Park District Area Request for Qualifications/Proposals (RFQP)

To: Administrator Lori Mullins and Director Tim Dempsey

Cc: City Manager, Mayor, and Council members

Subject: Park District Planning Area Request for Qualifications/Proposals (RFQP)

Ms. Mullins, we have obtained and reviewed the draft RFQP document. We recognize the difficulty that must have been involved in its preparation and appreciate the work by you and your staff. However, as professionals in our various fields and as residents of East Lansing, we are deeply troubled by it.

Below, we are recommending some major changes in the process that the Department and the City should find helpful—more functional and able to yield more creative and more beneficial outcomes. Also, we are recommending some new content that is needed as the process advances. As citizens and residents of East Lansing, we want to begin with the issue of transparency and openness and proceed to matters pertaining directly to the RFQP draft:

1. Whether intended or not, a one-day time span between the current draft document becoming available to the public and its discussion before the City Council on Tuesday night at a session that included public comment is most frustrating and tends to diminish trust by East Lansing residents in their City government. You should know that a number of citizens are highly critical when they are given a chance to comment on a very important topic and have not received the document with enough time to study it and become informed sufficiently to comment intelligently. Since the time span for advanced sharing of documents is set by the City staff and is totally in the City’s control, a one-day span between making the document available to the public and its consideration before the City Council strongly detracts from openness and transparency that the City government espouses and that the residents strongly desire.

2. The overarching concern that we have about the RFQP pertains to its process, including the ambiguity and uncertainty that is now evident in the document and that process. Ambiguity and uncertainty are enemies of sound planning and sound development. They frustrate the solicitation and receipt of sound, quality development proposals. For example, hardly diminished by the RFQP are the huge uncertainties about the infrastructure improvements needed or planned, circulation patterns desired, emphasis on pedestrian and bicycle access, protection of the scenic park and other areas, and other public systems that affect the “subject site”. These matters are not treated in a descriptive physical plan. Also, the priority uses and the magnitude of those priority uses preferred by the citizens or the Department for the “subject site” are left vague. Those of us with community development and/or economic development experience conclude the currently proposed RFQP process cannot yield the high quality responses that are sought.

2a. The people of East Lansing, determined that their valued parks and public lands be protected and assured for present and future generations, and promote neighborhood values, walk ability and enjoyment of the environment, propose and look to the preservation of parks, rights of way and open spaces, and to their enlargement and enhancement in the course of future development.

2b. The RFQP needs to acknowledge the City’s debt obligations for the Evergreen properties and 303 Abbot, provide current assessed market values, state that a priority outcome is to leave the City better off financially in paying off its debt, and that possible tax incentives or public expenditures, including infrastructure and parking, would be secondary to the use of tax increment financing to service existing debt.

3. If instead the City was advancing a standard “Request for Qualifications”, the RFQ could address the capabilities, experience, creativity, and history of prior successes of an applicant, without asking the applicant to draft a conceptual or site development proposal in the face of such high uncertainty and ambiguity. Those entities that would respond to the RFQ would show solid evidence of capabilities, experience, creativity, and prior relevant successes and could then be invited to submit site-specific proposals under a Request for Proposals (RFP).

4. If the City followed the RFQ approach, it would have time to develop its physical sketch or physical plan of public systems for the area, obtain citizen and professional responses regarding the plan’s functionality and desirability for the City, and then use it in a “Request for Proposals (FRP)”. Those invited to submit proposals under an RFP, given both this physical plan and information on the priority uses and their desired magnitude would be far more likely to produce high quality, highly relevant, site-specific proposals for development.

5. Therefore, we strongly urge that the present draft RFQP be redesigned into two stages—an early Request for Qualifications (RFQ) before the City has sketched a physical plan for the area “subject site”, and a later Request for Proposals (RFP) that includes a physical sketch of infrastructure and public systems planned or otherwise proposed, and a clearer portrayal of priority uses sought and the quantitative range of each priority use sought.

6. On page 8, under “Adjacent Development”, the document mentions that, “The owner of the parcels between the subject site and Grand River has submitted an application for site plan approval which includes (sic) two four-story buildings along Grand River Avenue. The proposed project is expected to start proceeding through the approval process in late October.” Since development on these two parcels likely will greatly influence the feasibility of developments on the “subject site”, coordination of development on the two parcels with development of the “subject site”, to the extent possible, will be absolutely necessary. Residents should be given an opportunities to analyze, review and comment on the proposed development of these two parcels and their impact on the possible choices and feasibilities of uses in the “subject site”. Again, a sketch plan for the public portion of the entire area previously known as CC II, with all the desired infrastructure related improvements, would be highly beneficial for the City, its staff, and the citizens that will seek to review the development of the two parcels and their likely impacts on the “subject site”.

7. Also, since citizen discussions of the City Center II site encompassed these two parcels as well as the “subject site”, citizen review and comment on the site plan for the two four-story buildings and their intended uses, and provisions for parking and other infrastructure support for the two buildings will be absolutely necessary.

8. “APPENDIX B—Notes from Community Conversations” lists valuable content from the citizens at the meetings of 9/6 and 9/7, by table. While this raw information is instructive, even a cursory analysis of the input would make the content of these listings much more valuable and instructive to those who receive it. A simple frequency distribution of the data, arranged by appropriate categories, is one possibility. Another would be aggregating the inputs by purposes, uses, density, circulation patterns, relation to the University, and other contextual matters to show the range of views and the points of consensus. The results would make the valuable *citizen input far more helpful to the prospective applicants. If such analyses were included in the “Request for Qualifications” and especially later in the “Request for Proposals”, the applicants would obtain a clearer picture of the nature and range of uses sought by citizens and the points of consensus by the citizens.

9. Thus, our recommendation is that the two of you indicate to the City Manager and Council that you are redesigning the process to simplify it both for the prospective developers and for the citizens by the following actions:

a. Completing the analysis of the extensive citizen input that has been received so that it can be made available to staff and citizens alike. This analysis will provide a clearer indication of the priority uses recommended by the citizens, the points of consensus, and if possible a range in the magnitude of each priority use for the composite site previously known as CC II.

b. Simplifying the approach to potential developers by focusing first on a “Request for Qualifications (RFQ)” based on the likely uses sought for the “subject site”. The newly structured RFQ would address the capabilities, experience and creativity of the applicant, plus history of developments and prior successes by the applicant, without asking the applicant to prematurely draft a conceptual or physical site development proposal.

c. Tailoring evaluation criteria to be more specific to the RFQ and to the RFP.

d. Expanding the team to review responses to the RFQ and later to the RFP to include knowledgeable resident representatives.

e. Preparing a “physical plan” that sets forth the likely improvements in infrastructure and other systems of the public’s portion of the development, including roadways, streets, sidewalks, pedestrian and bicycle access, park and other areas to be preserved, and related public systems. The plan will benefit from analyses of citizen input, plus City goals and objectives.

f. Incorporating this reviewed and enhanced “physical plan” and more specific information about intended priority uses into a site-focused “Request for Proposals (RFP)”. Included also would be requirements for site development, market analyses and project feasibility, plus evidence the developer needs to provide to show architectural, construction, and financial capability and data required for a thorough due diligence analysis. Proposals will be invited from those judged to be fully qualified in the earlier “Request for Qualifications”. The RFP will give definitive information on types and magnitudes of uses sought for the “subject site” as influenced by development of the two parcels in private ownership.

g. Coordinating, to the extent possible, the development of the two parcels south of the “subject site” with development of the “subject site”. Further, citizen input and suggestions regarding the two parcels will be sought, since they were part of the larger tract (previously CC II) that was the subject of the citizen meetings on 9/6 and 9/7. Such input will be valuable also because the development of these two parcels likely will strongly influence what uses will be possible and financially feasible on the “subject site”.

10. The suggestions above may require added time to complete, but they are far more likely to result in the high quality, highly relevant proposals that the City and the residents of East Lansing seek than the RFQP as presently drafted.

11. If the above recommendations are ignored and the RFQP is advanced in its present, then a number of other content changes will need to be made in the RFQP. But, it is crucial to recognize that going ahead with the RFQP in its present form, with the high uncertainty and ambiguity involved, likely will NOT yield the high quality results sought.

Listed below are some of the added changes that would improve the RFQP:

Page 1 to Page 4 under the section “Description of Site and Opportunity”, some of the data and statements need updating.

Page 3, 2nd paragraph states that, “The Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau (GLCVB) is opening an additional regional Visitor Center in Downtown East Lansing.” If it is to be directly across the street from the Broad Art Museum, was any consideration given to locating the GLCVB in either “The Park District” or “The Culture District”, since both are to appeal to visitors?

Page 6, diagram, shows two districts overlapping parts of the “subject site”. Was this intended to give added flexibility to the choices and decisions about the “subject site” by the applicants? Or, was this simply an accident of diagrammatic choice here? This overlap, if intended or unintended, could be a source of confusion to the applicants for the RFQP. Lack of information on the likely uses on the two private parcels adjacent to the “subject site” simply adds to the uncertainty and ambiguity confronting the potential applicants.

Page 7, first paragraph on “The Cultural District” indicates, “It is likely to support tall buildings, up to ten floors at the southeast edge and lower residential structures to the north.” Is this consistent with the character of East Lansing, or the limitations previously expected of site plans within East Lansing? Does this expectation apply to any portion of the “subject site”? It should be clear to the applicants who receive the RFQP.

Page 7, bulleted item at bottom of page. Current zoning within the “subject site” needs to be clearly diagramed and fully explained—for example, whether a composite proposal can result in a zoning change request because the entire “subject site” is being developed as a composite, fully integrated, functional unit. If certain portions of the “subject site” must retain their current zoning because they border other external key zones this needs to be clearly diagramed and fully explained.

Page 8, top of the page, states that for the “subject site” “B-3 zoning allows for the mix of uses and density necessary to achieve the development objectives, including 100% ground cover and building heights up to 10 stories.” What about the transition to RM-32 if that is desired, or what about the tract’s relationship to the southwest corner of the Cultural District that may not be intended to reach 10 stories in height? Clearer specifics to potential developers would surely reduce this ambiguity.

Page 8, Subsections “Infrastructure Improvements”, “Parking and Traffic Management”, and “Adjacent Development” need to be transformed into more specifics and included to the extent possible in the “physical plan” recommended for staff development.

Page 8 and 9, “Proposal Content”, contains the sentence, “The City of East Lansing is requesting the interested developers submit qualifications and a proposed conceptual development program.”

It appears that more emphasis and clarity is needed in subsections:
1. Development Entity,
2. Project History, and
3. Financial Capacity then is enumerated here to more effectively determine the potential developers’ qualifications. Unless the physical plan is developed by the staff along with analyses of priority uses, and made available to the applicants, subsections 4. Proposed Development, and subsection 5. Vision Statement, will not be as applicable and as functional as they could have been.

Page 9, “Evaluation Criteria” are attempting to cover two jobs at one time. Some of the criteria are best used in judging qualifications, as would be targeted with a “Request for Qualifications (RFQ)”. Some of them are best used in judging a proposal for development under an RFP, once a physical plan and analysis of priority uses desired by the City are made available to the prospective developers.

Page 10, “Selection Process”. Citizen trust could be increased if the selection process and team includes two citizens/residents who are actively engaged in community betterment. Given the wealth of talented residents in East Lansing, persons who are both connected to citizen interests and who are professionally astute could be found and appointed.

Page 10, bottom of page. A useful addition would be “No. 4—Specification of the key contact person.”

Please note that the persons listed below stand ready to discuss with you any of the items listed in this set of observations and recommendations. What is shared is intended to be helpful to an emerging process. Thank you.

Respectfully submitted by the following persons:
Maureen McCabe-Power
Ralph Monsma
Steve Osborn
Joe Reynolds
Chris Root
Gordon Taylor
Sheila Taylor
Ray Vlasin
Bill Weckesser

*Citizen input has not been given a chance to be discussed or reviewed, but one idea submitted for the entire former City Center II properties is worth considering – that of an alumni retirement living complex.

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