Sept. 30 2015 12:19 AM

City Council candidates weigh in on Park District blight

It’s hard to miss the massive blighted buildings that take up entire city blocks in East Lansing on the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue, stretching onto Evergreen Avenue.

The most egregious eyesore, that sprawling, grim structure that was at one time an old bank building, sits vacant and derelict. The East Lansing City Council tried for more than 10 years to advance development projects that ultimately fell through for one reason or another.

But those buildings could see new life with new rules for selling public property and a new cohort of people running for the City Council election this November who have bold ideas and a professed determination to redevelop the area.

For example, Mark Meadows, a former East Lansing mayor and former state representative, said he wants to demolish the blighted buildings until the city determines what to do with the land, an action that en tails thorny legal and financial challenges. He said he thinks people would rather look at a field than a row of abandoned buildings. Meadows served on the City Council beginning in 1995 and was elected mayor in 1997. (Mayors are appointed by the Council from its own ranks.) He stepped down in 2006 to run for a House seat in the Legislature, where he served until he was term-limited in 2012.

“I want to tear them down,” Meadows said. “I absolutely want to tear them down. And that doesn’t impede development; they’re gonna come down no matter what.

“This is an issue I hear at literally every door that I knock on,” he said. “Nobody skips it; that’s their No. 1 issue, so I think it has to be a priority for the new Council.”

Meadows said that the company that ends up purchasing the publicly owned portions of the Park District — or repurchasing the privately owned portions, which includes the massive former bank building — would likely have to demolish them anyway.

For the public properties, that developer could end up being DTN Management Co., which resubmitted its plan to transform seven buildings on Evergreen, Albert Avenue and Abbot into a multi-use development project that would include senior housing, retail space, parking and rental spaces for families after the project failed to garner the necessary 60 percent of favorable public votes to begin development.

Voters rejected the 60 percent rule, lowering the steep requirements for selling public property after DTN Management Co. withdrew its $70 million proposal in 2014. Now developers would need only a simple majority.

This is just one of the most recent hiccups in a long and complicated legal history that ultimately led the massive former bank building and others near and behind it to share the same fate: a waiting game punctuated by great hopes and squabbles with developers short of needed cash, or in this case, needed votes.

But two other City Council candidates, Erik Altmann and Steve Ross, have also taken bold stands on the future of the muchmaligned Park District blight and what some critics consider the easy use of tax incentives to encourage development.

Altmann is critical of the way Council members have dealt with developers. He said he thinks the developer always ends up getting the upper hand in the negotiation, something he’d like to change.

“We have been outmaneuvered there for years,” Altmann said.

To change that, Altmann said he wants to consult a panel of experts to review the city’s legal options. He also said he wants to publish “as complete a history as we can cobble together of that property,” which would include the various mortgages, liens, tax records and anything subject to FOIA law, including emails between developers and city officials, so everyone can get a clear picture of the long and what he calls “tortured” history of the Park District.

“Nobody understands what’s happening with that project,” Altmann said. “You know, nobody does.”

Both Altmann and Meadows say they’re also not interested in the plan that DTN resubmitted on June 4. And Ross, like Altmann, also said it should be a priority to publish more city documents to help clear the historical haze and create a more concrete understanding of what went wrong with the city’s blighted corner.

“We hear city officials say we have to be patient,” Ross said. “I think people’s patience is wearing thin at this point. Something needs to be done and it needs to be done soon.”

He said he thinks part of the reason there hasn’t been development there is because developers think “they can hold us hostage until they get what they want.”

Altmann and Ross said they also want to take a stern look at the amount of tax incentives the city approves for development projects.

From 2005 to 2014, the city reimbursed $1.4 million in taxes to developers for various projects, according to city documents. City officials approved a total of more than $49.4 million in tax reimbursements from 2004 to 2014 that will be reimbursed in the coming years. But other candidates in the Council race, like Shanna Draheim, Jermaine Ruffin and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, seem to take a different approach when it comes to the use of tax incentives for development and the Park District.

Ruffin agrees that the area has been “a blight to our city for over a decade.” But he said it’s difficult to determine what will happen with the area until more concrete proposals come forward and until it’s clear who the owner of the privately owned portions will be going forward, after an Cleveland-based real estate investment trust called Developers Diversified Realty assumed control of the large bank building in a foreclosure auction in August of 2015.

Ruffin said he does like the DTN plan for the public property pieces of the Park District, however.

“I think DTN has been a good partner with the city,” Ruffin said, adding that he thinks “it could be a major shift for our downtown.”

He also said he’s generally supportive of using tax incentives to encourage development because they can be good tools for encouraging a denser downtown area, a portion of the city where it’s much more expensive to develop, a point Draheim agreed with, though she said she thinks “we’ve probably used them more than we need to.”

Triplett, on the other hand, said he stands by the city’s decision to encourage development with tax incentives because he said those projects wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and the tax money that comes to the city as a result is worth the money spent on reimbursing developers.

As far as the various and failing plans for the Park District goes, Triplett said, “They’ve only not worked out for one reason: and that’s because the key parcel on the corner there is privately owned.”

That it is privately owned means the city is limited in what it can do. Basically, it can watch what happens, or come to the table if developers invite them.

So in the meantime, Triplett said he’s been speaking with constituents every day, and while they want to see the area redeveloped, he said they generally understand that the city has to be “cautious and diligent.”

“And with most things in life, if the solution sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Triplett said.