‘A great idea in a stupid spot’: The fight over a parking lot in downtown East Lansing

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A parking lot is the site of hostile contention in downtown East Lansing.

“It’s a great idea in a stupid spot,” said Sally Potter, a longtime customer of the Peanut Barrel at 521 Grand River Ave., adjacent to a surface lot at the corner of Bailey Street and Albert Avenue.

The “idea” is a proposed land development that would turn the Bailey Street surface parking lot into a five-story, 122-unit affordable “workforce” apartment building. The actual location of the lot is a combination of two parcels with different owners. It would reduce the size of the lot by two-thirds.

The City of East Lansing City Council will vote on the proposal Oct. 17.

The east side of the lot, closest to the gates, would remain unchanged. That portion is owned by the City of East Lansing. The rest, about two-thirds of an acre, is owned by the Metzger and Fabian families. Those families have been leasing the lot to the city for parking use since April 2000.

If built as currently proposed, the 122-unit building would include 50 studio apartments, 62 one-bedroom apartments and 10 two-bedroom apartments. The ground floor would include around 1,100 square feet of commercial space and would not include any on-site parking.

The project would also add 68 bike parking spots including 34 indoor and 34 outdoor.

At the forefront of those upset are business owners that occupy the block. They’ve formed an organization called Citizens to Protect East Lansing Access (CPELA). The organization has opened a Change.org petition with more than 650 signatures in protest, along with paper signatures of more than 900, presented to Mayor Ron Bacon at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“This proposal is missing a comprehensive landscape plan, including preserving the 40-foot-long iron fence located at the front of the property,” said Al Bay, one of the owners of the Wild Goose Inn, a local bed-and-breakfast adjacent to the lot. “The guests of the Wild Goose Inn need a place to unload and load their luggage. Some plan must be made so they can safely unload and load their belongings.

“This proposal is bad for East Lansing, resulting in a decrease in the number of visitors to our town… We want to work together to find a better alternative.”

Justin Booth, chair of the Bailey Community Association, said this proposal will harm the current local businesses that occupy the block.

“Parking is not merely a convenience, but an essential lifeline for retail and service businesses,” Booth said. “Removing parking spaces directly threatens the economic sustainability of our local enterprises on the block.”

The City of East Lansing does have more than six parking ramps within a three-block distance of the lot. However, opponents to the proposition say that parking ramps are inadequate and unsafe.

“I am not going to go in a parking ramp at this stage in my life,” said Rebecca Pryor, an East Lansing resident who identified as elderly.

Some residents and visitors are also upset due to the fact that construction is scheduled to take 18-24 months to complete. Visitors argue that the project will make it tedious to visit what the downtown area has to offer. They are also unhappy with the amount of parking available downtown. Others have suggested that the downtown’s infrastructure cannot handle another project because of the flooding issues the city has had during storms.

The City of East Lansing has said that parking in the city is “underutilized,” citing an analysis of the city’s parking system. But the data is from the summer when East Lansing’s population is at its lowest.

Supporters of the project argue that affordable rental housing, specifically for non-students at Michigan State University, is critical.

“Not everyone at MSU is a student,” said Josh Vermaas, an assistant professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MSU. “There are plenty of folks who I work with who don’t make as much money as I do. Many of (the people I work with) don’t live in East Lansing because they can’t afford it.”

Vermaas added that the city is in need of more housing options that are closer to downtown East Lansing.

Rental rates are estimated to fall at $930 for studio apartments and $1,195 for one-bedroom apartments. Opponents argue those rates are not affordable, but the developer on the project, American Community Developers, said the rates are set by specific guidelines set forth by the U.S. government.

A.C.D. is a Detroit-based firm that specializes in affordable housing projects. The firm is seeking federal and state financial assistance for the construction project and would be severely limited in who they could rent to.

“We hear one thing all the time: ‘We’re for affordable housing, but just not here,’” said Chris Young, vice president of A.C.D. “Affordable housing is a key human right.”

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