postheadericon Town Center - Build or Wait?

towncenter_aerialmap120Opponents to building on 156 acres of land on Route 34B across from the town ballfields argue that the government should wait for the Comprehensive Plan update to be completed before approving any development there.  They argue the plan will drive the direction of a town center, if the update even says the Town wants one.  But the fact is that the Town does have a Comprehensive Plan in place that was updated only seven years ago, and a town center is part of that plan.  Things haven't changed that much in seven years, and most people who live here know what those things are.  So there may be no reason to hold up projects for an update of an existing document?

"I strongly agree with that point of view," Town Planner Jonathan Kanter says.

Kanter says it doesn't make sense to put the town on hold every time overall plans are edited.  But he adds that soliciting ideas from developers will give officials a range of ideas they probably couldn't come up with themselves, that they can mix and match to create a town center that most townspeople will use and enjoy, and that accomplishes the government's goals for development and increasing the tax base.

"It's a little of both," Kanter says.  "The Town Board sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) early this year.  We got two responses back, so combined we have four separate proposals for the town-owned land."

tc_land-affordable

The Town received two responses to the RFP.  One was from a local firm, Green Square Development, and the other from Cornerstone, a Rochester firm.  Kanter says the key players in Green Square Development are part of Holt Architects, the firm that lworked closely with the Town Center Committee in 2010.  They came up with a rough design concept based on strong community input.

Green Square's response to the RFP presented a comprehensive idea for the whole property.  It presented a combination of residential townhouses and duplexes and mixed commercial retail buildings that could have apartments upstairs.  These projects would be realized in phases.  The commercial phase would go along Route 34 and wrap around the new entrance road. It would be a very nice focal point for adding some small scale retail and service types of uses.  Cornerstone's proposal was focused on a single project, a senior apartment project.

Two developers were negotiating with town officials before the RFP was distributed.  A U.S. and Canadian developer called Calimar proposed a multi-story market-rate senior development, similar to Cornerstone's proposal.  NRP Group, with a Buffalo office among offices in seven states, posited an overall view of how the entire 156 acres could be developed with four specific projects they were interested in developing, including affordable housing.  One NRP project and the Calimar project was ready to go -- as soon as there was sewer.

Until the sewer project was killed there was a big push by the Lansing Town government to begin building a town center on 156 acres of land across the street from the Town ballfields, with a new road that would essentially be an extension of Woodsedge Drive to the north becoming the main road into the development.  In July of 2012 the Town even paid New York State $294,800 to lift deed restrictions on the land that cleared the way for commercial development there.  A sewer was expected to attract developers, but when the sewer project was killed momentum for the town center slowed almost to a halt.

NRP has a signed purchase agreement with the Town that was contingent on many things including the availability of sewer, and the Calimar project also relied on sewer.  But even with no municipal sewer, Kanter says that those projects are not dead.

kanter120Jonathan Kanter"The Town Board, decide the decisions on the sewer, or the lack thereof, still feels that any one or all of these proposals for the Town may be able to work in different ways, especially if the developers are able to get together and figure out a common solution to things like sewer," Kanter says.

With the political climate entering into the picture this year, the Town Board decided to set up the RFP Review Committee to go over the proposals.  That group has met already, and has created a draft matrix to be used in evaluating the RFP responses.

Local developers are reportedly doing just that.  In the final days of the municipal sewer project it became clear that many Lansingites opposed a taxpayer-funded sewer.  Almost immediately after the municipal sewer was killed a proposal for a package plant, a small local sewage treatment facility, was brought to the Board.  Developers would pay for the plant, which would be used to process effluent for a small area including the town center land and businesses at the corner of Triphammer and Peruville Roads has been floated.

But developers fear that the board won't be receptive to the plan, at least until the Comprehensive Plan update is completed.  Some residents don't want any development there, and fear the Town would ultimately be responsible for maintaining a package plant if the developers backed out at some point in the future.  Before the campaigns for the November election ramped up it looked as if the three Democrats on the Board, at least, might be receptive to such a proposal.  As the election drew nearer they took the position that the RFP Committee's work would have to be done in order to consider a town center plan.

"At the time when that thought was initiated the Town Board had just decided against pursuing the public sewer proposal," Kanter says.  "It was before election time.  That's probably going to be part of the discussion in the RFP Review Committee."

Kanter says that creating a town center is a unique opportunity.  The beginnings of a town center exist at each end of the area, Rogue's Harbor Inn and storefront properties to the west; Crossroads Bar & Grill, Lansing Market, Xtra Mart, Carquest, and other business properties to the east; and the Town Hall/Library/ Ballfields complex in the middle, all located roughly between East Shore Drive and Triphammer Road.

The real opportunity lies in the blank slate represented by that 156 acres.  It could become a well planned center for the town, crafted to meet the municipality's goals with unified design concepts and all the amenities townspeople have said they want.  Kanter acknowledges that the concept has been popular in the town as evidenced by the work of a Town Center Committee moderated by Holt Architects in 2010, the 2006 updated Comprehensive Plan, and current tangible interest by developers.

tc_sqafterPart of a 2010 proposal was a town green to replace asphalt between the Town Hall and the Lansing Community Library. It proposed less visible parking lots and visual integration with new development across the street, including street lights and sidewalks"There was quite a bit of work on the town center concept," he says.  "A lot of that went into the 2006 plan, and we're building on that now.  So despite the fact that the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee is looking at what's happened since then, it has certainly not thrown all those ideas out.  It wants to build on the previous work and previous planning and design concepts as opposed to rejecting them or putting them on hold until some other process is worked out."

Did killing the municipal sewer project also kill the town center?  Even opponents of the sewer say that there may be other ways of accomplishing a town center and the other development goals of the Town without that pipe.  Two projects were a sure thing and other developers were certainly sniffing around town center opportunities.  Sewer would have made it easier to achieve, but while a town center may be down, it isn't even close to being down for the count.

"I feel really bad for the Town that the sewer proposal became such a political animal and ended up being rejected without really being sounded out fully," Kanter says.  "I wish that it had been able to go to a referendum, because I believe that in the long run, if people understood what was involved and what the true costs of it were -- as opposed to all the fake arguments for and against it.  Then it became such a political football that there was no way it could happen at this time.  That is a sad thing for the Town.  Putting it bluntly, the Town had an opportunity that it blew."

Kanter estimates it may be as much as a year before the new comprehensive plan update is complete, and the RFP committee has only just begun its work.  The prevailing feeling seems to be that the Town should wait until those committees have completed their work before moving forward.  But pressure from developers also enters the equation.  If developers turn out to be willing to pay for a package plant -- and if the town Board is receptive to that idea -- a town center could begin to take shape sooner than we think.

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