In its quest to spur downtown growth, the City of East Lansing faces a difficult task in juggling competing needs.
The most recent example came last week, when a clash between surface-level parking and affordable housing ended in favor of the former as the City Council voted 3-2 against a mixed-used development at 530 Albert St., the site of a paid surface-level parking lot.
Business owners and other concerned residents rallied against the project, citing the loss of parking as detrimental to nearby businesses.
In turn, some proponents of the development pointed to the 2023 Parking Master Plan Update, submitted by Walker Consultants on June 27. It found that only 65% of the city’s total public parking capacity was filled at peak hours.
The largest discrepancy came in the relative underutilization of the city’s parking garages, which encompass 86% of downtown’s 3,087 on- and off-street parking spaces.
In other words, with the exception of the six Saturdays each fall when MSU hosts home football games, there is enough space for visitors if they park in those facilities. The issue is that a disproportionate amount of the city’s downtown visitors seem to prefer surface-level lots — of which there are very few.
“Right now, we just have underutilized assets, particularly in the eastern end of our downtown,” Tim Dempsey, the interim director of planning, building and development, said. “That surface lot has capacity most days, and the Division Street Garage and Charles Street Garage have excess capacity most days.”
The parking study notably included at least one potential reason this is the case: Respondents said they feel safer parking at surface-level lots or paid meters than inside the the ramps on Charles, Division, Grove, Bailey and Albert streets and on M.A.C. Avenue.
Dempsey said the city is already addressing some of these concerns.
“We’ve done a lot of adjustments to make them safer,” he said. “We have LED lighting and cleaner elevator upgrades coming up in the Charles Street Garage this year.”
To address the disparity in supply and demand, Dempsey added: “I think it will take a combination of educating parkers and potentially looking at different rates to incentivize the use of parking structures.”
Walker Consultants wrote that a municipal system running from 80% to 85% capacity at peak usage times is “an ideal equilibrium” and suggested East Lansing has a ways to go before lack of parking would, in theory, become a pressing matter.
However, others see the excess parking as the necessary result of responsible urban planning. Mark Meadows, a former mayor and current candidate for City Council, is in the camp. He helped lead many of those planning efforts while he was in office
“You also have to build the parking system to accommodate the extraordinary demands of festivals, game days, all of that stuff. The fact that there were 289 or so extra spaces in the downtown area is meaningless. Of course there is, we built the parking system to have that,” Meadows said.
On housing, an issue that Meadows has long been passionate about, he said he, too, believes there’s a crucial need for more affordable options throughout the city, specifically in the downtown area.
“I’m completely devoted to the idea that we have more low-to-moderate income housing options within our community,” he said. “We need a diversity of incomes and other types of diversity within our community to keep it healthy and stable going forward.”
The most recent and reliable data available on East Lansing’s housing landscape came in the 2021 Residential Target Market Analysis. Conducted by LandUseUSA Urban Strategies, this study showed that a housing mismatch exists between what current and potential residents want versus what is actually available and affordable for them.
“Basically, it demonstrated that there’s a demand for housing within the city. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody,” said Daniel Bollman, a member and former chair of the East Lansing Planning Commission since 2015 who is also running for a City Council seat Nov. 7.
“It also indicated that there was a certain demand for single-family, detached houses, but also that there was unmet demand for a variety of other types of housing, like duplex units,” said Bollman, an architect and owner of East Arbor Architects. “Where those would go is the bigger question. Generally speaking, our downtown adjacent neighborhoods are pretty much built up to the point that, if somebody were inclined to build these slightly more dense, more active units, it would require the demolition of existing buildings.”
Meadows offered a few ideas of his own.
“In terms of where and how development can take place, we have publicly owned land in the Evergreen properties” — two lots on Evergreen Avenue owned by the East Lansing Downtown Development Authority — as well as “the city parking lot across from City Hall and other areas within the community that we can use as a hook to get more housing here,” he said.
Another obstacle in the city’s efforts to bolster its “missing middle” housing stock is the omnipresent student factor. Student demand for off-campus housing often stymies the chances for other residents — including downtown workers and university employees — to find their ideal housing fit.
“I don’t blame the students, but it’s largely because they can and do take the rental spaces from your average person. It’s a problem that I don’t have the answer to, but I would like to find it,” Bollman said.
This economic friction between the housing demands of students and the city’s other demographics is yet another indicator that the nationwide housing shortage isn’t a passing trend.
“This is going to require a certain amount of forward thinking from developers and landlords, but I don’t think anybody that has had their eye on the ball is going to tell you that there is no need to increase the amount of housing in the city,” Bollman said. “One of the ways to potentially do that is not to focus on doing large projects, but instead focusing on what we refer to as incremental developments in places where we could do a bunch of smaller apartments and help us gradually increase our housing stock.”
The housing study also suggested several ways the city could continue to add more units in the city, including by restoring or replacing vacant or blighted properties and encouraging the development of accessory dwellings (or “mother-in-law suites”) above residential garages or in detached cottages.
MSU student and East Lansing native Josh Ramirez-Roberts, the youngest of the eight City Council candidates, said said he sees great potential in mixed-use condos and similar types of owner-occupied units in shared buildings near the downtown area because they would create more opportunity for ownership.
“I feel like we’ve been building a ton of apartment complexes, because obviously that’s what developers and landlords want,” Ramirez-Robert said. “They want to be able to continuously make that money off of residents. But we should be looking to create new opportunities for affordable ownership, which would allow people to get in on the first level of the process and work towards creating wealth that they can carry on.”
Bollman referred to both parking and affordable housing as “equity issues.”
“We can read up on it, and ultimately it boils down to what we, as a city, are doing to address this issue of equity,” Bollman said. “It’s up to us to find a way to make both housing and parking work.”
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