WEDNESDAY, Oct. 18 — Following months of debate surrounding a proposed affordable housing project in downtown East Lansing, the City Council voted 3-2 last night to reject it.
For nearly six months, downtown business owners had rallied against the plan, citing the loss of customer parking if the surface lot in the 500 block of Albert Street were developed, as the majority owners of the property were seeking to do under pressure from the city government. Over the summer, they formed Citizens to Protect East Lansing Access and collected over 900 signatures against the development.
In the long-awaited roll call vote, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Councilmember Dana Watson voted yes, while Mayor Ron Bacon and Council members George Brookover and Noel Garcia Jr. voted against it. Bacon cast the deciding vote.
“My primary objection to this is overall that, with this conversation around parking, there’s something more there,” Bacon said. “I’ve never really kind of trusted the numbers on parking in general. I think there’s something more to that on both ends.”
The Metzger/Fabian family, which owns 71% of the property, had submitted a plan created by American Community Developers to build a five-story, 122-unit, 30,000-square-foot apartment and retail building on Albert between Bailey and Division streets. The city, which owns the remaining 29%, has leased the rest from them for surface-level parking for over two decades.
The city prompted the family to pursue development and only offered a short-term lease this year after a series of longer leases. The city also reduced what it had been paying and told the family it would have to start paying property taxes for the first time since the lease arrangement began in 2000.
Bacon praised the development company.
“There’s been some raw deals over the years here, and I think people are real gun shy with that,” he said. “We know the difficulty of doing any type of attainable or affordable housing because other people have talked about it and failed and backed out at every front. You’re the only people who have really come all the way to the forefront with a real effort.”
In voting no, Brookover said, "I don’t necessarily think it’s compatible with surrounding uses given all of the issues that have been put in front of us. We have kind of a finished product, but we don’t have a finished product.”
Brookover acknowledged that “people with property interests have the right to pursue those property interests” but issued a line of caution to those who have been the most vocal in their opposition.
“There’s a lot of other things that can go on this site. This may be a question of ‘be careful what you ask for,’ because something else may go in there,” Brookover said. “I hope not. I hope maybe, through this process, there can be a dialogue so that the developer, the business owners, the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) and the planning commission can really sit down and start talking about how to cooperate to make this workforce housing, and parking, and business and competing property rights all work together for everyone.”
Garcia said he felt compelled to listen to the many business owners who expressed their opposition to the project since it was first revealed to the public at a May 25 DDA meeting.
“I just feel like the businesses aren’t being heard here. They’re screaming not only here, but at the planning commission meetings on Aug. 9 and Aug. 23. They were in huge opposition at that public hearing. They’re just not being heard,” Garcia said.
“I really feel like this is going to hurt our businesses, and I’m not going to vote for something where our businesses are going to suffer,” he added.
Watson said she decided to support the plan after hearing the public’s comments and reading the many letters sent to the city regarding the development.
“I’ve shared before that if this was now that I was looking for a place to live, I would not be able to afford to live here,” Watson said. “The people who live the furthest out should not be the people that make the least amount of money. I love this idea, and I’m going to vote in favor of it. But I also want to let everyone know that I’m hearing your concerns, and I want to work with you all along the way. I hope that this is a more income-diverse community because of decisions like this.”
Watson and Gregg both asked lead developer Chris Young numerous questions on parking, rent prices, and other factors prior to the roll call vote. Young said that the project would legally remain designated as affordable housing for 33 years, were it approved.
After hours of deliberation, though, it failed.
“Parking is really my chief concern. It’s really a broad concern. All arrows are pointing to parking, and that’s just typical of cities. I’d hate to see that be the full opposition to affordable housing," Bacon said.
Bacon added that the city has a lot of work cut out for it, and that these conflicting interests would not simply go away as a result of striking down the project.
“I will say the surface parking is going away. I don’t see how that survives this long term,” he said. “But I think there is a larger question around parking. As I move around, I just don’t see it functioning the way I think it’s supposed to downtown.”
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