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News & Press: FOCUS

Michigan Avenue: The Road to Economic Prosperity

Wednesday, April 4, 2018  
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A trip down the Michigan Avenue corridor tells a story of Lansing’s history, legacy and future. It is a story of leaders that shared a vision to see possibilities that others did not. It is a story that involves much more than a road on which we travel. It is a thoroughfare that has served as a connecting point between the pillars of our economy, our businesses, government, education, healthcare and our people.

Michigan Avenue looking east from the State Capitol now (top) and the late 1800s (bottom).

Through the years, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce (LRCC) has been a strong leader in advocating for the development and growth of the entire Michigan Avenue corridor.

“More than any other thoroughfare, the Michigan Avenue corridor is the face of our region,” said Tim Daman, LRCC president and CEO. “It is our identity and should serve as a statement to the rest of the world of who we are and where we are going.”

Over a century ago, visionaries built a road that connected our State Capitol to a small agricultural college a few miles to the east. Since that time, that small college has become a world-class education and research institution. There have been many other notable developments along the way, as well as down times when signs of life and progress were limited to weekdays between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Cooley Law School Stadium, home of the Lansing Lugnuts. Photo credit: Kyle Castle, Lansing Lugnuts, July 2016.

Things along the corridor started to turn around 25 years ago. Leaders in Lansing, including then Mayor David Hollister, promoted a plan to build a new downtown stadium to house a minor league baseball team. The Lansing Lugnuts became a household name as fans flocked to the downtown area, many for the first time in years. Other restaurants and night spots opened and capitalized on the opportunity to capture new customers.

Following the turn of the century, developers began to realize the potential in downtown Lansing. Pat Gillespie, president of the Gillespie Group, was one of the first. Gillespie built the Stadium District, a 100,000-square-foot, multiuse building directly across the street from Cooley Law School Stadium.

The Gillespie Group’s Stadium District building as it sits today. The project paved the way for other developments through the years by demonstrating that businesses and residents would choose to locate downtown on Michigan Avenue.

“A lot of people said who wants to live on Michigan Avenue with the noise and the parking problems across from the baseball park,” said Gillespie. “It filled up from day one and has been full ever since. It was kind of the guinea pig to show that it can work and people do want to be on Michigan Avenue.”

In the post-recession era, development along Michigan Avenue has flourished. Young professionals are increasingly moving into the downtown area, which in turn has led to more housing and multi-use developments like The Venue in East Town, a $6 million project that has transformed the 500 block of Michigan Avenue on Lansing’s east side. Restaurants and entertainment options have increased dramatically.

The Sparrow campus continues to undergo a major upgrade as witnessed most recently by the opening of the Herbert-Herman Cancer Center, which is part of the more than $285 million in construction and information technology projects by Sparrow in a five-year period.

East Lansing’s Center City District project is taking shape. Two multi-story buildings include retail, parking and residential units.

Down the road, after years of delay, East Lansing’s Center City District project is taking shape, creating an amazing transformation in the Grand River and Albert area. The 12-story Grand River building will house a small-format Target store and 273 residential units. The 10-story Albert building will house retail, parking and residential units.

As developments continue to be completed, Michigan Avenue is flourishing in other quality of life aspects including more housing and stronger neighborhoods. The livability along the corridor is drawing young professionals who have a strong desire to work and live near the urban core. There is also an increased emphasis on placemaking — building a community where people want to live. Parks and river trails are being invigorated and drawing more patrons.

The Community Foundation announced it will provide up to $1 million toward several new projects identified along the downtown Lansing riverfront. The funds will match private contributions currently being raised from individuals and corporations to support these projects. Projects include new kayak launches, boat docking, an outdoor classroom, artwork and creative lighting, public seating areas with fireplaces, and four new or improved parks and fishing areas. The foundation is working with Friends of the Lansing River Trail on design elements and with the Old Town Commercial Association to incorporate their plans for a band shell near the fish ladder.

A glimpse of what the downtown Lansing riverfront could look like. Rendering courtesy of the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction.

“The community recognizes the untapped value of our riverfront,” said Dennis Fliehman, President and CEO of the Community Foundation. “Funding for these projects will come from our Leadership Fund, not our regular grantmaking dollars.”

“There is a real sense of momentum all along Michigan Avenue,” said Daman. “It is much more than a downtown Lansing movement. Michigan Avenue is starting to look like the regional jewel it has the potential to become.”

Fulfilling the Corridor’s Potential

The vision for the future for Michigan Avenue corridor includes two linchpin projects that have the potential to spur massive amounts of economic spinoffs for the region. The first project is a proposal to turn the existing Lansing City Hall into a full-service hotel, something experts say is badly needed downtown and would be a shot-in-the-arm for the area’s convention industry.

“We are reaching the point with the growth we have had the past few years that it is tough to find dates for some groups,” said Jack Schripsema, CTA, President and CEO of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A second full-service hotel downtown will give us the ability to reach some larger groups that we can’t attract now because we don’t have the capacity.”

The second project is the recently revived Red Cedar Renaissance project on the site of the former Red Cedar Golf Course near the border of Lansing and East Lansing. The $242 million project would include two hotels, restaurants, retail, a 22-acre park, and multi-family and student housing. Bob Trezise, CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) says the Red Cedar site is the most strategically important location on Michigan Avenue corridor in that it serves as a connecting point between MSU and East Lansing and the City of Lansing.

Red Cedar Renaissance would be a $242 million project on the site of the former Red Cedar Golf Course.

“The fact that there is a large gap in development in that area serves as a deterrent for people and businesses to travel further west from MSU into Lansing,” said Trezise. “We have to make Red Cedar a connecting point or bridge in order to make everything else work.”

Gillespie, who has acquired several other properties for future development including the Sears site and the Silver Dollar Saloon in the Frandor area, and Clara’s in downtown Lansing, agrees that the Red Cedar project is critical to the future of the Michigan Avenue corridor.

“It adds a whole relevance to the Michigan Avenue corridor,” said Gillespie.

Truly Regional in Nature

Several local units of government have recognized the need to collaborate on development issues surrounding the corridor. Any given project can touch two or three different municipalities, which can lead to difficulties dealing with multiple zoning ordinances and township requirements. The Shaping the Avenue Project was put into motion in 2014. The major players in the project include the City of Lansing, Lansing Township, City of East Lansing, Meridian Township and CATA. The group’s first step has been working towards the creation and implementation of a Master Plan which is an organized plan for how each municipality wants to see their section of the corridor look and operate.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the development along Michigan Avenue has been the leadership displayed by the public sector in working across geographic and political boundaries to promote the best outcome for the region,” said Daman. “Regional collaboration is going to be the difference maker when it comes to the quality of life along the Michigan Avenue corridor and in our region as a whole.”

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