Regional Gem or Bastardization?
|By Sam Inglot|
Lansing area leaders weigh in on Eastwood Towne Center
Bring up Eastwood Towne Center in conversation with any one of the various officials or leaders in Ingham County and you’re likely to get a range of thoughts on the development. It all depends on whom you talk to.
The ever-expanding development northwest of U.S. 127 and Lake Lansing Road has sparked both controversy and support among neighboring jurisdictions ever since its creation 10 years ago. Under the direction of the Eastwood Downtown Development Authority, the shopping center has grown and the developments in the area are expanding. Lansing Township officials remain steadfast in their belief that the development is a regional asset. Others aren’t so sure.
One of Eastwood’s most vocal critics has been Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. He says the suburban development, which borders East Lansing to the east and Lansing to the south, draws business away from the core of the region: downtown Lansing. In a recent interview about a new 1,100-person capacity music venue planned for Eastwood, Bernero said, “The urban sprawl that is best represented by Eastwood represents an unsustainable model that really tears at the core of the urban center. … (Eastwood) is a bastardization of the concept of an urban core.”
Bernero could not be reached for comment for this story, but he has referred to the jurisdiction as Eastwood Township.
Kathy Rodgers, who has been the Lansing Township treasurer for 20 years and is running unopposed in November to be township supervisor, could not disagree more.
“Unless they are calling themselves a bastardization of the urban core because we were here first — we are smack dab in the middle of East Lansing and Lansing. How that becomes a bastardization is beyond me,” she said. (Lansing Township existed before Lansing or East Lansing and has shrunk in size due to annexation.) Rogers says when people visit the area, they don’t think in terms of the various jurisdictions — “they are coming to Lansing. To think that someone is going to separate out parts of Lansing ... that is a bastardization.”
Others say the township is putting its taxpayers at risk with the way it’s developing the latest additions at Eastwood.
Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer and chairman of the Ingham County Land Bank, said the developments are risky ventures for the township and contributes to the growing concern of urban sprawl, echoing some of the same fiscal criticisms as Bernero.
“I think the township government has put its own taxpayers on the line in an unprecedented fashion,” he said. “They borrowed and they bonded to fund an awful lot of development. If it works out it’ll be fine. If not, taxpayers will be begging to merge with the city of Lansing.”
Schertzing said opinions like that of the mayor come with a good reason: Lansing has been disinvested in historically because of shopping centers like those in Meridian and Delta Township.
Addressing the risk factor to constituents, Steve Hayward, Lansing Township planning director and executive director of the Eastwood Downtown Development Authority — which acts as the developer of the Eastwood area — said the developments have proven so far to be successful. For the addition at Eastwood, The Heights, Hayward said the township had to borrow $25 million, but the revenue stream has been one-and-a-half-times higher than what they need to pay to cover the debt, meaning business is booming. NCG Cinema is expanding and a Hyatt is expected to break ground on a hotel in October. Everything is expected to be done by 2015, he said.
“Is the risk controlling your own destiny, leases, client relationship?” Hayward sarcastically mused. He said there was “some risk” involved but said places like East Lansing have funded similar developments like City Center I, which is a parking garage with commercial and retail space for places like Buffalo Wild Wings in the lower level, and Lansing borrowed money to fund Oldsmobile Park, now known as Cooley Law School Stadium.
“It’s weird that Lansing Township gets scrutinized for something that other areas have done for years,” Hayward said.
As for regionalism, Schertzing said the Eastwood development “has made it harder on other businesses within the region.”
“People don’t need to go to Lansing or Meridian if they can go to Eastwood,” he said. “Capitalism is messy. It loves to embrace the new shiny pennies and discard the old. Because of this, the urban environment needs to constantly reinvent itself.”
Schertzing said because Eastwood is built at the “edge” of the region, it makes providing services more expensive. Bernero suggested that the township was shirking its other governmental responsibilities in favor of focusing on the Eastwood developments. Treasurer Rodgers asserts that just because there is development going on doesn’t mean the township has shied away from its other duties to citizens like police, fire and code enforcement.
“Our duties are not being usurped by anything else,” she said. “We didn’t give up our police because we wanted to develop something. We’re capable of doing more than one thing at a time.”
Both Eastwood Towne Center and The Heights at Eastwood are in Lansing Township, which is like a series of islands in the sea of the Lansing area. The township is approximately five square miles, which is broken up into five pieces of land surrounding Lansing while bordering East Lansing and other townships. About 8,100 people live in the township, according to the 2010 Census. It’s by far the smallest township in the region, with other townships like Meridian, Delhi and Delta having roughly five times the population and land.
Gone are the days of expected shopping mall development in green space, Rodgers says. “It’s a lifestyle center. It’s the most popular type of development in the U.S. The design is what is different.”
The “lifestyle center” is essentially “shopping mall 2.0.” The shopping center provides many of the same types of shops and amenities that are available in traditional shopping malls like the ones in Meridian and Delta but the layout is entirely different. Stores and restaurants are not housed in one giant building. Instead they are spread out in smaller buildings speckled throughout an expansion of parking lots mixed in with aesthetic pleasures like flowers, fountains and outdoor seating. It’s designed to look like a downtown or urban area, not a shopping mall.
Lifestyle centers host a range of amenities: retail, commercial, office and residential spaces are all intertwined into the development to break away from the old-school-mall-feel. The Heights at Eastwood will feature 124 luxury apartments, which will be maintained by DTN Management.
“The residential component has left me cold,” Schertzing said. “I just can’t see living in the middle of the concrete — you’re literally surrounded by concrete and asphalt. I would not want to be responsible for marketing it — life is hard enough.”
What do the neighbors think?
Officials in neighboring jurisdictions present a mixed bag of reactions when it comes to the Eastwood developments, how it’s affected their jurisdiction and whether it adds to a sense of regionalism.
Bernero spews fire when talking about the development. But Lansing City Council President Brian Jeffries has a much more diplomatic approach.
“That’s not their motivation,” Jeffries said in response to the regionalism claim. “Their motivation is to improve the local economy.” He adds that it’s “unrealistic” to say, as a policy, that you bring in development for the purpose of benefiting the region.
“Would I rather have Eastwood in the city? Absolutely,” Jeffries said. “But I think we have to support each other, to seek development that complements each other, rather than drawing from one place to another.”
Walk from Eastwood across U.S. 127 and you’ll find yourself in East Lansing, where the development, in the eyes of Mayor Pro Tem Nathan Triplett, has had two effects.
“I think there is no denying it has added options for consumers,” he said. “But it’s impossible to deny it’s created a tremendous strain on East Lansing and Lansing.”
As Triplett put it, it’s a battle between DDAs, or downtown development authorities. Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township all have DDAs and they’re all “trying to get potential investors.” But the reality of the situation is that there is are a “limited amount” of new investors and they have to make choices. Right now, he said, they have an easy choice. He said deciding to invest in a downtown like Lansing or East Lansing is a far more expensive proposition than moving a business to the Eastwood area.
“There are always going to be challenges associated with urban development,” he said. “(Urban areas) are not easily changed. The cost is higher when it comes to land value and rehab costs. That’s the balance that these businesses have to weigh. It will never be an equal playing field between urban reinvestment and suburban development.”
“Personally, I’m of the conviction that for the region to thrive we need a strong urban core, and this challenges that — you’re talking about essentially an unequal playing field,” he said.
Head farther east and you’ll run into Meridian Township, which has a shopping center of its own: the Meridian Mall. Meridian Township Supervisor Susan McGillicuddy said that because of its location near U.S. 127, Eastwood Towne Center definitely has some regional appeal.
The Meridian Mall, McGillicuddy said, has struggled over the past 10 years since Eastwood Towne Center was constructed. She couldn’t say how much of the decline is a result of the Eastwood developments, but she said there had to be a degree of correlation.
“There is a direct correlation, but it’s no different when the Meridian and Lansing Mall went in and it hurt downtown Lansing,” she said. “People have said in the past how awful it was that the mall was hurting Lansing.”
She said the Eastwood developments are “part of the (urban) sprawl” she’s “been fighting for the past 20 years”.
“The region doesn’t work together very well,” she said. “We try, but ultimately the cities don’t work well with the townships.”
Hopping over to the other side of Lansing where the most western chunk of Lansing Township borders Delta Township, there’s the Lansing Mall. Ed Reed, Delta Township economic development coordinator, chuckled when asked if the Eastwood Towne Center has hurt their mall or the township’s economic prosperity.
“I don’t think it’s hurt us,” he said. “Just because one local government is successful doesn’t mean it’s a drain on others.”
He said he “speaks regularly” with the Lansing Mall management and he said they are “comfortable with where they are at” both financially and development-wise. He said when you compare the Lansing Mall with malls in similar-sized markets, it’s doing fairly well.
He said the competition that Eastwood brings to other local economies is a good thing because it creates a “mix” of consumer options and is ultimately good for the region.
Nearly 14 miles south of Eastwood Towne Center is Delhi Township, where Stuart Goodrich has been the township supervisor for the past 10 years. He believes Lansing Township officials may be “overselling” the regional-gem pitch, but said ultimately it’s a positive for the Lansing area.
“With any development of that type, you’d always like to see it in your jurisdiction rather than someone else’s, but we’ll work with it,” he said.
He said with Eastwood bringing people into town, it makes other businesses look at what’s out there in the region for development opportunities, which means potential investment in places like Delhi.
He then laid out his opinion on some of the disgruntled feelings toward Eastwood like those of East Lansing and Lansing.
“Lansing really feels that Lansing Township should be a part of them,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a Lansing Township, that’s how some of the heads of Lansing feel, that it should all be one. That’s not realistic. They can fight all they want — that’s probably not going to happen. The best thing to do is work with everyone and make it work out for everybody.”
Developments like the Capital Gateway Project, which has been proposed for the Red Cedar Golf Course area on Michigan Avenue, is a much better type of development because it’s not contributing to urban sprawl like Eastwood, Schertzing, the county treasurer, said. Instead, the Red Cedar project is “infill” of vacant land situated on the busiest street linking Lansing and East Lansing.
One of the developers of the “infill” planned at Red Cedar is Chris Jerome, who also is not a fan of Eastwood. He said it’s made his life “really difficult” because they’ve already lost potential investors in the Capital Gateway Project to Eastwood. He had some pretty harsh words for the development.
“I think it’s just a publicly funded dragnet to steal as much regional investment into a specific site as possible,” he said. “It’s going to make filling up empty buildings in East Lansing and Lansing much, much more difficult than it otherwise would be.”
Andy Schor, assistant director for state affairs with the Michigan Municipal League, a lobbying group for cities, townships, counties and villages, focuses on economic development and land use. While he wasn’t opposed to the development, he said the league favors downtown redevelopment over building town centers like the one at Eastwood. Schor is the Democratic candidate for the 68th House district seat, representing Lansing.
“I think we’d rather see downtown revitalization before wiping out green space and building new developments,” he said. “Cities can never compete with building in green space. We try to avoid that.”
It’s obvious that while some consider the development at Eastwood a regional asset, there seems to be a lack of cooperation between jurisdictions when it comes to developments. Perhaps it’s jealousy or pride that keeps officials from playing nice with one another. Leo Rodgers has been a Lansing Township trustee for eight years and shares his mom’s (Treasurer Kathleen Rodgers) frustration over the criticism of Eastwood.
“Clearly, our economic development has enhanced the entire region. Whenever anyone in the greater Lansing area has a successful project, we all benefit,” Leo Rodgers wrote in an email. “I would be violating my oath of office if I even suggested, let alone attempted, to retard Lansing Township´s economic growth because of a few officials in other jurisdictions have their head in the sand. No other jurisdiction comes to Lansing Township and informs us of what they are doing, why they are doing it and who they are doing it with. Therefore, I fail to see the significance of examining what other jurisdictions think of our community. We are who we are and the City is the city.”