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East Lansing nearing a decision on controversial affordable housing proposal

Dozens of community members crowd the audience and sit before the East Lansing City Council ahead of a public hearing.
Arjun Thakkar
Dozens of community members crowd the audience to speak at the public hearing for the Albert Avenue affordable housing project.

The East Lansing City Council may have a decision by the end of the month on a proposal to convert a surface parking lot downtown into an affordable housing complex.

But the plan is proving controversial with some local business owners.

Dozens of community members filled the Hannah Community Center Tuesday to voice opposition to the housing project. Developers want to construct a five-story building with 122 affordable rental units at 530 Albert Avenue. The land is currently a ground level parking lot off of Bailey Street behind the 500 block of Grand River Avenue.

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

Several business owners on the block said they're worried about losing the parking spaces their customers use to visit downtown. Jack McDermott works at The Peanut Barrel, a restaurant in the neighborhood. He said nearby businesses could go under if the plan proceeds.

“Two years from when the shovel hits the ground until it’s open, and that’s if it’s on time," McDermott said. "My Peanut Barrel, with the best patio in town, might not be there in two years if this building is approved."

Businesses and residents have formed the Citizens to Protect East Lansing Access, an organization whose purpose is to stop the development from moving forward.

Opponents of the project said they support affordable housing in East Lansing, but they argue the proposed location is the wrong place to build it.

"This is not one of those 'oh, do it, butnot in my backyard,'" said city resident Dudley Smith. "I don't think anybody here is saying that ... there are lots of place we can put this kind of thing near downtown that doesn't damage the local businesses, doesn't take away the last parking lot."

While the majority of attendees criticized the project, some did speak in support of the additional housing.

Roy Saper has owned an art gallery downtown for decades. He said the project would generate more activity for businesses and give more low-income residents a chance to live in the city.

“The city council strategic planning has stated for years that affordable housing is a goal and objective for East Lansing," Saper said. "That is precisely what you have before you. This your opportunity to say yes to the need, and make affordable housing available in downtown East Lansing.”

"A more populated downtown becomes a more vibrant downtown," Saper said. "And that activity becomes a magnet for additional activity. Businesses stay open longer hours, vacant spaces become more desirable for entrepreneurial pursuits, and the creation of more businesses, particularly those that are unique, locally owned and operated."

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.

American Community Developers, the affordable housing company putting forth the proposal, has said the apartments would appeal to young professionals hoping to move to the city, with units restricted to individuals earning between $30,000-80,000 a year.

The plan began facing public scrutiny earlier this year at a Planning Commission public hearing, largely over the loss of car parking.

Josh Vermaas, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, said the proposal would be a convenient place to live for MSU employees who don't own a car.

"Many of (the people I work with) don't live in East Lansing because they can't afford it," Vermaas said. "Having more options that are close to downtown I think are gonna be good ... it's just the right place to build affordable housing."

City officials have previously cited a study that indicates parking ramps are being underused, with only 65% of spots being used on peak occupancy days. The proposed development would be adjacent to both parking ramps on both Charles and Bailey Streets.

Sally Potter, the general manager of the Eastside Food Co-op in Lansing, argued visitors who drive won't use parking garages because they're "not safe" and less convenient. She said she expects several businesses will be forced to close if the development is approved.

One by one, those small businesses, which I've run for years, are gonna go away," Potter said, snapping her fingers to represent storefronts being made vacant. "Because the margins are too thin, and every customer is too important. And you're taking away their most valuable asset: parking."

The East Lansing City Council will consider a vote on the affordable housing project in two weeks.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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