A plan for the future
|By Andy Balaskovitz|
What is a master plan? What does it do? And why is Lansing’s 52 years old?Lansing Planning Director Bob Johnson’s downtown office is modestly sized — a computer desk, a small table and some bookshelves. Aerial views of Lansing dot the walls. One bookshelf is loaded with three-ring binders, and there are files upon files that explain why Lansing looks the way it does.
Johnson is a baseball fan, and a few of those aerial renderings take you back 15 years before minor league baseball came to town. Before 1995, what is now the Stadium District was little more than a parking lot and cement retaining walls.
He refers to the sport like a time period — “before baseball” and “after baseball.”
“We looked at baseball, something this community has never had, and generated a discussion around it,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the city’s plan to grow investment in that particular area is the same way a master plan works.
The new master plan, titled ‘Design Lansing’ is, like any master plan, little more than a glorified book of ideas. In this case 175 pages long. However, those ideas are meant to shape a city’s infrastructure and lure particular development. “Defining who you want to be,” as Johnson puts it, and doing so by prioritizing.
Here is what the city has in mind, based on a series of 30 workshops held throughout the city:
A downtown focus. A higher density of people means businesses and services for those people will follow. There has been talk over the years about bringing a specialized food market downtown, but that isn’t feasible at the moment because there aren’t enough people living there.
Michigan Avenue. Perhaps medical marijuana dispensaries aren’t exactly what planners had in mind when the Design Lansing process began in 2008, but they’re here, filling vacant storefronts. Residents cited this as the main thoroughfare into the capital — an entrance to the city.
The Grand River. Consider the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, Market Place, City Market, the River Trail, Old Town and the Lansing Center as all fitting the design of the master plan. Natural resources in general hold great stock in Design Lansing and the goal is for development around them to attract people.
Road aesthetics. This will be a main component of improving such main corridors as Cedar Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Saginaw Street and Michigan and Pennsylvania avenues. Beautification projects are considered as a means to offer a quick fix to these avenues.
Walk/bicycle. People travel without cars not just because it’s healthy, but oftentimes because they have to. That is a strong concept in this plan. Lansing is fortunate to be able to build off a successful River Trail and this plan intends to do so. A main question is how the main roads will support non-motorized transportation.
Public transportation. A new and improved CATA line connecting Meridian Mall and downtown is in the works and meshes with the goal of Design Lansing: efficient, public transportation that connects Okemos to Lansing— and all the activity between — without the need for a car.
Overlay districts. This is a zoning technique meant to lift the bureaucratic restrictions on things like parking and setback requirements. Overlay districts are prominent in Old Town and are being established along Michigan Avenue. The height of a building depends on its distance to residential neighborhoods, and there are virtually zero setbacks from the road, Johnson said. This encourages dense, mixed-use development.
Storm water. A consequence of building a city means an increase of rain runoff from all of the city’s streets. “Rain garden” catch basins are popping up throughout the city to absorb rainfall instead of letting it trickle into rivers.You approach a master plan with three main questions: Do you want to enhance an area? Transform it? Or preserve it?
Lansing has had one since 1921. The last time a comprehensive plan was set forth was in 1958, though the city studied different regions of Lansing in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
That’s because the ’58 plan read like a science fiction book and the re-evaluation of the major areas had to be looked at in a more objective way, said Bob Doyle, a consultant with JJR who worked on Design Lansing.
“There were plans for helicopter pads in that thing,” Doyle said, because the authors thought we could very well be traveling that way today. “It attempted to be a very visionary document, looking at what Lansing would be like in 50 years.”
It also was crafted from the top down, so to speak, in the offices of city planners. The work in the late 1970s and early ‘80s was meant to engage the community and give a more “nuts and bolts” view of the city, but it never presented as a singular, cohesive plan.
‘Design Lansing’ attempts to combine the two, Doyle said.
Rick Kibbey, president of the city’s Parks Board, helped coordinate outreach and surveys on this master plan. He said those oldtime plans were based on projections like population growth, houses and jobs. Now, the demographics and priorities of those demographics are changing.
“If the model in your mind is a city of 1958, you’d look around and say, ‘Oh my, all the factories are gone,’” Kibbey said. “It’s just a different world and that model of economic development has grown and morphed.”
Kibbey, who has done urban planning for the past 30 years and worked on two other master plans, said he has always been “impressed” with Lansing’s 1921 plan.
So, why has it taken so long to map the direction of the city?
To Johnson, community input is what separates a useless master plan from a useful one.
But while Johnson totes the city’s ability to engage the community, it seems not everyone got the master plan memo.
“This is the first time I’ve heard about it,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham, who has lived in Lansing since 1968, wants to see the city make good on its effort to engage everyone.
But if Cunningham could add his 2 cents, albeit a
Johnson says people shouldn’t think twice
“Is this money well spent on a consultant? I think it very much is,” Johnson said.
“The problem would be having 14 people on staff and spending all of that money. People
‘A new consciousness’
Prior development in Lansing has been scattered, void of any real focus beyond residential, commercial and industrial areas. That’s how most of America was built in the 20th century.
Kibbey’s point is similar. He said planners have been on cruise control since the 1950s.
But, it’s happening.
“There is a new consciousness showing up in the master plan,” Kibbey said.
“Workshops upon workshops showed interest in downtown and Michigan Avenue,” Johnson said.
But surely, Lansing is much more than those two areas.
“This isn’t all about downtown. Unfortunately
“This is not easily solved, and it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re talking decades,” he said.
Joe Manzella, manager of regional programs for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, said those are valid questions.
“The more of
Johnson, a Boston Red Sox fan, ends our conversation with baseball.
“Baseball changed the perception of downtown,” he said.
Then he points to his office wall with an aerial photo of Lansing from the 1980s.
“It’s a sea of asphalt — what’s that say? Abandonment. Non-activity. What we’re trying to do is change that,” he said.
“We have a doggone good city,” Johnson said. “We need to recognize who we are, where we are — and not apologize for anything.”