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East Lansing's evolving downtown skyline the product of changing goals, consumers

June 2, 2022
<p>A view from the back of The Abbot off-campus apartments on Sept. 2, 2020.</p>

A view from the back of The Abbot off-campus apartments on Sept. 2, 2020.

East Lansing’s skyline looks a lot different than it did a half-decade ago.

Additions like the 12-story Landmark apartment building on Grand River Avenue, the 10-story Graduate Hotel on Evergreen Avenue and the in-progress seven-story Michigan State University Federal Credit Union office building have drastically changed how the city’s downtown looks.

Much of the skyline-changing construction can be attributed to two developments planned in 2017: the Center City District and Park District projects.

The first to be majority completed was the Center City District in 2019, encompassing the Landmark, Newman Lofts, Target, Foster Coffee Company and Barrio located between Grand River Avenue and Albert Avenue. This was followed by the completion of the Park District in 2020, including the Graduate hotel, The Abbot and Walgreens located near the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road.

Both of these projects contribute to one of the city’s current strategic goals: Increase daytime traffic downtown and diversify that traffic.

While these goals go back decades, it was formally put to paper in the city’s 2018 Master Plan. The document laid the groundwork for how the city aimed to address various objectives — a major one being the revitalization of downtown.

To put the city’s goal in the document's words, the goal was to “increase the attraction and vitality of the downtown for all demographic groups.”

East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon, who was a non-office-holding resident at the time, said downtown was in need of redevelopment, with its physical appearance in some areas being one of the most glaring signs.

“There was some blight downtown, and some of the older buildings there to the west of city hall and that area over there were undeveloped for a really long time,” Bacon said. “So a lot of developers now consider East Lansing maybe even a little bit behind schedule, compared to some other places.”

Housing soon became one of the key issues to tackle following the desire to develop the downtown neighborhood. 

The construction of high-density housing, which generally refers to multi-unit apartment buildings, was a hot topic in the 2018 plan — particularly the revenue it could generate. 

Planning, Building and Development Director Thomas Fehrenbach said the document opened the possibility of rezoning or other avenues to allow buildings like the Landmark or The Abbot to be built.

“The community update to our master plan really did envision more density for, specifically, the downtown core that's proximate to the university,” Fehrenbach said. “I think at that same time, there were conversations with developers who are interested in making investments here.” 

Higher downtown housing density, Fehrenbach said, has numerous benefits. Much of them are based around walkability, which in turn strengthens the downtown economy.

“I think that ultimately, from a planning perspective, it makes sense to have the density near the university for a lot of different reasons,” Fehrenbach said. “More people built into the framework of our downtown means more customers for the stuff on the ground floor, and means less people needing to have to drive so far to get to stuff.”

In addition to increasing the density of housing downtown, the city also wanted to diversify it.

Of the 12 actions listed under the aforementioned objective of revitalizing downtown, only one mentions housing. Action 2-1.10 aims to “promote housing for persons 55 years and older in the downtown to diversify the residential options in the district.”

This action item was bolstered by a city ordinance, which mandated that 25% of the units in new downtown housing developments be reserved for “residents 55 and older, restricted to low- to moderate-income housing or restricted to some other occupancy that would add diversity to the area.”

This ordinance-based action item eventually led to complexes like the City Center District’s Newman Lofts, which is exclusive to residents 55 and older.

However, senior citizens are not the only target group for new downtown housing developments. The city is also eyeing daytime populations such as office workers.

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“We're also going to help diversify the opportunities for people with different walks of life, other than just students, to be able to live downtown as well,” Fehrenbach said. “Our strategy is to bring more daytime population, so more office type users, that, again, will strengthen the economy and create demand for a broader mix of products and services.”

In order to attract more office workers, the city is hoping to lure in more office-based companies. 

There has already been successes. The new MSUFCU building on Abbot Road will bring about 150 workers to the area, and German drivetrain testing company ATESTEO will be establishing its North American headquarters in East Lansing, along with about 46 workers.

For decades, East Lansing’s downtown businesses have been largely focused on serving the student population. Now, the city is looking to evolve that tradition.

“That's one thing that our downtown has been lacking,” Community and Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins said. “It's been very student oriented and student focused. And we're trying to drive change.”

New dining establishments that don’t directly cater to students have been a primary method of driving interest. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales and Barrio, which were both constructed underneath the non-student Newman Lofts, are two examples of such establishments.

Cummins also emphasizes the retail sector. He said the city wants the downtown neighborhood to compete with places like Meridian Mall.

“Again, it's all about providing that experience (while) at the same time, meeting the needs of the local population,” Cummins said. “Otherwise, they're going to continue shopping and dining somewhere else where they can get that full experience.”

As for what those retail spaces may look like, Cummins won’t give details yet. He hints at “incubator and accelerator spaces for entrepreneurs,” similar to the Technology Innovation Center on Grand River Avenue.

Aside from physical retail spaces, Cummins and his team have worked to bring new events and experiences into the neighborhood to entice more citizens to venture downtown. 

He said that COVID-19 has allowed him to experiment more with these projects than he usually could, as the city council and the City Manager George Lahanas have been open to anything that could counteract the economic impacts of the pandemic.

One such experiment was the Albert El Fresco pedestrian area on Albert Avenue between Abbot Road and Grove Street, which was successful enough in 2020 to be brought back as an annualized tradition. Others include events like an underground winter market and a Black Friday-inspired event.

“The COVID-19 pandemic actually gave me the perfect opportunity to do some tests around one of the strategies. Stuff that the city has never done before,” Cummins said. “They've been very willing to let us to continue to do some trial and error, experimentation.”


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