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East Lansing downtown affordable housing proposal sparks parking concerns

A top-down rendering of the proposed 122-unit affordable housing complex in downtown East Lansing.
American Community Developers and City of East Lansing
A top-down rendering of the proposed 122-unit affordable housing complex in downtown East Lansing.

Dozens of community members in East Lansing are voicing opposition to a proposal that would replace much of a parking lot downtown with an affordable housing complex.

Residents crowded into the Hannah Community Center Wednesday night to speak at a Planning Commission public hearing for the project. It would replace part of the ground level parking lot on Bailey Street with a five-story building that would include 122 affordable rental units.

The developer proposing the project said units would be reserved for people making between $30-80,000. Residents at the complex would be able to lease out permit parking spots for vehicles in the city's garages.

Several businesses owners with storefronts adjacent to the lot said removing motor vehicle parking would discourage customers from visiting the area.

Dave Bernath owns a record store on East Grand River Avenue in front of the proposed development.

"I'm all for affordable housing too, but I just hope it doesn't happen behind the store that I've had for 46 years," he said. "It's definitely going to impact, and I don't think it's going to be good."

The city leases 530 Albert Street from a private owner to operate a parking lot. The proposal would turn the lot into an affordable housing complex.
City of East Lansing
The city leases 530 Albert Street from a private owner to operate a parking lot. The proposal would turn the lot into an affordable housing complex.

Tim Dempsey, Interim Director of Planning, said the city recognizes a distinction between "the availability of parking and the perception of the availability of parking."

Excluding unique high-traffic instances like Michigan State University football game days, he said the downtown's car parking spots currently reach 65% occupancy at peak hours in a day, with about 1,000 spaces available and most located in parking garages.

"I think from that standpoint, we've got lots of assets, it's how do we get people to utilize those and realize that they're in structures largely," Dempsey said.

Sally Potter, general manager of Eastside Lansing Food Co-op, pushed back against encouraging visitors to use parking garages, arguing customers "hate parking ramps" and that "surface parking is everything to small business."

She said the housing project would effectively force local businesses to close.

"If you pass this, all 15 small businesses on the 500 block (of East Grand River Avenue) are done," Potter said. "But the landlords will be okay, because they'll get some national franchisee to take those slots."

Business owners formed an organized opposition to the development in advance of the meeting. They created an organization, Citizens to Protect East Lansing Access, as well as started a petition urging the city to preserve the parking lot.

The proposal comes from the American Community Developers, a real estate agency that specializes in affordable housing projects. It takes advantage of tax credits from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Chris Young is Vice President of American Community Developers. He noted the part of the Bailey parking lot to be used for the project has a private owner who leases the space to the city. He added the owners were already planning on terminating the agreement to replace the lot.

Young said he's tried to reach out to nearby business owners to speak with them about the project.

"Affordable housing, obviously (in) United States is a key need, in the state of Michigan it is, and in the city of East Lansing," Young said. "I went to school here, my wife went to school here. We have a history here. And we do want to work with everybody."

While most attendees at the hearing criticized the proposal, some did express support for the new development.

East Lansing resident Nathan Werner said he's also concerned about the city's parking stock. But he argued the project would help generate more activity downtown and make it less reliant on support from students.

“Opportunities for working families and young professionals to live downtown are few and far between, however, student housing is plentiful," Werner said. "If we want to try and obtain more balance in our community, enabling our downtown businesses to weather the ups and downs of the university calendar, we have to encourage these types of opportunities.”

The Planning Commission is set to continue discussing the housing project at a meeting later this month.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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