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Thursday, November 29,2012

Can we park here?

Michigan Retailers Association wants to build a surface parking lot on a downtown parcel, despite the wishes of neighbors

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was updated Nov. 29

From his third floor balcony downtown, 28-year-old Stephan Moje has a clear view of a vacant, weedy eyesore below. A park might suit the .36-acre lot down there, he wondered last week. Maybe even a garden.

But a proposal working its way through the Lansing City Council calls for a surface parking lot on the property. Its owner, the Michigan Retailers Association, wants a special land use permit to be able to rent fewer than 20 spaces on the lot at 221 N. Pine St., in the shadow of the Lansing Towers apartment building between Ottawa and Ionia streets. The land is zoned for professional office space; renting parking spaces is contingent on the Council’s granting a special land use permit. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17.

Moje is asked about the prospects of a parking lot. “I mean, pretty much everywhere you look you can see a parking lot,” he says from his balcony, in plain view of the Hall of Justice to the west and the Capitol Building to the east. “There’s plenty of (pay-for) parking lots for miles around.”

The plan also faces opposition from the Downtown Neighborhood Association. In a May letter signed by its president, Gretchen Cochran, and nearby resident Stephanie Whitbeck, the association says that the spaces would serve “outsiders who are not associated with any of the commercial or residential uses at this location.” They also note that the plan is not compatible with the Design Lansing Master Plan, which calls for “downtown mixed-use” in the Planning Department’s special land use report.

“The findings do not support recommending it,” Whitbeck said.

However, the Planning Department is recommending approval of the special land use permit. Since surface parking lots exist to the west and across the street, the Planning Department says in an analysis that such a lot “is perceived to have a negligible impact on surrounding land uses” and “will not change the essential character of the area.” Moreover, the retailers association plans to buffer the lot with landscaping along the road, and the Planning Department says a surface lot would be an improvement of the vacant parcel now, which as of last week was littered with trash and weeds.

Until a year ago, an office building sat on the parcel. The Michigan Retailers Association rented it out to various tenants over the years after it served as its headquarters. It was demolished last November because a boiler had failed, which the retailers association said would have cost about $35,000 to fix.

Lansing Zoning Administrator Susan Stachowiak said the special land use permit makes sense for the property because it would allow for another office building in the future. Whitbeck has suggested the city could zone the lot for parking only, but Stachowiak said that’s not desirable.

The permit “does allow for the future use of an office building,” Stachowiak said. “We prefer to have buildings on lots rather than surface lots. If we keep it zoned (as it is), it still leaves the door open for someone to come along in the future to develop a building.”

Whitbeck questions why the building was demolished in the first place, which she predicts will make it difficult to ever build on the site again. “It was a huge mistake” to tear down the building, she said. “They created a problem for themselves.”

Bill Hallan, vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Michigan Retailers Association, said since the building was demolished, the retailers association has been “wondering how we can get some use” of the property. He said it’s an “eyesore, quite frankly,” as it stands now.

The retailers association owns five other properties nearby that are used for commercial and residential purposes: three on West Ionia and two immediately north of the proposed parking lot on North Pine Street. The proposed lot would not be for those properties but for other workers nearby, Hallan said.

He said the association gets “telephone calls all the time” from people responding to signs posted on the property about parking. For the 17 spots estimated to go in for government and private sector employees, rent will be $40 a month, he said.

Hallan has met with the neighborhood association and said the group “basically wanted us to treat it as a park.” However, the retailers association is against that plan, citing “liability issues. … It’s really a non-starter.”

Stachowiak also said that a special land use permits allows for special conditions that could be worked out between the two parties. While the Planning Department did not recommend any such conditions — such as aesthetics — “it doesn’t mean the Council won’t,” she said.

The Council scheduled a Dec. 17 public hearing on the permit. An informal hearing is scheduled for the Council’s Dec. 10 meeting. Council President Brian Jeffries said he is “open minded” and has not made a decision on how he’ll vote on the plan, but will raise questions in the coming weeks, such as how the association would deal with storm water runoff to avoid nearby basement flooding. Hallan said he did not know whether the retailers association would build an pervious surface lot, which is regarded as a more environmentally sensitive option.

Jeffries acknowledges that the plan isn’t going over well with neighbors, like Moje and Whitbeck: “It’s an issue that’s raised a lot of concerns. I can also understand concerns of the retailers association: It’s pretty much a piece of property not used for anything.”

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