A city, piece by piece
As its problems were addressed in the ’90s and early 2000s, E.L. began taking its current shape
East Lansing once was a residential community for MSU faculty and staff, adjacent to the university. Starting 50 or 60 years ago, students began to trickle into rental houses in neighborhoods across from the university. But in the ’80s, resident-renter integration accelerated at a pace the city did not foresee, thrusting East Lansing into a period of change.
The downtown area is one of the most telling aspects of East Lansing that has changed with the times, said Jack Thompson, former president of the East Lansing Historical Society.
There used to be “banks, movie theaters, hardware stores, drug stores, grocery stores, camera shops, radio stores, flower shops, coal companies and car dealers,” to cater to the residential neighborhoods, Thompson said. But those shops since have transformed into mostly restaurants and clothing stores to cater to students now inhabiting the neighborhoods closest to downtown.
After problems plagued the city, newly elected and appointed city officials in the mid-’90s began altering the ordinances and policies to turn the city into what is known today and planned in the future.
Changing of the guard
In 1995, just as neighborhoods were finishing up the rapid transition to rental housing, three new councilmembers — including two future mayors — were elected.
Mark Meadows, Sam Singh and Doug Jester ran together with an objective to change the way East Lansing operated, said Meadows, a former mayor and now the Democratic state representative for the district that encompasses East Lansing.
“We wanted to change the way East Lansing operated as a government to be more customer friendly, so our citizens are treated as customers,” Meadows said, “but also to address some of the major issues we saw in the community. There was a lot of conflict that we had neglected.”
Included in the conflict was an attempt by neighborhoods on the east side of town to split back into Meridian Township, citing discrepancies with services offered by the city. The proposal was effectively stomped out by city officials.
The newly elected trio, as well as newly hired City Manager Ted Staton, began modernizing the city charter and fundamental laws of East Lansing. During the first two years in office, the group accomplished most of its goals with 23 different proposals on election ballots.
Many of the laws dealt with rental properties. Officials began limiting the number of people who can live in a house. They put stricter guidelines on how properties should look to prevent rundown housing. They created historic districts to preserve neighborhoods.
“They stopped the flow of property to rental properties because it made greater requirements for rental housing,” Meadows said. “A lot of the rental housing laws and building codes were so people could drive through neighborhoods, and other than a few students drinking on the porch or playing beer pong, the house itself would not stand out as, ‘Obviously, this must be a rental house.’”
A major recent addition — about five years ago — to stop further integration of rental properties into residential neighborhoods is the concept of overlay districts. The policy allows the residents of neighborhoods to come together — with about 60 percent approval necessary — to prohibit the addition of more rental properties.
The policy received some initial opposition from student groups such as ASMSU, MSU’s undergraduate student government, and rental companies who felt the overlay districts were restricting a natural flow of events.
“I can certainly see the student perspective, that ‘these people are signing petitions to zone us out.’ It’s not a ‘welcome to East Lansing’ feeling,” Staton said. “But it will never happen to traditional student neighborhoods.”
While the council was implementing the laws, the East Lansing Police Department and other city departments were focusing on how to adapt to them.
About 15 years ago, Parking and Code Enforcement became a 24-hour entity responsible for the enforcement of the new codes placed on the city and ensuring the city’s appearance was up to standard.
Although Meadows said rental companies originally were hesitant to jump on board with the new policies, Joe Goodsir, president of rental firm Community Resource Management Company, said the changes were for the better.
Goodsir said constructive dialogue throughout the years has helped buff up relations on all levels.
“Over the years, there (have) been drastic changes because of all the communication that came up,” Goodsir said. “Once in a while, we still get a call, but now most conflicts can be resolved with good dialogue between the two parties.”
With the city’s appearance improving and student-resident conflicts slowly fading, officials said the focus shifted to creating a more vibrant downtown, a philosophical shift still prominent in today’s city hall.
“Things started to change — and I mean dramatically change,” Meadows said. “We changed our attitude really toward development of our area.”
The new developments
Although downtown East Lansing 15 years ago might not have looked as it did in the ’60s, it still was vastly different than it stands today.
The city still had national retail stores such as Jacobson’s and Redwood & Ross, which were soon to go by way of “big box retailers,” Staton said.
A rapid increase in housing has dotted the streets of downtown East Lansing, such as the Albert Place Condominiums, 600 Albert Ave., and Stonehouse Village, above Taco Bell, 601 E. Grand River Ave. It is a trend that is likely to continue.
“We would hope there is a continuation of concentration in the downtown,” Staton said. “More student units and more non-student units so we can continue to diversify the kind of stores that are down here but the kind of people that will patronize them.”
As the ‘90s gave way to the new millenium, new developments were being built — for example, a series of dilapidated houses on Albert Avenue near Bailey Street were razed for a parking lot — to liven up the appearance of the city. The appearance was key to begin development that would attract a wide variety to downtown as a center for the city.
“We began, in the ’90s, to go after certain developments to attract the kinds of stores and retailers that would strengthen the retail base of downtown and would broaden the appeal to a more diverse market,” said Jim van Ravensway, former director of East Lansing’s Planning and Community Development Department. “So no matter who you are, you can find a reason to be in downtown; that wasn’t the case 20 years ago.”
In 2001, the most notable, comprehensive project began with City Center I on M.A.C. Avenue between Albert and Grand River avenues.
The project, which houses various businesses such as Omi Sushi, 210 M.A.C. Ave., Cosi, 301 E. Grand River Ave., and CVS Pharmacy, 240 M.A.C. Ave., effectively changed the thinking of future East Lansing developments in terms of diversity of use and size.
“You may never see the type of retailing in the downtown you saw maybe 40 to 50 years ago,” current East Lansing Mayor Vic Loomis said.
“But you will see neighborhood service types in the downtown; you will see a broader mix of people down here.”
With other developments in East Lansing, such as the West Village Redevelopment Project on Grand River Avenue between Hillcrest Avenue and Hillside Court, and several downtown projects that already are underway or being planned, the city continues to change dramatically.
On July 20, the East Lansing City Council approved a site plan for another project, an eight-story, mixed-use building at 200 Albert Ave.
Other developments include adding stories to buildings that house The Post Bar, 213 Ann St., and rebuilding 215 and 217 Ann St. for mixed and residential use.
The largest potential future development to the downtown area is the $116.4 million City Center II project, a planned mixed-use and residential facility.
These developments would change the skyline, but they also have raised more concerns from residents.
Too big a picture?
Because of all the focus on developments and the future, some residents are concerned city officials are neglecting their everyday duties.
Problems that were cut out of the budget this year, such as sidewalk repair, could have been handled in more prosperous times, said Eliot Singer, a former MSU professor and resident of East Lansing for more than 26 years.
“They could have dealt with it years ago, if they weren’t spending money to hire consultants to dream up fancy projects that are never going to get done,” Singer said.
“I think that chronic problems have gotten worse, not just in the city but across the country for financial reasons. East Lansing government goes beyond the normal bureaucratic complacency, because there is this strong PR approach, that they just don’t want to deal openly with this kind of thing and makes it worse.”
Some residents are worried major developments are not what need to be done to make the city a better place to live, Singer said.
“(City officials are) interested in long term development projects, these grandiose schemes,” Singer said. “But they really don’t care about things like the sidewalks need to be fixed; they don’t care, that’s not their priority. They’re too big-pictured.”