June 25 2014 12:00 AM

Eastside businesses transform neighborhood into cultural hub

Twenty years ago, Old Town wasn’t Old Town. It was North Town, a Bohemian neighborhood that even the people who lived there called “seedy.” Today, the quaint boutique district is home to art galleries, home decor stores, hair salons and a yoga studio. The New York Times even gave it a shout-out last year in an article about the Broad Art Museum. Old Town represent!

A similar transformation is well under way in REO Town a couple of miles to the south, while downtown Lansing has continued to draw large crowds, even if the focus there has shifted away from retail toward restaurants and bars. But hey, traffic is traffic.

And with those three areas humming along, a fourth neighborhood is primed to join the ranks as the capital area’s newest hotspot. A novel experiment on Lansing’s east side has local businesses reaching out to their neighbors to forge a new(ish) identity for the diverse neighborhood. That outreach involves transforming the block into a hub of social activity, including adding outdoor pianos, tables with umbrellas and the creation of “parklets” that will try to turn passerby into lollygaggers.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to East Town, Lansing’s newest … Town.

“(The east side) is a big, untapped resource,” said Gil White, who’s overseeing the project. “My role is just pulling pieces together. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”

White is coordinating the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” implementation of placemaking devices in the 2000 block of Michigan Avenue, between Fairview and Clemens avenues. He handpicked the site because of its proximity halfway between the Capitol and the campus of Michigan State University, the two biggest attractors of talent in mid-Michigan. East Town will serve as an oasis of activity, bridging the distance.

“It’s a bottom-up form of placemaking,” White said. “This is an experiment to see how much we can do with limited time and resources to create an identity. I thought with some umbrellas to sit under, some food trucks, we could turn this into a destination.”

A series of brainstorming sessions — a technique called charrettes, which condenses months of meetings into a single week — was held last year and earlier this year. Business owners and community members were brought together to think up ways to maximize a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the Capitol Corridor project, intended to transform the stretch of Michigan and Grand River avenues between the Capitol and Webberville into a bustling center of activity. A rapid transit bus system is also part of the plan, which could debut as soon as 2017.

White said to be a success, this project will take the combined effort of municipalities, business districts and neighborhood associations working together. East Town is the first blush of that type of effort.

“These things don’t work in a vacuum,” he said. “This isn’t one and done. We’re planting seeds here to see how this will evolve over time.”

White is a consultant at the School of Planning Design and Construction at MSU and a representative for the Michigan Association of Realtors at Michigan Sense of Place Council. White’s uncle is Al White, the developer of East Lansing’s Whitehills neighborhood. He also owns Gilbert M. White Realtor Inc. and is a self-professed former “sprawl developer.” He said he was approached by MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon to work with a target neighborhood near MSU to create “a world-class corridor.”

The School of Planning Design and Construction has been studying the project with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. Two advanced degree students from MSU — Kevin McKenna and Jack McDonough — joined White in the East Town project. White’s involvement is part of a career reboot following the recent economic crash.

“I had to reinvent myself rather late in life,” said White, 61. “But I get to be a part of this project and see things happen instead of just being a study on a shelf. It’s incredible watching the ideas bubble up.”

Much of those ideas — including that East Town moniker — came from the small group of Eastside business operators who White approached: Dawne Botke, owner of the Triple Goddess Bookstore (located inside Everybody Reads Books and Stuff); Colleen Kelley, owner of the Avenue Café; Barbara Murray, owner of the Bead Boutique; Ruth Leyrer, who runs Wild Strawberry & More and Susan Schneider, office manager at Bill Leech Repair Shop.

The first phase rolled out last month with the installation of two pianos, donated by Kelley, and custom bike racks and planters built by Lansing Team Challenge in association with the Lansing Neighborhood Council. Nancy Mahlow, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Organization, has also been part of the process. She will be there this Saturday for the execution of phase two, which includes setting up the parklets, tables, umbrellas, Adirondack chairs, solar lights and purple-and-yellow banners emblazoned with “East Town.” The public is invited to help out.

“This is business-driven,” Mahlow said. “I’m here as a neighborhood leader to offer support. It’s important for the businesses to have good communication between each other, and for them to have good communication with the neighborhood. So far everything’s been very encouraging. East Town is going to be a great project. I think it’s going to bring a lot of people (here).”

The East Town project is funded by a $10,000 grant from the Ingham County Land Bank and through donations, including $3,000 from PNC Bank. Donations also came from Scott Gillespie, of the Gillespie Co., and Ed Zeineh, owner of Michigan Market; both are property owners on the 2000 block. Contributions also came in the form of soil (from Capital City Grower Supply), plants (Wild Strawberry), paint (O’Leary Paint) and table and chair construction from reclaimed materials (Craig VanOosten).

Probably the most eye-catching addition will be the parklets, where barriers will block off two parallel parking spaces on the street — one in front of the Avenue Café, the other in front of Emil’s — to create public space in the street. Andy Kilpatrick, transportation engineer for the City of Lansing, provided technical guidance for the parklet setup.

“From the city’s perspective, this was very easy to implement,” Kilpatrick said. “This was the first time this was tried in Lansing. And from transportation perspective, I’m eager to see how this works. Michigan Avenue is going to be reconstructed in next five years and this will help us start to see what the move important use of this space will be.”

The set-up will last through August, after which White will conduct an assessment about its effectiveness based on questionnaires. If it works, it could provide ideas for the other areas along the corridor. If not, “East Town” the placebuilding project may cease to be. After all, there is no real, official East Town anywhere on the books. It’s like the Santa Claus of neighborhoods: It’s only as real as you believe in it.

“Make no mistake about it — there is an East Town,” crowed John Schneider in a March 7, 1987, front-page story for the Lansing State Journal. The article sweeps up and down the 2000 block of Michigan Avenue, interviewing retailers, customers and profiling longstanding businesses at the time. The Green Door Blues Bar & Grill was there at the time, as were Emil’s Italian Restaurant, Eastside Barber Shop and Original Okinawa Karate. Long gone are the Salvation Army store, the hairdresser above Emil’s and Eddie’s Chinese and American Restaurant, a diner that used to be housed in the corner slot eventually occupied by Lamai’s Thai Kitchen, now gone as well.

The Journal article, which proclaimed the area as “prospering in cheerful defiance of both downtown and the malls,” is framed and hangs inside Bill Leech Repair Shop. But until Susan Schneider (no relation to John Schneider) pulled it off the wall a few months ago for one of the planning meetings, no one was calling this section of the east side “East Town.” Murray said she was the one who had the idea.

“We were trying to think what we could call this, and when Susan showed us that article, I said, ‘I think we just found our name,’” Murray said. “I thought this area has a lot of history — why aren’t we using it?” 

Murray also said she came up with the purple, yellow and green color scheme based on some of her beads, as well as the image of a twisty road heading toward the Capitol for the banner, which is a slightly tweaked version of the City of Lansing seal. Those banners go up this weekend, unofficially marking the resurrection of East Town.

And it could use the help. Of the 19 storefronts on that block, six sit empty, including the former homes of Lamai’s, Zeppelin’s Music Lounge (long ago Lindemann’s butcher shop), ZZ Underwater World, Rubie’s Paradise Salon (which relocated two blocks to the east) and Rae’s Yarn Boutique. All left holes in the commercial district when they exited over the last few years.

But businesses are continuing to move in as buildings change ownership and interest in the east side heats up. Wild Strawberry & More, the second location for Holt-based florist/edible arraignment shop, anchors the block’s southeast corner, while Strange Matter Coffee Co. opens next month on the northwest corner (see story page 22). A Coney Island restaurant is rumored to be moving into one of the Zeineh-owned buildings later this summer.

The other businesses are Local Tattoo & Laser Co., Asian Gourmet, Toarmina’s Pizza and Capital City Homebrew Supply, which moved here from the 2100 block last year. (That business’ owners had previously announced they planned to turn the adjacent empty space into Music Street Brewing Co., a craft beer tasting room, but two weeks ago they officially declared the project dead.)

That range of skill sets gives the little block a ragtag resourcefulness, with each business contributing something key: Food! Fitness! Flowers! Small engine repair! The diversity is beyond prized; it may be crucial to the longtime success of the collaboration.

Patrick Harrison bought a house within view of East Town nine years ago. He said he’s been impressed with both the business and community growth in that time.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive pockets of change, but you can see that it’s still trying to find an identity,” he said. “It’s good to see the businesses band together. A lot of good can come from this.”

Harrison said he’s interested in helping set up this weekend, even if he’s less than enthused about the name. He identifies himself as an east sider, not an East Towner. At least he has a sense of humor about it.

“I’m happy to welcome East Town to the east side,” he said.

Botke, 57, moved Triple Goddess, an holistic healing resource center, to this block after years in Okemos. Except for a few years she spent traveling, she’s lived on the east side her entire life. Botke said she’s happy being closer to home, as well as part of something that could have significant positive effects throughout Greater Lansing.

“Word is spreading (and) the concept is growing,” Botke said. “The best thing is, it’s movable. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it. Lansing needs a little bit of pizazz. This project is bringing some zing. Hopefully it also brings some jobs and (increased) interest.”

But even Botke can’t argue with Harrison’s logic about the East Town name hesitancy — she’s lived in the neighborhood for over 50 years and it’s still new to her.

“I consider myself an east sider, but from now on this block is East Town as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It’s all about themes. Old Town and REO Town have their own personalities, and calling this block East Town could be a unifying theme. Whatever it may turn out to be.”

East Town Implementation Stage 2

8 a.m.-noon Saturday, June 28 2000 block of Michigan Avenue, Lansing Free food and refreshments for volunteers Entertainment by Mighty Medicine