Jan. 15 2014 12:00 AM

Early skepticism from East Lansing City Council members on proposed housing at Trowbridge Village Lifestyle Center


A student ghetto. Burning couches. A loss of commercial enterprise.

It’s a housing image the city of East Lansing has struggled with for years, and one City Councilwoman Ruth Beier hopes to avoid at Trowbridge Plaza. She fears a major redevelopment project there will devolve into a “Red Cedar Village.”

And her fears, while perhaps more extreme, mirror the questions and concerns of other Council members.

Local developer Kevin McGraw’s $24 million, mixed-use plan to upgrade the dated shopping center may face serious scrutiny from the Council going forward, as much for the type of housing that could come as the loss of a longtime family-owned grocer.

With 134 apartments proposed across two buildings (one four-story and one five-story), Beier fears a large influx of student housing could lead to a similar reputation to that of another East Lansing complex.

“I wouldn’t want it to be another Cedar Village,” she said of the infamous complex just east of MSU’s campus, the ritualistic site of couch-burning and public intoxication. (The Trowbridge Plaza is just south of the Red Cedar Neighborhood.)

Beier, who was elected to the City Council in November, is not alone with her housing concerns. Councilwoman Kathleen Boyle said she is “certainly not in favor” of the proposal as it stands now. Her main concern is if the amount of housing proposed will “predominate that space, then we’ve lost valuable commercial space.”

“I’ve really been disappointed with the proposal so far,” she added. “I don’t think we need more housing of that sort. We have more than 26,000 licensed housing units in the city of East Lansing. I don’t see a crying need for more.”

Beier believes the site is dated and needs to be redeveloped. However, she also said she is opposed to any tax incentives that suggest the site is blighted or contaminated, such as a brownfield credit.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Darcy Schmitt confirmed that McGraw is seeking brownfield assistance to clean up the site. Approval for that is separate from the various special-use permits being considered by the East Lansing Planning Commission. Only the City Council votes on the tax abatements, she said.

“I don’t think you can make the case” for a brownfield, Beier said. “From what I have read so far, there is no contamination there. And I don’t know if it qualifies as blighted. Unless I find some reason to change my mind, I wouldn’t support a brownfield credit or any kind of develop ment credit. I don’t think the city needs to subsidize it.”

Other Council members interviewed for this story are taking a more guarded position on the project at this point.

“It seems like that site is constantly changing,” said Councilwoman Diane Goddeeris, referring to revised site plans that have come to the city. “It still seems fluid.”

Councilwoman Susan Woods, who like Beier was elected to her first term in November, declined to comment at this stage. “I think that it has a long road to go before it gets going.”

Mayor Nathan Triplett could not be reached for comment.

The Planning Commission tabled the proposal after its meeting last week after reportedly hearing more than two hours of public comment. It is not on the commission’s Jan. 22 agenda, Schmitt said, because the developer is considering how much of the site plan to revise.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation is merely advisory to the Council, though “the City Council does put a lot of weight on the recommendation,” Schmitt said.

Why Goodrich’s can’t stay

Closing for six to eight months plus renovation costs was not an option for Goodrich’s Shop-Rite

Goodrich’s Shop-Rite, the family owned business based in East Lansing’s Trowbridge Plaza, is unable to close for six to eight months to renovate the 26,000-square-foot grocery store.

Such were the terms Goodrich’s faced as local developer Kevin McGraw looks to put $24 million into upgrading the dated shopping center just west of Michigan State University’s campus. Goodrich’s co-owner Steve Scheffel is also unsure whether the store could afford a new lease that would have tripled its rent.

Therefore, Goodrich’s — which has operated in the Lansing area for 76 years — is likely to abandon its Trowbridge home, even though the East Lansing City Council is yet to vote on McGraw’s proposal.

“Chances are pretty good it is” going to close, Scheffel said Monday. “That’s the best I can tell you. It still has to go before (City Council) before they put the tombstone on us.”

“I can’t close down the store for eight months,” Scheffel said. “I don’t have $1 million to $2 million (for renovations) in my bank account. That was why the one and only lease presented to us was simply undoable.”

McGraw’s plan calls for two new buildings for student housing, offices and retail and renovating the Goodrich’s space. It was tabled at a city Planning Commission last week after dozens of residents reportedly showed up asking for the plan to be revisited. The commission will ultimately make a recommendation on the project to the City Council.

Yet media reports surfaced after that meeting that Goodrich’s will have to close when its lease expires this summer. McGraw announced that he had already finalized a lease agreement with a new grocer to replace Goodrich’s.

“I did not want to make this about Goodrich’s, because it’s not,” MLive.com reported McGraw saying to the commission. “I’ve got to tell you: We tried.

There’s not a … landlord in town that doesn’t want to keep … people who are as good as Goodrich’s.”

McGraw could not be reached for comment.