More than 100 eastside residents gave developer Scott Gillespie an earful Tuesday night about his proposed apartment and retail building that would replace the iconic but worn-out 2000 block of Michigan Avenue.
“I’m surprised to see so many people here” at the Avenue Café, he told them. He promised repeatedly to take their views to heart, saying the plan is “not in stone. We’re trying to get constructive feedback."
Gillespie, who owns the Gillespie Co., has proposed a $5 million, four-story building with 11,500 square feet of retail space on the first floor and 39 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments above renting from $750 to $1,250. Gillespie plans to save three buildings on the east end of the block but tear down the rest.
What he heard from some in the audience — supported by loud applause — was they didn’t like the design.
“This building is not identified with the east side,” said Joe Vitale, a Realtor and president of the nonprofit Preservation Lansing. “It could be anywhere.”
He suggested redesigning the storefronts “to look like they’ve been here.”
Vitale, who lives on the east side, asked if the facades could be saved. Gillespie said the city pressed him on the same issue. He said they were bowed out and too far gone to be salvaged.
But he said some artifacts from inside the buildings could be rescued, such as signage and part of the bar from Emil’s, the oldest restaurant by decades in Lansing and one with significant character if flawed cooking, which sold the building to Gillespie and not long after shut down altogether. He said they could be incorporated in a restaurant planned for the west end of the first floor.
Gillespie said space is being saved for a patio for the restaurant that he said “needs to be the living room for the neighborhood.”
He also said the sidewalk will accommodate seating for Strange Matter, the popular year-old coffee shop across the street that intends to move into Gillespie’s building.
Besides Strange Matter, he said a Realtor is interested in space and that he is seeking more dining.
An eastside businessman, Chuck Eallonardo from Young Bros. & Daley, applauded the plan.
“I don’t think what we want is what is there right now,” he said, referring to the dilapidated condition of most of the property. “This looks like progress.”
Eallonardo called the apartments “affordable for the kind of people we’re hoping to bring into the area.”
But others expressed concern about the $750-to-$1,250 rents and the need for more affordable housing on the east side.
Besides drawing residents, the meeting attracted a number of public officials, including Ingham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brian McGrain; County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, who chairs the preservation-minded Ingham County Land Bank; eastside Lansing Councilwoman Jody Washington and Bob Johnson, director of the city Department of Planning and Neighborhood Development.
The meeting, which lasted over 90 minutes, was supposed to be moderated by Julie Powers, an eastside resident and director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition. But Powers departed from being neutral.
“This is what we said we wanted,” she declared, pointing to a photo of the buildings’ rendering. She said the city’s master plan calls for density on the Michigan Avenue corridor. “This is our future,” even though “it may not be to all of our taste.”
Gillespie, who lives in Haslett, said he spent his first 24 years on the east side. He has already developed a mixeduse building at Michigan Avenue and Marshall Street.
“I rode my bike in the parking lot behind Emil’s and Lindemann’s meat market,” which occupied the center of the block, he said. “It feels good to be doing something where my roots are.”
After the meeting, several residents praised Gillespie.
“I think it’s important that he has been doing these things, and I commend him for that,” Maggie Hackett said. “I don’t like everything about the visual, and
I’m somewhat concerned about parking, but I think that’s something that can be worked on.”
“It’s great to see a developer even look for input from the community,” Jonathan Lum said. “I think that what comes out of it will be productive.”
Lum said the building would add density “to create a vibrant area.”
Former eastside Councilman Harold Leeman said that he hopes with some design changes he can get a majority of residents to support it. “But at the end of the day, it’s his money. Hopefully, people understand that the east side needs new investment. You can’t just live in the past.”
Many residents raised concerns about parking. Gillespie said he plans to redo the city-owned lot behind the block. When finished, it will provide 100 to 125 spots, which he said will be a net increase in public parking. The lot will also get new landscaping, including replacing all the trees. He said the existing trees are in bad shape and that two have fallen on cars recently.
In an interview earlier in the day, Gillespie said most of the buildings are “functionally obsolete.
“They’ve suffered from neglect for the last decade,” he said. He rattled off a list of problems — asbestos, mold, water damage, bulging masonry and “roofing membranes that have been flapping in the wind for who knows how long.”
Since Gillespie unveiled the plan, residents set up a Facebook page called Lansing’s Eastside Rejects East Town, the working title for the project. Over 300 people have become followers.
“The new building looks bland and it's annoying that we made the east side cool by creating the culture that draws young people here, and some mega millionaires will be profiting from the culture we created,” wrote John Mapes Krohn. “Nothing much you can do about private developers developing on their own private property.”
Another, Heather Kendrick, said, “I probably wouldn't hate this so-called gentrification as much if I saw any benefit from it as a resident, but it doesn't ‘trickle down’ to the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are still threatened. More and more vacant lots appear on my block as houses — great little houses that were once someone's pride — are allowed to get so bad they end up torn down or just falling down. Neighborliness is waning.”
What’s in a name? Apparently a lot to developer Scott Gillespie.
He’s got a working title for the 2000 block development: East Town Flats, which he said he came across in a 1930s or 1940s Lansing State Journal story on the east side. But he is asking people to vote on a list of options on the Gillespie Co. Facebook page.
The other choices: Eastside Apartments, the East Block, Model E, 200MI, the Block on Michigan, Corridor Apartments and the Gateway