Nov. 11 2015 12:32 AM

East Lansing Council aims to tighten project oversight

For many East Lansing voters the recent election was a referendum on developments and tax incentives. But how a new City Council is going to handle those is not entirely clear even to the candidates who benefited from those sentiments.

“I think there will be a delay in development,” Councilman-elect Mark Meadows said. The reason? “Every candidate, Eric [Altmann], myself — everyone — was for using tax incentives for the right types of projects. What that is, I can’t tell you.”

Meadows said he hopes the Council will develop guidelines on when and how tax incentives should be used and what they should look like. Such a move would not impact those incentives already approved by Council, only those moving forward.

This election saw unprecedented involvement by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce The Chamber backed Meadows and Shanna Draheim, who also won. But it lost big time with the defeat of Nathan Triplett, a two-term Councilman and the Council-appointed mayor. With his defeat and Altmann’s victory, the fivemember Council will likely swing to a more cautious approach to incentives.

Chamber President and CEO Tim Daman said his organization “hopes development is not going to be delayed,” but he said he understands that it will take the three new Councilmembers time to “understand” how city government works.

He acknowledged that the Chamber stumbled with “some assumptions” in the race, such as the strength of Triplett and higher-than-expected turnout in two neighborhoods angered about developments.

One is the Bailey neighborhood, where neighbors have been dismayed by a city decision to shut down the community center there. The other was the Flower Pot neighborhood, which lies between Trowbridge Road and Kalamazoo Street.

To the south, Flower Pot neighbors are upset about the redevelopment of the Trowbridge Shopping Center. To the north, they are angry about a development plan on the former Michigan State Police headquarters property. That development would see residential units for students tall enough to invade the privacy of the Flower Pot homes nearby.

Daman said that on Election Day, as the only incumbent on the ballot, Triplett took the ire of the voters.

Other community frustration over development also played a role in Triplett’s defeat, Meadows said. Those concerns center on the stretch of buildings between Abbot Road and the People’s Church on Grand River Avenue. These buildings have long been an eyesore and a target for redevelopment. For nearly a decade, developer Scott Chappelle worked with city officials in an attempt to bring to life a very complicated development in that area of the city. It was known as City Center II, but in 2012, the deal between Chappelle and the city died.

“When I was knocking on doors, everyone — bar none — said that corner is a concern,” Meadows said. “They want something there that will be a priority.”

A “ trainwreck” is how Altmann, an MSU professor who served on the Planning Commission, described the corner. On the “City Pulse Newsmakers” television show last week, Altmann said the failed development has left the legal status of the property in question and that other developers “are not going to touch it” until the city clarifies its status.

“We need to do what we can to get that property into the hands of somebody who can build something there,” Altmann said. “There are steps we can take to make that easier. One of the things we need to do is collect a history of all the mortgages and all the tax liens and emails between the developer and city staff and all the stuff that has gone on there over the past 10 or 15 years and publish that as a resource on the city’s website.”

Both men concede that development in centives are important tools, but they note there are deep concerns.

Altmann said developers have essentially received a free pass when seeking subsidies.

“The problem has been that their use has been excessive over the past 10 years and there has been no critical assessment of why subsidies are necessary for a given project,” Altmann said. In the past decade, he said, developers have presented their projects and announced what subsidies were necessary to carry the project out — and the Council would essentially give its stamp of approval without any critical assessments.

Meadows, a Councilman from 1996 to 2006 and the Council-appointed mayor for most of that time, said there needs to be more focus on the use of incentives, but there also has to be serious focus on holding developers accountable. He used the examples of a downtown building to which a fifth floor was added without Council approval and the installation of an MRI in a medical building in direct defiance of the Council. Neither developer faced reprimands for those moves.

“That’s not acceptable,” Meadows said.

Said Altmann: “We need to leave development subsidies on the table as one potential tool, but we need to apply them judiciously. We need to do our homework. We need to ask for accountability. This is not rocket science.”