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Let Paris light the way in revitalizing business districts

Talk about aiming to be a world-class city.

The keynote speaker at a two-day conference on art and culture in business districts threw out this challenge to Lansing: “Paris should be your competition.”

Paris offers a summer beach party on the Seine, free all-night cultural events and an almost infinite number of flea and antique markets, Robert McNulty said.

Robert McNulty

McNulty is the president of Partners for Livable Communities, a Washington-based nonprofit coalition of more than 1,000 organizations. He spoke at a two-day conference called “How to incorporate Arts and Culture into Neighborhood Revitalization Programs.”

McNulty said art and cultural events are no longer seen as belonging to elite segments of the population. Ten years ago, many organizations would see culture as a luxury for the wealthy. However, he said, some nonprofits are now using art and public culture as a powerful medium for community change. He cited the NAACP and the Rockefeller, Walker, and Ford foundations as examples, and encouraged other organizations to learn from them.

About 60 people attended the conference’s opening day at the Kellogg Center at MSU. Amy Hovey, program director of the Lansing office of Local Support Initiative Corp., which sponsored the event, said only six people partook in a similar session in 1996 – an indication of the growing interest in the uses of art and culture to enhance business districts.

McNulty offered several examples of how American cities have revived downtown districts. In the 1980s, one of San Diego’s wealthiest women led the way when she “publicly announced that she’d sell her house and her Maserati, and move downtown, to become a civic player in the city.”

In Pittsburgh, a nonprofit grassroots organization called “Busk Pittsburgh” is making city parks and sidewalks more hospitable to street performers. “Busking” is the centuries-old tradition of performing art in public places for tips.

Louisville, Ky., opened an extreme sports park downtown. “The area is surrounded by restaurants and bars, and on a warm evening the downtown park draws 2,000 people who come to see people ride their bikes and skate,” McNulty said,

McNulty advised workshop participants not only to focus on the preservation of historic buildings, but also consider new buildings, as part of a broader approach to the revival of downtown areas.

“Try to get a hold of the latest architectural competition, so that somehow that new municipal building does not become simply another municipal building,” he said.

When asked what he thought of Lansing’s project to develop a 110,000-square-foot office building and adjacent 1,225-space parking ramp for downtown, McNulty replied: “This could be deadly.”

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