March 16 2011 12:00 AM

Can a street musician play on the pedestrian walkway downtown? Some local authorities say no


As snowy rain came down in 35-degree weather Thursday, a local street performer played folk music in a short-sleeved shirt to downtown passersby — in the covered pedestrian walkway connecting the Lansing Center, the Radisson Hotel and the parking ramp over the Grand River.

But while the pedway looks like an ingenious stage setup for a licensed street musician, some local authorities don’t want him there.

Between noon and 1 p.m. Thursday, Greg Robertson played his Washburn Lyon guitar for 26 different passersby. His guitar case sits open at his feet, displaying his city-issued street performer license and a few $1 bills. Robertson says Lansing Police Officer Robert Merritt gave him the OK recently to play the pedway. Neither Merritt nor a department spokesman returned calls for comment.

Scott Keith, president and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, said the city’s ordinance on street musicians is clear and that the pedway is not a sidewalk. He’s also concerned street musicians will congregate up there.

“It spells it out in the ordinance. It talks about the places they’re allowed to play, which are streets and sidewalks. The pedway is not a sidewalk,” Keith said. “I’m concerned about many street performers up there. We might have a little congestion.”

Keith said the Lansing Center has no jurisdiction of the pedway and can’t force Robertson to leave. He said this is the first time he has seen a musician attempt to play the pedway, he but thinks Robertson can’t be there.

“We don’t feel that’s a location he’s authorized to perform. We requested that he cease to perform there,” Keith said, referring to an e-mail he wrote to Robertson.

Lansing’s ordinance dealing with street musicians says they are a “composer, conductor or performer of vocal, instrumental or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody or harmony, who performs in a public place within the Central Business District.” The Grand River is defined as the eastern boundary of the district, except on Michigan Avenue, where it ends at the railroad tracks near Clara’s Lansing Station restaurant.

The ordinance continues that street musicians shall “not interfere with the use of the streets or sidewalks by the public, congest or impede traffic or endanger the person or property of pedestrians or others using the streets, sidewalks or other public places within the central business district.”

A specific ordinance relating to the pedway says no person shall “engage in any unwarranted loitering in any parking lot or parking garage … or in any overhead pedestrian walkway, whether open or closed.”

City Attorney Brig Smith said via e-mail: “Street performers do not have the right to play in the pedway.” Even if the pedway were a sidewalk, Smith said, he cited the previous two ordinances about interfering with traffic and loitering. However, there is no ordinance that explicitly bans busking on the pedway.

Licenses cost $5 a year. The city issued eight of them in 2009 and 2010, City Clerk Chris Swope said.

Mindy Biladeau, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc., agrees with Keith. She said street performers are required to get a seasonal permit through her office, on top of the city-issued license. “The pedway is not a permitted downtown street performer location,” she said in an e-mail.

Robertson said he got the idea to play the pedway in mid-February as he was walking near the City Market.

“I didn’t approach it legally, but logically,” he said about the covered area to play his music. “But I certainly have a right to do this. I don’t want to start trouble. I just want to play my music.”

Keith said the pedway is part of the North Grand Parking Structure and is not a street or sidewalk. But Robertson disagrees.

“In the real world where facts matter, this is a walkway,” Robertson said in his own defense.

Keith said that he has no problem with people playing music outside on sidewalks and has offered Robertson to apply to play at the City Market. Beyond that, Keith said he “left it in their hands” on dealing with Robertson, referring to the Parking Department.

A spokesman for the Parking Department did not return calls for comment.

Robertson plays music off the top of his head or picks from a roughly 50-song set list written on a piece of paper. A few include “Old Man” by Neil Young, “The Weight” by The Band and “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. As a sign of courtesy, he plays softly if people walk by talking on a cell phone.

Robertson grew up in Adrian and moved to Lansing in the late ‘90s, he said. He is a self-proclaimed “Romani Gypsy” and averages around $15 a day playing music on the pedway. He said he once made $102 in three hours when a “turkey and deer hunter convention” was in town, but that’s rare.

“Poverty is an apt description,” he said of his lifestyle. “But I’m a gypsy. I’m cool with poverty.”

One of Robertson’s last songs he plays for me is a tune he wrote called “Emancipation.”

“It’s about anyone who is oppressed,” he said. “Even though it’s general, I was really speaking about my day job” as a street musician.