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Instant city: The aesthetics of Greater Lansing's big development wave

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The owner of a shopping center we’ll call Blandor was angry. Last December, we named SkyVue Apartments, the hulking, cheap-looking apartment block next door to Blandor, our 2018 “Eyesore of the Year.”

Big projects like SkyVue, he scolded us, generate jobs and tax revenue, yet here we were, complaining about architecture — “of all things.”

That throwaway phrase got us thinking. Maybe it’s time to look at the buildings going up in greater Lansing from a purely aesthetic point of view.

Shadows are lengthening across the city and the sun is getting nervous. Across from MSU in downtown East Lansing, unprecedented high-rise developments are mushrooming to over 10 stories. In Lansing, new mixed-use projects are doubling and tripling Michigan Avenue’s century-old two-story height lines.

Where the two cities meet, the biggest development in years — the Red Cedar project — bids to out-do everyone, at least in scale.

Most of us will be looking at these buildings for the rest of our lives.

Setting aside, for the time being, the wrangling over land use, economic development, tax credits and so on, this story is meant to open a discussion about architecture — “of all things.”

‘Spreadsheet in physical form’

Is there a name for the style of architecture of the big buildings going up in greater Lansing? Why are they being designed and built the way they are?

“Some things have been moving so quickly we haven’t named them yet,” East Lansing architect Dan Bollman said. “Things have to sit around a while for there to be an identified style. And there has to be a lot of them.”

I was undeterred. I wanted to classify, pigeonhole, criticize. I knew I couldn’t do it alone.

I called upon Bollman and Amanda Harrell Seyburn of East Arbor Architects in Lansing to help me sort it all out. Bollman writes many of City Pulse’s “Eye Candy” and “Eye for Design” columns. Harrell Seyburn is an associate at East Arbor and an avid student of the new urbanism — the art of building walkable cities with a fine-tuned mix of housing, businesses and recreation.

True to her new urbanist credo, Harrell Seyburn wanted to walk this tour, but damn, it was 28 degrees outside.

So we met in the parking lot at the Sears store on Michigan Avenue, where Lansing and East Lansing meet, and planned a circle drive, first to the towering new developments taking shape in East Lansing, then to downtown Lansing, and back to Sears.

The master class began before our car moved an inch.

Looming over our car, and even the Sears water tower, was SkyVue, a giant block of student apartments visible from miles away.

Bollman explained that architecture — of all things — is not the primary driver of this, or almost any other big project in the area.

“It’s driven more by cost per square foot," Bollman said. “They’re going to build it for this particular amount, they expect to get a certain amount per square foot over a certain number of years, and where those two lines intersect is the sweet spot. It’s a spreadsheet, basically, and it’s taken physical form.”

Material costs are the main driver of design in most new projects. A hallmark of the latest wave of development, here and around the world, is the sparing use of brick in favor of less expensive metal panels.

In addition to her design talents, Harrell Seyburn is a “material culture” freak. Bricks and stone, often obtained locally, have added a regional flavor to architecture for centuries. As the 21st century rolls on, the availability of metal panels, manufactured and traded globally, is contributing to the sterile, homogenized feel of big buildings everywhere. The decline of brick, Harrell Seyburn said, has led to a “loss of craft.”

Bollman looked up and down the sheer, pale cliffs of SkyVue. “I’m certainly not a fan of the way it looks,” he said. He scanned the facade for signs of relief and variation and found some. “We’re looking at horizontal gray, brick pattern grey, horizontal blue, vertical white. There are some blue panels.”

Harrell Seyburn was more concerned about the building’s placement, away from the sidewalk and street.

“It can never be transitioned easily into being part of a series of buildings that’s welcoming to pedestrians,” she said. “Everything about it is a cube that’s, ‘Hands off, don’t come near me.’ It’s not welcoming to the community.”

But she added that the Skyvue’s isolation, with parking lots on either side, has a lot to do with its stark appearance.

“If it was joined by a few more buildings, it would start to feel more contextual, part of a conscious thought, but right now it feels kind of out of place,” she said. “It is part of the beginning of a vision for this part of the Michigan Avenue corridor to be of a much larger scale and a gateway into East Lansing and Lansing.”

Flattening the peak

SkyVue probably won’t be alone in its enormity for long. The land under Sears belongs to Lansing’s most active builder, Pat Gillespie. This location has so far escaped being closed as part of Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s bankruptcy negotiations, but nobody expects it to last forever. Across Michigan Avenue, the controversial Red Cedar project — potentially the biggest the area has ever seen — is in a delicate phase of gestation. Two weeks ago, an underwhelmed City Council Vice President Peter Spadafore called the Red Cedar project “Chandler Crossing in a swamp,” referring to a notoriously ugly, sprawling East Lansing student housing project north of town. (Without changes, the project may be dead. See story, Page 5.)

The Council’s objections centered on the mix of uses proposed for the Red Cedar project, not the aesthetics of the architecture, but early drawings of Red Cedar suggest a hybrid of SkyVue, Chandler Crossing and a bloc of sleeker buildings with more angular, Modernist touches — a very large spreadsheet in very large physical form.

Out of professional courtesy, my experts declined to evaluate plans that are still in flux, but there were plenty of real projects to visit.

Before leaving the parking lot, we took a deep dive into a tiny but telling architectural detail: the little peaks seen on thousands of commercial projects built or remodeled in the 1980s and 1990s, from the retail businesses across from MSU along Grand River to innumerable strip malls. The presence or absence of those peaks offers a clue about the direction architecture is taking, not just here, but across the country.

“It’s a vague historical reference to the idea of the pediment or the pitched roof,” Bollman explained.

The pediment is the triangle atop the front of a building that fills the space between the pointy roof and the flat ceiling below it. In the Parthenon, it’s filled with exquisite statues. In many strip malls, there’s a cute little dot inside.

Pitched roofs are a Midwestern thing. They slough off snow. It’s the first thing a child draws when she draws a house. The mere sight of a peak says “home” — even on top of a strip mall.

Those little peaks are among the decorative touches that spread everywhere when post-modernist architecture made its way across mid-America in the 1980s and 90s. Architects have a term for this: the “decorated shed,” a reaction to the clean lines of Modernism (which itself was a reaction to the allegedly over-decorated buildings that came before).

The change was in full swing when Bollman was in school 20 years ago.

“We got tired of having everything stripped down to glass boxes and exposed steel,” he said.

Architect Philip Johnson rocked the architecture world by topping a New York skyscraper with a fancy pediment — in the heart of the forest of sleek modernist towers such as the World Trade Center.

The ultimate example of postmodernism in Lansing is the Michigan Chamber of Commerce building, at 600 S. Walnut St., a zig-zagging circus of faux peaks, red brick and horizontal white bands.

Architects argue over whether post-modernism is dead, but our circle tour strongly suggested that it is on life support. None of the newer developments we looked at had any peaks or other post-modernist touches. On the contrary, many of them have almost flashy flat roofs that resembled helicopter landing pads. A new modernism, not as stark as the first wave, seems to be taking over.

The next building we looked at bore this theory out dramatically.

Global conversation

MSU’s silvery 1855 project, across from the Breslin Center, commands a block-long stretch of Harrison Road, thanks largely to a cantilevered slab on a metal pillar three stories high.

We found ourselves looking at more metal panels - a lot more.

“Everybody is using the same materials,” Bollman said. “Many products are from Eastern Europe. That would have been unheard of a short time ago.”

Harrell Seyburn called the project “intentionally conspicuous.”

“They captured what they wanted to — that they are a forward-looking institution and there are high-tech things happening at Michigan State,” she said.

“It doesn’t do much for me,” Bollman commented.

In a few minutes, we were in the shadow of the biggest project underway in East Lansing — the 12-story Landmark on Grand River, in the heart of downtown.

“It’s a first pass at trying to raise the ceiling,” Bollman said. “It’s the result of a special use permit and an extra two stories of height that require a supermajority of City Council to sign off on.”

“This a global conversation,” Harrell Seyburn said. “The change in urbanism from a quaint scale to a very high-scale, mixed-use community is happening in communities all over the world.”

But what is it, architecturally? The most common term for what’s going up in many American cities after modernism and post-modernism is — you guessed it — post-post-modernism.

Maybe we can do a little better.

The layout of the Landmark project suggests not one, but a cluster of towers. Two larger masses, each with its own set-back section, flank a central bay in which nestles a central, convex tower. At street level, a layer of brick (where a Target store will go) hugs the sidewalk, matching the businesses on either side. Bollman calls it “holding the line.” Above street level, the ubiquitous metal panels are varied in color, with handsome red bands mimicking the brick.

The phrase “instant city” popped into my head. The varying colors, textures and setbacks not only break up the mass, they fool the eye into seeing a row of buildings with a history. Giant accordions like the Landmark mimic the two-story rows of businesses that evolved slowly, unit by unit, along strips like East Lansing’s Grand River and Michigan Avenue on the east side of Lansing, only on a much larger scale.

“This building is going to seem overbearing for the time being,” Bollman said. “Whether that softens over time, or becomes something that’s palatable or even enjoyable, time will tell.”

“Instant City” projects are popping up in mid-sized cities across the country, wherever pent-up potential for growth is being unleashed.

“East Lansing is much smaller than East Lansing, and there isn’t much room for growth in any direction, except upwards,” Harrell Seyburn said. “What everybody seems to relish as the quaint college town is changing at an unprecedented level. It’s moving extremely fast.”

We drove farther east, to the edge of campus, where the Hub, another behemoth is rising to 10 stories at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Bogue Street.

This “instant city” is divided into three slabs that will be colored black, silver and red, with setback units between.

“High, taller buildings are fine in the right place,” Bollman said. “The ideal location is on a corner.”

The Hub isn’t finished, but Bollman liked the way it pivots to hug an angled “knuckle” in Grand River Avenue.

“It takes advantage of that knuckle and breaks the scale down pretty well,” he said.

How much of this high-rise stuff is too much?

Avatars of the new urbanism like Bollman and Harrell Seyburn have borrowed a concept from the natural sciences — the transect, or a zone of transition from one ecosystem to another.

They’ve identified six zones, ranging from totally undeveloped land (T1) to high-rise hyperdensity (T6).

Healthy communities should have land that fits into all six zones, but East Lansing has long been dominated by residential zones. Under this view, a certain amount of high-rise density is part of a healthy balance.

But things could also get out of hand.

“It might do a disservice if the entire stretch of Grand River, from here to Okemos, was high rises,” Harrell Seyburn said.

We drove out of the shadows of the Hub and Landmark to the heart of Lansing.

Carrot and the stick

Nearing downtown, we passed by the dark brick towers, turrets and movie-style marquee of The Stadium District, anchored in a layer of lighter hued stone.

“Hands down, one of the best,” Harrell Seyburn said. “It was one of the first and it’s still so well done.”

“It’s solid. It’s a great anchor and it’s aged well,” Bollman agreed. He noted a commonly invoked rule of thumb for good design — “three materials plus the roof.”

“Stone foundation, brick face and limestone trim, for example,” he said.

We parked behind the multi-colored panels of The Outfield, an arc of apartments positioned behind the ballpark. The colorful panels get a lot of ridicule, but my experts cut the design some slack.

“There’s a place for all kinds of architecture,” Harrell Seyburn said. “This feels playful. I think it’s appropriate with a ballfield.”

“They’re trying to establish an identity,” Bollman said. “It is a playful use of color.”

They like it that the architect, Studio Intrigue, and developer Pat Gillespie are both from Lansing.

“There’s a language being developed that’s iconic to their studio,” Harrell Seyburn said.

Bollman found the four-story height just right.

“If this were done at twice the height, it would be a lot more overbearing,” he said. “Maybe that’s the trick at SkyVue.” Besides, the panels will be easy to change up if people get tired of them.

“You can easily re-clad a building to ease it into its next life,” Harrell Seyburn said.

Circling back to Sears along Michigan Avenue, my experts took a longer view of the changes overtaking greater Lansing.

“We think the Lansing metro area is still finding its architectural culture,” Harrell Seyburn said. “It’s a young community, about 150 years old at most. That is a blip in architectural history.”

I asked them to name a few projects they liked.

“The Hannah Lofts, on the east side of MSU, are kind of anonymous, but they did a pretty good job,” Bollman said. “It’s not brilliant, but it’s attractive.”

He also named the Arcadia Brewing Co.’s makeover of an old bank on Michigan Avenue’s 2100 block and an addition to Old Bailey school in East Lansing, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Center Project.

They both love the Lake Trust Bank in front of the Lake Lansing Meijer, a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish fantasia that riffs on the quintessentially Midwestern “longhouse,” with logging era touches.

“Lake Trust is a really clever one,” Harrell Seyburn said. “It’s really cool, growing out of regional culture.”

On our way west, we passed The Venue, the new six-story, mixed-use development dominating the 2000 block on the east side.

Just as the Landmark project is the first taste of hyper-height in East Lansing, The Venue is the opening shot in a more modest spurt of growth along the eastern stretch of Michigan Avenue.

Harrell Seyburn deemed it “an appropriate background building and a scale that makes sense there.”
The arrested development of Michigan Avenue has long fascinated Harrell Seyburn. When I-496 replaced Michigan Avenue as the quick way to get downtown, the main artery from the Capitol to MSU was frozen in time. Business moved in here and there, often taking over or modifying houses, but for decades, the only real growth seemed to be at Sparrow Hospital.

“It hasn’t grown up to the scale of an urban street that one would expect by this point in a community of this scale,” she said.

However, Bollman and Harrell Seyburn admitted that change, even on a modest scale, comes with a cost.

“You’ve wiped away the history the community has with that block,” Harrell Seyburn said. “When businesses leave, there’s such a loss of community sense at times. It’s almost more offensive when something gets built in its place. It strikes people’s souls.”

They both love the local history murals painted last year by artist Brian Whitfield at the base of the Venue.

“If you want the community to embrace the new development, you’ve got to use the carrot, don’t just use the stick,” Harrell Seyburn said. “Sometimes I think there are developments that are just using the stick.”

With that, we came full circle and arrived back at SkyVue.

Sigh.

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