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Wednesday, December 18,2013

Now what?

Five questions to consider as a new developer is brought on for the Red Cedar Golf Course redevelopment

by Andy Balaskovitz
Local officials announced last week they had gone to the bullpen to bring in a new player to help redevelop a 61-acre former golf course on Lansing’s east side, replacing one of the original developers for reasons not immediately apparent.

Lansing’s Joel Ferguson and Columbus, Ohio’s Frank Kass announced their partnership at a press conference hosted at the Lansing Economic Area Partnership’s REO Town offices Thursday. LEAP President and CEO Bob Trezise, Mayor Virg Bernero and Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann — a key player on the infrastructure side — joined Ferguson and Kass in elation over the transformative potential of the $125 million project. Given its scale and location, they say the project could be the most important in the Midwest.

But as the Red Cedar Renaissance project builds momentum (again), a series of unknowns remains. They include, but are not limited to, the jettisoning of original developer Chris Jerome — whose family owns vacant car dealerships adjacent to and across the street from the golf course — and how much the developers will pay the city for the land. Some key questions:

Who is Frank Kass and what happened to the Jeromes?

No one’s saying much about the breakup of Jerome and Ferguson, the original team chosen for the project instead of four others that submitted plans as part of a Request for Proposals last year. Original designs included an amphitheater and a hotel along with commercial and residential spaces.

Jerome, who spoke by phone from out of state after last week’s press conference, declined to comment for this story. Ferguson offered a terse, “This is our team” without elaborating. Trezise said the city has “the right guy” in Kass with great potential for finding investors. Bernero said it’s his understanding that Ferguson and Jerome “chose to go in another direction.”

Relationships aside, the Jerome family still owns prime real estate around the golf course in former car dealerships on the north and south sides of Michigan Avenue. They could choose to develop it themselves or sell it to another interested party, potentially with increased values after Ferguson’s and Kass’ plan takes shape.

Ferguson didn’t rule out buying at least one of Jerome’s properties, the former Sawyer Pontiac dealership on the same side of the street as the golf course.

“When this development is up, that property’s going to be worth a lot of money,” Ferguson said of the other dealership, Story Oldsmobile at 3165 E. Michigan Ave. across the street.

Trezise said Kass was tapped for his ability to bring investors and tenants from outside of the region — as well as experience, which is something Jerome didn’t bring to the table.

“They seem to really grasp doing expensive, urban redevelopment projects,” Trezise said, referring to Continental Real Estate Companies’ efforts to develop portions of the two-mile stretch between downtown Columbus and Ohio State University.

Kass, Continental’s CEO, compared it to downtown Lansing and MSU, with Red Cedar in the middle.

“This is going to be the beginning of filling in that gap,” Kass said. “This is not my first rodeo.”

How much input from charrettes will be included in final design?

In the coming months, LEAP will help facilitate public planning sessions to solicit ideas from residents about how the development should look. How walkable is it? How much green space will remain? How will traffic flow? These are a few questions that residents will weigh in on during the charrettes, a process that allows stakeholders of all sorts to offer ideas and suggestions to shape the project.

But how much of that will actually make it into the final design? Hard to say.

A rendering posted on a website related to Ferguson Development is considered a “working model” and differs from renderings when it was a Jerome/Ferguson project. (The website, ferguson. danielfederspiel.com, features Ferguson’s company, though the page banner promotes the law firm, Scott Norton Law. Ferguson was unaware the site existed last week.)

Either way, the design has changed at least slightly in the way buildings and parking is situated, which means the new team has committed to some work on the layout.

Ferguson stresses that the renderings are just preliminary. “We think the people in the community will add a lot of value that will tweak what our thoughts are,” he said. “There’s a real activist community over there. They want the best for the city and community and we do too. We’re really open to how the people feel.”

What will developers pay the city for the land?

Also hard to say. Trezise said all 61 acres were last appraised at about $10 million — roughly $5.5 million for the 12.5 acres along Michigan Avenue that Lansing voters approved selling in 2011 and “less than that” for the rest, which voters approved to sell in 2012.

But the appraisal is also just a “guide” for the final purchase price, Trezise said.

“We might be able to negotiate that price with the developers. We might get a little less, we might get more,” he said. Recovering property values, nearby developments and floodplain constraints are a few of the factors that could change the selling price.

“The property is not going to be just given away, I can assure you of that,” Trezise said.

Ferguson, however, said the “real bonanza” for the city comes after the sale price in the form of new income and property taxes.

What is the market for mixed use, particularly retail?

The goal of the “high-end village” project is a mix of student and young-professional housing, a hotel, a restaurant and commercial retail. The southern half away from Michigan Avenue is intended to be a recreational green space. Trezise is encouraged by trends on the residential side, but what about retail — particularly at a site that will directly compete with Lansing Township’s Eastwood Towne Center?

“Because of the unique location of the property itself, I think it can attract certain kinds of retail and restaurants that are not currently around — but, again, that’s just our goal,” Trezise said.

Indeed, Red Cedar is uniquely positioned — it’s not your average development site. It thrives on high traffic and a close proximity to large employers, said Shawn O’Brien, senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis’ commercial real-estate office. Lacking those and a “critical mass” of density lead to struggling projects, he said, particularly in greenfields.

When will polluted water discharges into the Red Cedar River be addressed?

The development and the redesigned floodplain are like two trains on separate tracks but nonetheless depend on the other to keep moving.

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann has for years raised the flag for improving the Montgomery Drain district, which discharges storm water into the Red Cedar River at the south end of the property.

Ferguson says this work enhances the commercial development.

“The stronger we make the environment and the open space,” Ferguson said, the stronger the overall development will be.

Lindemann has crews onsite taking soil borings to “determine the stability of soils” in the watershed and inventorying infrastructure. Essentially, Lindemann is designing a system that will “clean and polish” water runoff before it reaches the river.

“The outcome of that is going to be huge,” Lindemann said, referring to the scale of the environmental results.

Lindemann’s project is in conjunction with the development, since he can’t design a filtration system before Ferguson’s and Kass’ design is finished. A series of public hearings and permit approvals also need to take place.

“All of this data we’re collecting now is going to be a foundation,” Lindemann said.

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