In East Lansing, Critical City Center II Review Begins Today

Jun 26, 2012

For years, East Lansing has struggled over what to do about the derelict buildings at Grand River and Abbot Road.  Some say an ambitious, multi-use development--City Center II--could be transformational.   That  proposal enters a crucial phase today.  The city council begins what could be the final discussions involving Strathmore Development’s $105-million downtown development plan.  WKAR’s Mark Bashore reports on what could be “high noon” for the seven year old public-private venture.

When the East Lansing City Council holds its special meeting today , critical number crunching is at the top of the agenda.

Don Power has been studying City Center II as a council member for only about six months, but he’s been asking lots of probing questions about the project.  He’s worried about the city’s existing $12-million development debt, disclosure issues and Strathmore’s sometimes controversial history.  Power and other officials say it’s pointless not to consider the bottom line first.

“If the numbers don’t work, then, very frankly, it ceases and stops and that point,” he says. “There’s no sense in going beyond that.”

Power’s become concerned with several of Strathmore’s plans for City Center II.  One of them is what he describes as the “student” orientation of a proposed restaurant, bar and theater.

“The project was sold on the premise that it would be high end,” he says. “A performing arts theater, high end restaurants to go with it attracting new and different people.  This now starts now to erode my vision of that.  I have no problem with students, obviously, but that’s a student kind of establishment, not somebody who goes to a high-end theater show.”

For months, Power has also stressed the importance of vetting Strathmore itself.  One reason City Center Two’s dragged on is the city asked for more time to investigate Strathmore’s past.  It includes several failed projects and financing arrangements.  Power admits he’s concerned, but says he’ll proceed objectively.

“There’s a litany of failures and whatever, which gives me a great deal of pause,” he concedes. “But I also know, being fair, that developers have failures.”

Others on the council offer a more optimistic view of City Center II. They point out that Strathmore’s plans for the site have been scrutinized and approved twice since 2008.  Councilman Kevin Beard says he’s already comfortable with the non-financial aspects of the project.

“The height of the building, the scope and scale of the development, the particular mixes and uses, in my mind, have already been settled,” he says. “We’ve already agreed twice at the planning commission level and twice at the city council level that this plan should move forward.”

Beard emphasizes the need to develop the run down 5 1/2 acre space and get it back on East Lansing tax rolls.  He’s impressed with the scale of the mixed use plan by Strathmore principal Scott Chapelle, calling it a potential game-changer.  Still, the public-private project would add another $18-million to East Lansing’s development debt.  He acknowledges that the financing plan has to be solid.

“Either his representations of leases and lenders and commitments and money to work with is correct and true and it’s there, or it’s not,” he says.  “And if it’s not there, then I cannot vote for it and it will not move forward.”

The council is relying on data and interpretation in a just concluded Plante-Moran study of the project paid for by Strathmore Development.  Repeated attempts by WKAR to speak with Strathmore president Scott Chapelle for this story were not successful.

Councilman Don Power calls the plan under review Strathmore’s “best and final” proposal.  He says today’s special meeting could finally determine whether the derelict downtown space regains life or remains in limbo.  For WKAR Public Media, I’m Mark Bashore.

Today’s City Center II work session with the East Lansing City Council runs from 5 to 7 pm at 54-b District Court, Linden Street, East Lansing.