When it comes to land-use planning, Mark Grebner says there’s not much any of us can do. Developers run the game and municipalities lack the power to truly challenge them.
“For almost everybody, the township or city you live in doesn’t really capture the economic activity you care about,” said Grebner, the longtime former Ingham County commissioner. “Instead it captures a weird little slice of you. You live in one, you work in another, you go to school in a third one, your spouse works in a fourth one, you go to a store in a fifth one. So decisions about siting economic generators — stores, schools, housing — those decisions are made by people who fundamentally don’t care about you because you don’t vote for them.”
Grebner, the speaker at last week’s Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council Land Use Lunch, addressed the need for more consolidation of services among municipalities and regionalization to help shape the look and feel and livability of our communities.
Grebner spent more than 30 years on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners and is president of Practical Political Consulting, a voter list and consulting firm.
Grebner’s talk was described as being about the “utter absence of institutional framework for planning and land use control in Michigan, and the fact that nobody even notices we don't have any.”
He says ultimately we need to change the system of government in order to better control development and guide it to the locations that work for communities. Otherwise we’ll continue to have a mish mash, mix and match of types of businesses pock marked around our communities, making no sense for how we live, work, go to school, shop or play.
Until then he listed three key development issues to watch in the Greater Lansing area in the near future.
1) Michigan Avenue Corridor
Suburban sprawl is over in the Greater Lansing area, Grebner said.
“There’s almost no new suburban sprawl,” he said. “No new platts.”
That’s a signal “that we’re moving away from that to an intensification of the Michigan Avenue corridor,” he said.
That intensification runs from the Meridian Mall to down town Lansing on Michigan Avenue, he said.
The development along that corridor will leave a mark on the region for years to come.
It’s more than the impact of the Red Cedar Renaissance development or even the Stadium District.
He said it includes East Lansing apartments and pressure for walkability and even the Capital Area Transit Authority’s plans for a bus rapid transit line.
The BRT, or high-capacity buses operating in dedicated center-running bus lanes, would serve 28 stations on the eight-mile stretch between the Capitol and Meridian Mall.
“This is a trend to watch,” he said.
East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett agreed the development of the corridor requires careful planning.
“The Michigan Avenue-Grand River Avenue corridor is the economic backbone of our region,” he said. “It has been and will continue to be a focal point for economic development efforts. Increasing density along the corridor is essential to building vibrant downtowns in East Lansing and Lansing and to diversifying housing, restaurant, retail, and entertainment opportunities available to our residents and visitors.”
The corridor spans Meridian Township, East Lansing and the City of Lansing. Cooperation will be important, he said.
“It's important to be mindful about the composition of the region's housing stock as the various political jurisdictions review proposed projects, particularly those projects that are not in close proximity to the corridor or the core downtowns,” he said. “At the same time, we need to acknowledge that all rental property was not created equal. For example, in East Lansing, we have an inadequate supply of mixed-market rental housing in our downtown. Our objective should be to ensure that there are housing options available that serve the needs of a diverse population. I think it's fair to say that we are diligently working toward that goal, but we are not there yet.
2) Lansing Township
Lansing Township isn’t a place, according to Grebner.
“It’s a residual of a bunch of annexations,” he said, referring to its five “separate pieces of land, scattered all around the city of Lansing.”
He said the key thing to watch is “whether Lansing Township will implode. ... The thing to watch is maybe for annexations.”
The main revenue source for the township is an example of development that doesn’t make sense for the communities around it — Eastwood Towne Center.
“They built this thing on the basis of a Downtown Development Authority in an empty field,” he said. “So Eastwood Towne Center is where there wasn’t so much as a gas station. It’s violating every planning principal I can think of. And they have the gall to call it a downtown.”
Lansing Township Supervisor Kathy Rodgers said the township is healthier than it ever has been.
“Mr. Grebner likes to be sensational so I have no context for understanding why he would say such thing,” she said.
“Lansing Township is doing just fine, our credit rating has just been upgraded to a AA-," she continued. "For point of reference in 2007, Lansing Township didn’t even have a credit rating. Gross revenues are up and we currently have over $45 million of private development at Eastwood. I hope this helps you understand that Mr. Grebner might have a personal agenda and opinion but it is of no concern to Lansing Township.”
3) Students from China
Grebner said the Greater Lansing area should get poised for a decline in the number of students from China enrolled at Michigan State University.
According to Bloomberg Reports, Chinese students are the largest foreign student body in U.S. universities. Students from China make up 31 percent of the foreign students, it reported in November.
“There’s now Chinese students at every university in the U.S.” Grebner said. “It may be that MSU will decrease. Apartment developers need to think about that.”
Grebner said new developments like those on Grand River Avenue or on Trowbridge Road will fill, but if a sharp decline in students were felt, older apartments on Chandler Road and Dunkle Road could start to become more vacant. That would invite a change into that area if management needed to turn to lower-income residents and Section 8 payments.
MSU had 4,793 students from China enrolled last fall. That’s up from 3,017 in 2011. There is no forecast for that number to decline, according to Jason Cody, an MSU spokesman. He said on-campus enrollment is up as is on-campus housing.
"While Chinese applications are down slightly (though it is still early in the applications process), we do not forecast a decline in international or non-resident students for the Fall 2015 freshman cohort that would have any negative impact on MSU’s budget or housing demand,” Cody said.
4) South Lansing
Grebner seemed to focus on areas north and east of Lansing, so City Pulse asked, what about South Lansing?
“I’m an elitist,” he said. “Any place that has payday loans, pawn shops, blood banks, instant tax refunds, rent to own, girlie clubs … that’s not my place. They’re not my people. I like places that have good bookstores. I like having The New York Times delivered to my door.”
He said he doesn’t see any significant development coming to South Lansing or that it will ever be appealing to developers.
“South Lansing is confusing to me,” he said. “There’s no core to turn into a walkable corridor. There’s no hipsters down there. There’s no Millenials except Millenials with drug problems. South Lansing doesn’t fit into any narrative I can think of.”
Kathie Dunbar, an at-large Lansing City councilwoman and director of the South Lansing Community Development Association, could not be reached immediately for comment.