At open house, residents and students weigh in on Center City District
Wary and curious of the $132 million development proposed for the heart of the city he’s called home since childhood, Marvin Dunn showed up to Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza Monday evening to get a better sense of what might be.
He and his wife Peggy hadn't seen anything like it, with the last major project in the city being the East Lansing Marriott at University Place, he recalls.
But the renderings, laid out in all their grandeur and vision by the developers of the Center City District project at an open house, still left him in limbo.
“I’m not convinced there are people in our generation or people younger than we are that really want to live in apartments,” Dunn said. “I mean, it seems like downtown is something that millennials are much more interested in. We’ve grown up in suburbs our whole lives, so I think it might be a hard sell, the senior side.”
The developers of Center City District are after him. He’s over 55, the demographic required to live in certain residential spaces in the Albert Avenue building proposed by Center City.
They're after students too, and young professionals.
But in a city where temporary members and permanent residents must coexist, Center City District has the chance to strengthen some loose cohesion between the demographics or undo those bonds further.
Not more student housing
Center City District, the $132 million proposed downtown development project, is the brainchild of Greg and Brad Ballein. The two co-own Ballein Management, which serves as a landlord to various businesses along Grand River Avenue.
Their primary business, Student Book Store, is fraught with that tangled mess of students and residents. It would hardly exist without the students, hence the name.
“Myself, my business, this whole town wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for students,” Greg Ballein said, mentioning too that there is no separating East Lansing and MSU.
The project has taken on a range of criticism, from its height to its volume but even more so, what Greg Ballein can’t understand is how it could be labeled another student rental venture.
“Everyone wants to call it student rental but I don’t see it that way,” Greg Ballein said. “Almost half of the building is for single bedrooms and when you do single bedroom apartments, we’re hoping to attract a lot of young professionals back into East Lansing.”
Furthermore, Ballein wants to target recent graduates, grad students and professors, who are more apt to afford a single or two-bedroom apartment.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to have anybody live there,” Greg Ballein said. “That’s what I love about the idea. With (one and two bedroom apartments) it really doesn’t lend itself well to that large student population.”
There weren’t many students at the open house, though many have left the area for summer. It was primarily the 55-and-up crowd which filtered throughout the open house; a group labeled ‘active adults’ by Center City and East Lansing.
While the older generations dominate much of the city’s plans, these proposed developments have also sparked an interest for students, current and former.
Visions of more
Helen Huo, a recent MSU urban planning graduate, hasn’t seen much change in East Lansing in her four years here. It’s been mostly closures and openings of businesses with little tangible redevelopment. The upcoming project intrigues her.
“East Lansing does need, I think, a clearer identity,” Huo said. “When I think of a college town, I don’t typically think of what East Lansing is. It’s just a place. It’s not a community.”
Millennials and college students, she said, are looking for a sense of a community.
"They don’t just want a bar to drink at or a few bars, they want to feel like they’re a part of something," Huo said.
Much of East Lansing’s downtown is comprised of bars and restaurants, which attract a large portion of MSU’s students. It’s this plethora of bars which people like Huo and even the Dunns have found take away from the city’s vibrancy.
“When I grew up in East Lansing there was a hardware and dime store and record stores, movie theaters, I mean there was all kinds of stuff down here and it’s turned into, it’s basically bars and restaurants and restaurants and bars,” Marvin Dunn said.
The project's plans have called for retail space along the first floor of the Albert Avenue building, which Mark Bell, CEO of project developer Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors, said will be diversified and not just more bars and restaurants.
The Grand River Avenue building is slated to include a Target with a grocery component to take up the first floor.
It’s this vision of a diversified East Lansing that keeps Huo and the Dunns hopeful.
“I’m guessing if this does go in, this whole block (is) hopefully going to become vibrant,” Peggy Dunn said.
A sense of community
Mike Sheets, dressed in suit, no tie, slightly over the age of 55 but not seeming so, dropped questions on Bell and other representatives. He’s the 'active adult' they’re primarily after and his questions were what they wanted.
“Home ownership becomes more of a burden and if you want to spend more time doing stuff downtown, it is kind of nice,” Sheets said of the development.
“And having a Target nearby? Do you know how huge that is?”
Center City District would package much of what intrigues Sheets all into one entity. Easy access to downtown, a grocery store below him and perhaps a place to form a community with people his age.
He and his friends have discussed downsizing from their homes, saying at their age they didn’t need all the space or the rooms any more. Some have moved to places similar to what Center City is proposing, and he said structures like those have community gathering spaces.
“I asked a buddy over there to come on out, ‘hey want to go out Friday night?’, ‘no man you got to come over to the community room,’” Sheets said. “They had big screens, the Final Four, everybody's down there, they had a Super Bowl party.”
The community rooms there might inadvertently solve an East Lansing issue, as Sheets said his friends have begun to hang out with the younger crowds in their communities.
A structure like this which could provide multiple uses might also create something the city hasn’t known.
“With both communities being in the city center, and walking, pedestrian lifestyle, they’ll just interact with each other more and that in itself will hopefully fix some of the problems,” Huo said.
Center City District is still yet to be approved and the developers plan to take more time for community feedback. For now it remains an idea, but potentially one which could reinvigorate the town in ways not yet seen.
“I feel like there are some college towns that already kind of have this vibe or they have more going on,” Huo said. “I feel like East Lansing needs something big to kick start this kind of lifestyle.”