As for future development projects in downtown Lansing, Economic Development Corp. President Bob Trezise has a list — literally. He rattles them off slowly and carefully, like he’s trying to remember the starting lineup of the 1989 Kansas City Royals.

“We need to work to connect REO Town, Old Town and also the Saginaw corridor with downtown,” he said. “We have to think deeply about what we’re going to do with the existing (pedestrian bridge over the Grand River). The Washington Square streetscape is very poor right now and needs to be dramatically improved … .”

Continuing: Two proposed projects by local developer Pat Gillespie, Marketplace and BallPark North, need to be ushered to completion. The city’s river trail between Kalamazoo Street and Michigan Avenue needs to be improved, just like has been done with the stretch between Michigan and Shiawassee Street. The building of a performing arts center remains a goal, and several hundred more housing units and perhaps two more hotels would do downtown some good.

Reutter Park on the south end of Capitol Avenue needs to be incorporated better into downtown, and there is work to be done to bring the residential Capitol Club Tower and the Lenawee (an office building proposed to replace the old YMCA building on Lenawee Street) to fruition. Oh, and the EDC has to work to recruit and bring more corporations downtown.

“That’s the list of things we need to work on in the coming years,” he said.

After one of downtown Lansing’s last albatrosses fell last week with the news that the Eyde Co. would work to redevelop the architecturally significant Knapp’s Department Store building, a pertinent question is: What’s next?

With the ongoing redevelopment of the Ottawa Street Power Station into the headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, and the Knapp’s announcement, it seems that the downtown has no more monumental redevelopment projects to tackle — there are perhaps now more empty parking lots than empty buildings.

As far as empty buildings go, there are a few storefronts on Washington Square that could be filled. The old Oliver Towers housing tower is still largely vacant and occupying increasingly valuable land, and the old YMCA building is stately, but apparently difficult to do anything with except possibly tear down and start fresh. Along Grand Avenue south of Michigan, there are a few parking lots and empty office buildings. On the east side of Grand Avenue is the proposed site of an upscale apartment building — the Capitol Club Tower — and beyond that, a stretch of riverfront occupied by dead (and living) trees and a dilapidated chunk of river trail infrastructure.

Along with his “to do” list, Trezise also keeps a list of things that are “impossible,” using the word as optimistically as possible. The power station was an “impossible,” so was the Knapp’s building, and so was a new City Market. The other two impossible tasks waiting in the wings: a performing arts center and a couple of new hotels.

“That’s five impossibles, if you will,” Trezise said. “We’ve hit three of those now.”

Take me to the river

If you happen to pass by the old Lansing City Market at the corner of Shiawassee and Cedar streets in the next few days, you may notice that it is slowly being picked apart. In a week, maybe, it’ll be gone forever.

Gillespie said that demolition is set to begin today. But it will not happen in one big crash. Last week, the windows were removed, and earlier in the week, the building was picked clean of its rustic hardware, like doors and other ornaments. And during demolition, scheduled to take up to 10 days, as many of the building’s old bricks as possible will be salvaged to go inside Gillespie’s Marketplace development, which will eventually rise in place of the old market.

Marketplace, and its twin east across Cedar Street, BallPark North, are part of two key aspects of continuing to grow downtown: adding more people, and opening people’s eyes to the Grand River. Both will feature a mix of residential, commercial and retail space.

It was Gillespie who, last fall, took interested parties out on a boat downtown to show them a different view of how the city looks from the river.

“We want to maximize the river,” Gillespie said. “That’s going to be a big part of the next five years.”

The first building in Marketplace, with 85 residential units, Gillespie said, could start to rise by the end of 2010. The plans for the development have not changed much since they were introduced in 2007, though interior plans for the building’s units have been sketched out. BallPark North, a sort of shoutout to apartments near Chicago’s Wrigley Field, would rise from behind Thomas Cooley Stadium’s center field, giving its residents a view of ball games. Gillespie would like to start BallPark North simultaneously with Marketplace, and finish them both at the same time.

“I’d love to see them go at the same time,” he said.

But while Gillespie’s developments at that part of the Grand River express a continued rejuvenation — along with improvements made to the river trail there, as well as on the west bank of the river at the foot of the Ottawa Power Station — pieces of the river south of Michigan Avenue have been more stagnant.

Bob Johnson, head of the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Department, says that if you look at the way riverfront development has been going, the southern tier of the downtown waterfront is ripe for improvement. The city does not have any new specific projects in mind right now for that section of riverfront, but there is the promise of the Capitol Club Tower project beginning in some form. The project, headed by developers Shawn Elliott and Alan Drouare, would place a high rise between a state office building and the South Grand Parking Ramp. Behind the proposed site of Capitol Club Tower along the banks of the Grand River is a thicket of trees that runs from the parking ramp to the Kalamazoo Street Bridge.

Elliott declined comment on what is happening with Capital Club Tower, saying that he would prefer his actions speak in place of his words. On the surface, at least, nothing appears to be happening. The project was supposed to break ground in 2007 or early 2008, but in an interview last April, Drouare said that the project was feeling the effects of a national credit lending freeze, and that the developers needed to turn some 60 interested buyers into full buyers. The tower was once projected to climb 20 stories, but was scaled back to 12 stories with 84 residential units.

But Johnson still sees hope for the project. He said the developers had to assemble three parcels into one for the footprint of the building, which was no easy task. Therefore, the land is developable, where it once was not.

“The assemblage of those three parcels provides there to be discussion on development,” Johnson says. “Heretofore, there could never have been a discussion.”

Johnson also said that he has been given “positive indication” that something will be done with the parcel. Trezise said that he has been told the project may not end up being entirely condominiums, but more of an overall mixed-use development.

Aside from Elliott and Drouare, Trezise said he has not heard of any private entity interested in building on that section of the river.

The next level

The progress of downtown Lansing from 20 years ago to now, say those who have seen it and are involved in it, is amazing. But there is still more work to be done.

Trezise has often talked about a “critical mass” of people living in the downtown area that would attract more retail opportunities, perhaps even a grocery store.

Gillespie says that surveys of people living in his downtown developments want more hotels in the area, and they want more dining choices. Trezise says that destination retail stores — like, say, a women’s clothing store — and more dining options will take a larger amount of people downtown. And, quoting a recent EDC market study of the downtown area, the area could support at least 300 more housing units, which may push it toward a “critical mass” tipping point.

Eric Rosekrans, a senior vice president of CB Richard Martin Ellis in East Lansing, who studies office space vacancy rates in the area, says that what the downtown area needs is more people. At this point, he said, the downtown area could not support another new office building — that may change by the time the Knapp’s renovation is complete in an estimated three years, he said — because there’s plenty of vacant office space.

Entertainment venues, like bars, are a sort of ground floor for retail, Rosekrans said. To bring a retailer of national scale, like a drug or grocery store, is going to take more “rooftop counts,” or more people living downtown.

“I do not know that retail will be in the near or middle range
future a big draw,” he said. “But I think you can bring in some more
that will help that area as long as the living environment continues to

said that an existing agreement with the Radisson Hotel could hamper
his desire to bring two new hotels to downtown Lansing, the goal of
which would be to boost convention business. The city cannot offer as
many tax incentives as it normally could for another hotel.

“It’s a problem we continue to work on, but we can’t violate the legal agreement, and we won’t,” he said.

It’s taken decades

was nothing. The city was dead,” said former Mayor David Hollister when
asked what downtown was like when he took office in 1993. There was
nothing open after 5 p.m., no entertainment, and certainly no loft

said he came into office with the focus of revitalizing downtown. He
focused on three main areas: Washington Square (once known as the
“Washington Mall”), the corridor along Michigan Avenue between the
Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue (a “sin strip” full of adult
bookstores, drugs and prostitution) and Old Town. Hollister hired a
consultant to come in and study downtown, who told him that downtown
needed loft apartments, maybe a sports arena, more diversity, and
elements that would make it more “walkable.”

first real development that Hollister remembers is the new Capital Area
Transportation Authority bus terminal at the corner of Grand Avenue and
Kalamazoo Street. The state had appropriated money for the center for
several years, but the funds had sat around unused.

could never agree where to put it,” he said. He went to the state and
told them, “If we don’t do something with (the money) this year, you
can take it back.”

transportation center gave the city’s image a boost, Hollister said. It
was after that that Tom Dickson came to Hollister with an idea about a
minor league baseball team.

told him I would be interested, but only if he put it downtown,”
Hollister said, reflecting that other sites, including the Red Cedar
golf course, were looked at for what would eventually become Thomas
Cooley Law School Stadium (nee Oldsmobile), the home of the Lansing

wanted to use the stadium to clean up the Michigan Avenue “sin strip.”
And it worked — after the stadium was built and opened in 1996,
entertainment venues the Nuthouse, Rum Runners and Club 621 opened up
along Michigan Avenue.

soon, downtown Lansing began to appear on people’s radar. Developments
like Buildtech president Richard Karp’s renovation of the Arbaugh
Building into lofts and Harry Hepler’s loft developments and the
now-defunct restaurant Blue Coyote were among the first investments in
urban chic.

the 1990s, most developers were still focused on developing sprawling
subdivisions and suburban shopping malls. But a new trend of young
professionals wanting to

“live, work and play” in an urban area was beginning to take hold.

recalls being one of those developers who had “developed everywhere but
downtown.” He said he didn’t think of downtown Lansing as holding the
potential of other cities’ downtowns like in Madison, Wis., or
Indianapolis. His eyes were opened, he said, while he was giving a tour
of Lansing to an architect visiting from Winter Park, Fla.

told me, ‘You have no idea of the opportunity that’s going on here,’”
Gillespie said. The architect pointed out that Madison and Indianapolis
were already developed, and that downtown Lansing was an undiscovered

“We drew a one-mile radius around the Capitol and said, ‘We’re going to commit as many resources here as possible,’” he said.

Gillespie says he does not know why the trend of young people wanting to live in urban areas sprang up, but it’s here.

Brandon Kirby/City Pulse Could this stretch of the Grand River be Lansings next big development project?

we’re finding is the age group between 22 and 35 like the feel of
living urban, green, and walkable. That sounds like just a lot of the
tag words, but that’s what they like,” he said. “Their friends are in
Atlanta and Chicago and other big cities. They would like to stay here
but have that same type of experience.”

Batting cleanup

Johnson, as the city’s sire of urban planning, has overseen a number of projects in the downtown area.

controversially, he had worked for two years on a deal to sell the
North Capitol parking ramp to Lansing Community College. The college’s
original plans called for a rehab of the concrete behemoth, and a
rooftop restaurant for its culinary school. But after City Council
killed the deal as too lopsided in favor of LCC, the college withdrew
its offer early this year. Developer Joel Ferguson has been interested
in buying the ramp, but Johnson says the ramp has not been opened up
for general sale.

was also involved in the city’s buying the land where the shuttered
BoarsHead Theater sits, with the end goal of building a mixed-use
parking ramp for workers at the new state police headquarters. But
Johnson said he’s received word from the state that there’s no parking
shortage for state police workers.

was also a plan to build a city-owned parking ramp between the new
Lansing City Market and the Lansing Center. That proposal was scrapped
because the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America and the Christman
Co. were able to secure financing to build a parking ramp next to the
power station that would serve the new Accident Fund headquarters.
Nearby, at the corner of Cedar Street and Michigan Avenue, there was
what Johnson calls “brainstorming” over building some kind of
performing arts or cultural center. But that idea has not been
discussed recently.

from the North Capitol ramp is the partially vacant Oliver Towers (the
Lansing Housing Commission still has its offices on the ground floor).
The Lansing City Attorney’s Office released a formal opinion last
Wednesday, saying essentially that the city of Lansing owns the
building. But to dispose of the building would take the Lansing Housing
Commission working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development to sell it for fair market value. At last check, Johnson
said, the commission was interested in selling the building and moving
its offices to the former School for the Blind. Patricia Baines-Lake,
the commission’s executive director, did not return a call seeking
comment on the status of the building. But Johnson said he is unaware of any specific interest right now in developing that site.

Johnson said that he has not heard of any movement on
the old YMCA building on Lenawee — he said he has not seen a demolition
permit for the building, which means that the “sky is the limit” for
the building. Rosekrans, who represented the owners, The Lawton Group,
said that the original plan for the building was to tear it down and
build an entirely new building. Julie Lawton Essa of the Lawton Group
did not return a call seeking comment.

said that he does not know the condition of the building, but even if
it is in tip-top shape, the layout of the YMCA could be prohibitive.
Much of the building is singleroom dwellings, which may not be suitable
for the class of people looking to live downtown.

asked whether there are any major projects in the works for downtown,
Johnson said any discussions right now are “embryonic, and even that’s
a stretch.”

important piece of downtown development, he said, is a study being done
by CATA of the Michigan Avenue corridor connecting Lansing, East
Lansing and Meridian Township. The study could produce a recommendation
to build new public transportation infrastructure along the corridor.
Among the options being considered are light rail, modern streetcars, a
bus rapid transit line, and improving the existing bus service.

“The culture of the region, the culture of city, needs to move to a state where we embrace mass transit,” Johnson said.

If he could have anything, what would he like to see happen in downtown?

“Two-way streets,” he said.

Urban interest

Wein, a 23-year-old MSU computer science graduate student, and an East
Lansing native, has always wanted to see the Lansing region more built
up, with more destinations and more cultural events. After finding the
Web site, which focuses on developments in Detroit, he
decided to start his own development-focused site. He launched in 2006, right at the beginning of the
administration of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, an era that would usher
in a boatload of exciting development projects. Wein’s site averages
10,000 views per month, and hosts many forums related to specific
development projects around the region. The site’s traffic has grown by
15 percent in the last month.

“I don’t know if it’s my generation or what, but there seems to be a lot of interest in living in urban areas,” he said.

excited about development, though he observes that sometimes there will
be long stretches without development news. Plus, he’d like to see some
of the major projects like the Lenawee and the Capital Club Tower
finally get off the ground. But what excites him now is the possibility
of the development of the Michigan Avenue corridor.

stronger we can build that link, that’s really going to be the key to
make things successful,” he said of connecting Lansing and East
Lansing. “We can get a lot of destinations along the way.”

asked what he thinks is the next step for downtown Lansing, Hollister
said that’s it’s the Grand River by getting Gillespie, Elliott and
Drouare’s developments up and giving people more access to the river
and connecting downtown to Old Town and creating that “critical mass.”

Biladeau, director of the downtown Principal Shopping District, sees
the Grand River as downtown’s third major street, next to Michigan
Avenue and Washington Square.

“Unfortunately, the river has not been treated as a main street for decades,” she said.

the “green” movement underway, Biladeau believes that the city has laid
the foundation for a Grand River comeback because of the combined sewer
overflow project, which has aimed to divert wastewater from being
pumped into the river, and the addition of rain gardens along Michigan
Avenue and Washington Square.

“Along museum drive and that area, there’s a lot of opportunity,” she said.

hopes that with public improvements along the river, more developments
will follow. The city’s river walk runs on the east bank of the Grand
River between Michigan Avenue and Shiawassee Street nearby to the
Impression 5 Science Center and the Riverwalk Theater.

“That’s what we can control and work on and do,” Trezise said. “And then hope private development will occur adjoining it.”

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