On a busy afternoon in the joint bookstore and coffee shop Hooked, the scene is like any other small business that could be found in a mid-sized city across America – people chatting over coffee, college students studying at the tables by the window and children eyeing the colorful covers of the books in the kids’ section.
When you look out the window, however, you might not see the view you’d expect. Instead of a quaint downtown street with trees and sidewalks, Hooked has found its home amongst several massive apartment complexes, one of which is still under construction.
Cafe manager Jaie Bemis said that in recent months, the slightly unorthodox location is starting to show positive results as students who occupy the neighboring high-rises have become frequent patrons.
“At first, it was sort of tough because we were in the middle of construction,” Bemis said. “So not a lot of people knew how to get to us, or were sort of intimidated by pulling down this lane, especially when they were doing stuff like the big construction equipment.”
The story of Hooked is one that’s become increasingly common in East Lansing, as new developments for apartment or condo complexes continue to spread into the outer reaches of the city. Michigan State University urban planning professor Igor Vojnovic said that the buildings themselves might not be a problem, but where they’re located could be.
“What we're missing is density,'' Vojnovic said. “We want more people downtown. We want a greater population.”
In his career studying what kinds of infrastructure make cities most ecologically and economically beneficial, Vojnovic has found that large high-rise buildings aren’t the villains that some make them out to be, and he said it’s often better to build up instead of out.
In a city like East Lansing, that means developing new student housing downtown, rather than on the outskirts.
“You bring students in, you bring more people in, it means that the place will become more dynamic,” Vojnovic said. “There is a greater likelihood that someone will go out at 10 o'clock and want to go to a store, there's a greater likelihood that stores and restaurants will remain open into later hours.”
There’s a problem, though. Buildings closer to the downtown section of Grand River Avenue, like The Landmark or The Hub, come with a considerable price tag attached that makes them out of bounds for many students.
Neuroscience senior Khushi Kapoor, who’s lived in the Hub since 2021, said that the things that attracted her and other students to The Hub can also be some of the factors that make it so expensive.
“I think especially with the amenities like the study rooms, the pools, I think that definitely attracts people,” Kapoor said. “Housing is very expensive. So then you kind of lose options like more affordable housing.”
Even so, Kapoor said that buildings like The Hub, that are built quickly and designed to fit as many tenants as possible, come with issues of their own.
“I think everyone kind of has the impression that The Hub is always falling apart a little bit,” Kapoor said.
Maintenance problems, especially flooding, have posed challenges for the residents of large apartment complexes. For other members of the community, the buildings on the west side of town can feel like part of the sprawling Frandor shopping center.
For the owners of Hooked, the benefits of a location in a newly-built complex outweighed the proximity to a source of traffic problems and a non-walkable area.
“We ended up here because it's a joint project between East Lansing, Lansing and Michigan State,” Bemis said. “And it's a response to the ecological problems of Frandor at the moment – it's just a giant parking lot.”
Vojnovic said that areas like Frandor and the surrounding apartment complexes are an example of suburban sprawl that distances people from local businesses and schools. The staff of Hooked are hopeful that on the lower levels of the apartment buildings, new small businesses will bring vitality to the neighborhood.
“But it's hard to tell so far out how that kind of thing plays out,” Bemis said. “So it could just be insurance companies and places you don't just walk into. Because they can pay the rent.”
As long as MSU’s student population continues to grow, so will the expansion of apartment complexes in East Lansing. They might not be everyone’s aesthetic choice for the city, but they’re here to stay, at least until development becomes more focused on downtown.
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“We don't have any strong urban cores,” Vojnovic said. “We don't have any really healthy city centers.”
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