposals doesn’t immediately call Apollo 11 to mind. A Texas company that specializes in mega-sized college housing harped on one note — 1,000 beds of mega-sized college housing — and not the regional chord the city wanted to hear. A plan to build an aquarium is the boldest by far, but it’s a Power Point worked up in two days by a local graduate student with no financing or development team. (See related story, “Keri Litwiller swims with the big fish.”)

That leaves the city with three “live-play-work” complexes that mix housing, retail and offices in various combinations. One of the three, from Lansing developers Chris Jerome and Joel Ferguson, adds an amphitheatre and extensive plug-ins to the surrounding park. The other two are seven-story mixed-use complexes with few distinguishing features.

Is there a glass slipper — the long-hyped gateway from MSU to Michigan’s capital — in this short pile of shoeboxes?

Bob Trezise agreed that it was disappointing to get only five responses, but he cautioned that a “big process” is only beginning. As president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, or LEAP, the lead organization on the Red Cedar Project, Trezise is one of the people who will pick a project to recommend to the mayor and the City Council. Last week, he packed the proposals into the family car to scrutinize them during a family vacation at Torch Lake.

Karl Dorshimer, also of LEAP, said he’s “pleased” with the five. “It’s not so much quantity as quality,” Dorshimer said. “There’s several in there that look pretty good.” 

In the next two weeks, an eight-member panel will score the proposals: Trezise, Lindemann, Dorshimer, Lansing Parks Board President Rick Kibbey, Parks and Recreation Director Brett Kaschinske, Lansing Planning and Neighborhood Development Director Bob Johnson, mayoral Chief of Staff Randy Hannan and Ken Szymusiak, also of LEAP.

Dorshimer expects to have a choice ready for the mayor and the Council in late August.

But that’s only a start. With so many players involved in the Red Cedar project, from Lansing to East Lansing to MSU to Frandor to the eastside neighborhood to Lindemann’s office, the five proposals are on the first tee in the morning dew. “When we select somebody, then the real negotiation, the real project comes together,” Trezise said. The proposals could be modified, combined, or rejected en masse. “None of the above” is also an option, although Trezise and Dorshimer said that’s unlikely.

Hollister is not on the panel, but as the grandfather of Lansing’s development renaissance, he urged the team not to rush. He’s dreamed of doing something special with the corridor between MSU and Lansing for “15 or 20 years.”

“We were never able to get that stretch [of Michigan Avenue],” Hollister said.

“We took care of the sin strip downtown,” he said, referring to the blocks east of the Capitol where adult bookstores were prominent. “We moved the marker. We cleaned up down to Sparrow [Hospital]. My dream was to have that developed all the way to the university. We talked about trolley, rail, we had a lot of dreams.”

Hollister said the handful of proposals, and the sketchiness of some of them, shouldn’t alarm people at so early a stage. 

“I’m disappointed there wasn’t more, but I still think there’s enough there to work with,” Hollister said.

The most comprehensive, ambitious and locally savvy of the five proposals comes from local developers Chris Jerome and Joel Ferguson, with housing for students and professionals, a hotel, retail and restaurant space and an amphitheater. The Jerome and Ferguson proposal is the only one of the five to include the neighboring former Story Olds and Sawyer Pontiac dealerships, which Jerome’s family owns.

The proposal comes in large and medium: a master plan covers the entire 60 acres; a smaller-scale version, minus sports field and some of the housing, covers the 12.5-acre site alone. Developers estimate the master plan “investment value” would exceed $100 million and “may become the largest mixed use project in area history.” (None of the other four proposals even took a stab at cost.)

No matter who ends up building the project, the amphitheatre may prove attractive for practical reasons. When builders scoop a foundation for the main development, along with Lindemann’s storm water management ponds and ditches, they’ll heap mountains of dirt that would cost a lot of money to bring to the site — or cart away. Lindemann said it will be tempting to draft that dirt into service as a grass-covered outdoor entertainment venue.

Of the five proposals, the Jerome and Ferguson plan has by far the most detailed plans for winning over the community. There’s a bow to the tight eastside neighborhood organizations and a full page acknowledging the extensive river cleanup and drainage challenges. In a bold flourish, the developers’ first planned public meeting would be “in honor of” the City Council “regulars” who scrutinize and often object to new developments.

The proposal is also the only one of the five to spar openly with potential competitors, including out-of-state mega-developers. “We shudder to think of the eyesores that would be built by these ‘usual suspects,’” the proposal reads.

If there’s a prime “usual suspect” in the campus housing business, it’s American Campus Communities, an Austin, Texas, company that also submitted a Red Cedar proposal last week. ACC runs 147 student communities totaling more than 97,700 beds across the country. Its Red Cedar proposal, a 1,000-bed dormitory with a ground layer of retail, has only one page laying out the “development concept” and many pages of annual-report-style financial information touting its recent growth from $350 million to $4.8 billion since going public in 2004. The proposal traces the company’s success to “maximizing occupancy and efficient management of our communities.”

That may sound good to an investor, but to others it might sound like packing the kids in as cheaply as possible.

Trezise wouldn’t comment on any proposals specifically, but had this to say on City Pulse’s TV show airing Sunday:

“It would be all too easy just to propose, right next to MSU, a massive undergrad housing complex. We do not want that.”

But Dorshimer said nobody, including American Campus Communities, will be dismissed out of hand.

“They might be from Texas, but if they have a track record and the proven ability to work with locals, they’re familiar with the politics and the bureaucracy, they could do well,” Dorshimer said.

Another proposal comes from DTN Management Co., based in Lansing Township. DTN proposes 845,200 square feet of offices (mostly medical), retail and housing, along with a restaurant, sports bar and specialty grocery. The company manages over 6,000 apartment homes in the Lansing area and built Riverwalk Apartments, directly across Clippert Street from the Red Cedar site. Recently DTN built the Hamptons of Meridian, the quilt-like mixed-use apparition that sprang from the alfalfa fields south of MSU two years ago, and is building The Heights at Eastwood retail and apartment project.

DTN proposes a “unique configuration of building design and shapes,” with a central parking ramp and medical office reaching seven stories.

The fifth player in the Red Cedar fivesome is the team of Southfield developers Plante Moran Cresa and Neumann Smith, which propose a “sensibly-scaled, complementary mixed use component for Lansing’s most important gateway corridor.” The Plante Moran plan has no map or drawing, but the project “is anticipated to rise approximately seven levels above the surrounding streetscape with purpose and place for the distinctive culture of Lansing.”

There is nothing in the proposal about the distinctive culture of Lansing.

“They’d have a steeper learning curve” than Jerome & Ferguson or DTN, Hollister noted.

The plan calls for “a viable suburban square” with parking, “upscale” shops, restaurants and five mixed housing types. The language is padded with all-things-to-all-people descriptors such as “well integrated but clearly distinguishable.”

Hollister said it’s not surprising to receive such vague proposals at first. “You’re not buying a project, you’re buying a partner,” he said. “It’s important that the partner they choose be open to community engagement, transparent in what they’re doing, and be consensus builders.”

Dorshimer said that’s just what he and his panel will look for.

“What’s the team, what’s their background?” he said. “Can they work well with others?”

In the coming months, the enormity of the Red Cedar project will likely test the limits of consensus building, but the gearbox for cooperation is in place. In June, the city contracted with LEAP, which has a regional focus, for development services in place of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., whose staff has moved to LEAP to work for Trezise, their former leader at the LEDC.

Trezise said there is “no way” the Red Cedar project could have been attempted 20 years ago. As long ago as a year and a half, Trezise said, the city of Lansing was talking with Lansing Township, MSU and Lindemann about the property.

“We knew we couldn’t come in there and say, ‘That’s Lansing property and the hell with all of you,’” Trezise said. “Now [the project’s lead organization] is LEAP, and we can portray it as a regional project with even more credibility.”

Back at the big-talk mudhole, Hollister suggested that the panel and the city look to MSU President Lou Anna Simon’s decision to put the new Broad Museum on Grand River Avenue, not far from the Red Cedar site, rather than “burying it somewhere in the university.”

“We’ve got to appeal to the creative class,” Hollister said. “This development links the university, the business community, the neighborhood groups. It really has the potential to bring it all together.”

To view the five proposals for developing 12.5 acres of the Red Cedar Golf Course, go to the Lansing Economic Area Parnership Website at www.purelansing.com