Sorority House Plan Proves Controversial
Above: The rental house currently at 358 Harrison Road (proposed to be demolished) and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, directly south of the site of a proposed new sorority building.
With tensions running high over the issue, at its meeting this week East Lansing’s Planning Commission heard much public comment both for and against the proposal to build a three-story-tall sorority house on the southeast corner of Harrison Road and Grand River in the Collegeville Historic District where four rental houses currently stand. Planning Commission did not take formal action on the matter and will be taking it up again at a later meeting, most likely on April 26.
Joe Goodsir spoke first at the formal Public Hearing. Goodsir is a partner in both Next Generation Investment Properties LLC, which is proposing the development, and Community Resource Management Corporation (CRMC), which owns and rents the houses currently on the site. (Map below shows the location of the site.)
He addressed one of the major concerns that has been raised by nearby residents by pointing out that the four “Greek” (fraternity/sorority) houses that currently exist in the vicinity are unmonitored, but that the occupants of this new house, the Sigma Delta Tau sorority would be under the supervision of a house mother. He added that the house would be “dry” (no alcohol) with no parties being held on site. Goodsir told the Commission that CRMC has been renting 4 separate houses on M.A.C. Avenue to the sorority for the past two years and that if this development goes ahead, they would be signing a twenty-year lease on the site.
Representatives from Sigma Delta Tau were also on hand to provide more information about their sorority, their membership size, and their primary aims as an organization.
Amy Rodnick, the National Advisor and Housing Association President for Sigma Delta Tau (SDT), gave an overview of the sorority’s history, emphasizing their community engagement activities with organizations such as Prevent Child Abuse America. She said that SDT’s primary mission is the empowerment of women.
Alana Schwartz, local SDT president, said that lack of a single sorority house was an in impediment to their recruitment, and that having a central gathering place would be important to growing their chapter of SDT. “I would be proud to call these women my neighbors,” concluded Rodnick, “and I would certainly be proud to call them my babysitters.”
Residents of the surrounding area spoke about problems that could be caused by increasing the total number of residents from 20 to 41 on a corner that is already heavily congested with both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Much of the discussion centered on whether the size of the site should hold a house of this size, especially because there would be parking only for 21 cars in a house built to house 41 people.
Nan Refior, who resides on Center Street, one block east of the proposed development site, and Sarah Miller, who is the house director for Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, both talked at length about the difficultly turning right on northbound Harrison Road onto Grand River Avenue. According to Miller, the stoplight timing combined with the no-turn-on-red rule at the Harrison Road and Grand River Avenue intersection results in cars being backed up passed the SAE driveway, directly to the south of where the proposed building would stand. Miller said it can take three or even four cycles of the stoplight before cars can turn onto Grand River Avenue.
Both residents felt that problems would be further exacerbated by the twenty additional cars that would come along with the residents of the new building. Because the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) controls Grand River Avenue, changing the traffic pattern here would be a complicated matter.
Brian Walsworth and Deelane Camling, both residents of the Glencairn neighborhood directly to the north of the area in question, talked about accessibility issues caused by additional cars coming into the neighborhood when the Greek houses nearby host their weekly chapter meetings. Camling said that on one recent night, she counted 29 non-resident cars parked on Ardson Road during a sorority house meeting.
“There is no way a modern-day firetruck could get through,” Camling told the Commission.
Sororities and fraternities are required to plan for parking on their sites and to make contingencies for additional vehicles arriving during chapter meetings. Miller, the house director at SAE, said that the fraternity is required to lease two parking spaces from the city as an overflow measure, but said that none of the SAE residents use them because the city parking garages are too far away from the house.
Planning Commissioner Summer Minnick, who lives in the area, remarked that when Special Use permits are granted to the Greek organizations, there seem to be alternative solutions like busing, carpooling, or offsite parking in place, but that in reality those plans do not appear to be followed. “I don’t know how to rectify that, but it appears that there’s a disconnect,” she told her colleagues on the Commission.
Alana Schwartz, the current SDT president, returned to the podium to clarify that SDT’s enrollment statistics indicate their house would hold less than half those of the larger Greek houses already in the neighborhood. She proposed that a parking study could be done on the four houses that they are currently renting on M.A.C. Avenue as a reassurance that they would not be adding to the neighborhood parking problem.
The proposal still needs to go to East Lansing’s Transportation Commission before Planning Commission votes whether to recommend the project to City Council. Planning Commission’s vote is advisory to Council, so regardless of Planning Commission’s vote, it would go to City Council (unless the applicant withdraws). In the event Council approved the plan, it would then go to the Historic District Commission for a vote on whether to allow demolition of the existing four structures for replacement with the proposed structure.
Based on remarks at Planning Commission, including by Commissioners, the two greatest hurdles to the proposal appear to be demonstrating that the proposed development will not “the resource [that is, the four houses to be demolished] is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the community [that is, the sorority house].”
Background from ELi: