a cool city look like? In a recent survey of Cooley Law School students,
only 3.9 percent named Lansing. They missed street vendors, plants and
trees, foot traffic after 5 p.m., restaurants, groceries and shops.
They pointed to Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids as places that took urban
revitalization more seriously — places that Lansing could learn
Urban sprawl is the reason 95 percent of Lansing’s business no
longer takes place in the old downtown center, but in suburbia, and
why opening a store downtown has become an immediate struggle. This
is the expert opinion of community planner Mike Wyckoff, one of the
authors of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s recent land use report.
Wyckoff, who is also president of the Planning and Zoning Center, a
Lansing public policy think tank, remembers how downtown Lansing began
to die during the late 1970s, when wealthier residents moved to the
suburbs, and the commercial life left with them. Between 1990-2000 the
demographic of 20- to 34-year-old residents declined by 17,300. Today
not even another new mall could harm downtown, says Wyckoff: “Because
there are too few businesses left.”
has everything it needs,” says Ron Whitmore, director of the
Northwest Lansing Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, “but it
also has this kind of ‘stuckedness’ about it. There
seems to be something that keeps preventing it from taking the next
sprawl has also led to a dramatic loss of green space. Most of the land
around Lansing and East Lansing is developed, which makes it difficult
for outdoor lovers and children to hike and play and find trails to
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Greater Lansing lost 27
square miles of farmland between 1987 and 1997. That’s practically
the size of the entire city of Lansing (which is 33.9 square miles).
Interestingly, Lansing and Ann Arbor have had the same ratio of land
loss in comparison to population density.
In both cities, land consumption has been twice the rate of population
size between 1960 and 1990 (in Grand Rapids this was 3:1).
Ann Arbor recently approved a parks and greenbelt proposal to limit
sprawl by buying land in the surrounding suburbs. The proposal would
raise $85 million to preserve 7,000 acres of the best open space in
and around the city. Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said the policy would
give the city an “edge” over other places that compete for
businesses and young residents.
This land preservation policy is a milestone for Michigan, said Gene
Townsend, a builder of environmentally friendly homes in Lansing. But
Townsend says fighting urban sprawl in Lansing is more difficult than
in Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids, where a viable urban core has been preserved.
whose family moved to Okemos in 1959, recalls how as a boy he went to
see the circus every summer on undeveloped property, not far from a
natural pond that was ideal for ice skating. Today, this land it is
a Meijer’s mega-strip mall paved with a large asphalt parking
lot that is typical of urban sprawl.
The green builder said that if city planners really cared, they wouldn’t
build large roads 10 feet away from residential areas, as happens so
often in the area. He believes urban revitalization can happen, but
only if there is a collective approach to limiting sprawl and growth.
“It won’t be a single step. A group consciousness is the
result of many small steps.” And Townsend has taken one of these
After a several-month search for a perfect location for their “urban
village,” he and a dozen urban renewal activists now own a cluster
of five houses, which were vacant, for rent, and for sale, onBancroft
Court in Lansing’s inner-city Genesee Neighborhood. Although each
home is separate, members will have access to a common building, where
optional communal meals, a community library, meeting rooms and rooms
for childcare are available. They’ve transformed the courtyard,
which was originally paved for parking, into a green field with walkways,
and a playground and a vegetable garden.
Grand Rapids example
Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie is also an outspoken supporter of “smart
growth,” the kind of growth that fights traffic congestion, economic
segregation, offers more affordable housing and infuses a sense of community.
“The longer people spend in traffic, the less likely they are
to be involved in their community and family,” Logie said in a
recent interview with WKAR radio.
Grand Rapids embraced new planning principles by rewriting its master
plan. The city held more than 100 public meetings to solicit comments,
ideas and opinions from local residents about planning, sprawl and how
land use could be improved. The meetings included nearly 3,000 people
in the planning process. Among the ideas written into the master plan
was the recognition that people have the right to exist in a healthy,
supportive, naturally diverse and sustainable environment. Another principle
is the understanding that decisions about how things look and where
they are built have consequences on human well-being, natural eco systems,
and our ability to coexist with our environment. A third principle stresses
the need to design buildings and communities that have long-term value.
Future generations should not be burdened with maintenance, danger,
damage and waste because of careless design.
Grand Rapids partners with neighboring townships and cities to design
and construct water and sewer services in a way that guides new growth
into existing communities, reducing the costly work of continuously
expanding and extending roads and new utilities.
Logie argues that property rights advocates aren’t right when
they ask for the unlimited rights to develop their properties. “What
if one person’s development decision adversely impacts another’s
property, or the whole neighborhood?” Logie asked.
In the 1970s, Logie, who will retire this year after 12 years in office,
helped write a state law allowing local governments to set up historic
districts. Today there are 1,839 historic properties in Grand Rapids,
716 in East Lansing, and 28 in Lansing.
Logie also helped write a state law, creating Renaissance Zones in inner
cities, where businesses and residents could get tax breaks for remodeling
old buildings. Grand Rapids now has seven Renaissance Zones —
Lansing has one. The city also changed the zoning of several old warehouses,
to encourage mixed use and attract suburban residents back to the cities.
Retail stores, restaurants, offices and apartments were allowed to exist
in the same building.
The most recent plan under debate, the so-called Metropolitan Rebate,
would allow the metropolitan area’s 47 different units of local
government — which together spend over $650 million a year —
to voluntarily consolidate essential services and reduce individual
operating budgets. The mayor expects this to free up over $30 million
in taxpayer money.
Carrying out the plan will first need the agreement of those 47 jurisdictions
and a new state law that makes such intramural cooperation legal.
the state is doing
of Michigan isn’t far away from pushing land use reforms, following
the urging of Michigan’s Land Use Leadership Council for greater
cooperation among local governments. Urban sprawl opponents expect Granholm
to issue an executive order. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign,
Granholm promised to build a stronger state economy by curbing sprawl.
After her inauguration in January she used the state’s severe
deficit to negotiate with the Republican-led Legislature and cut 17
expensive road-building projects.
Thus, Michigan follows a nationwide trend against urban sprawl. In just
the past two years, there have been 13 gubernatorial executive orders
addressing the issues of growth and development, Patricia E. Salkin,
director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School, said.
Central Park Apartments in Meridian Township typifies a complex
that offers privacy but neglects public and community space.
a program coordinator for the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah,
said that Grand Rapids is in better shape than Lansing because there’s
a “very collaborative and long-standing business community.”
Mayor David Hollister did a “miraculous job” to revitalize
Lansing, said Schneider, given that downtown Lansing looked like a ghost
town in the late 1980s. He believes that the bottom of decline due to
sprawl has been reached, and that places like Grand Rapids, Lansing
and even Detroit are reviving.
Schneider is enthusiastic about the Granholm administration’s
plan to provide people more choices, to revitalize their neighborhoods,
send their kids to a decent schools, walk to work, and own just one
car, if they wish. He lamented that unfortunately “there are no
walkable communities in Lansing.”
This is not so in Grand Rapids, where municipal neighbors and the city
government have united around the region’s transit service, which
takes people to work and children to school, relieves traffic congestion
and reduces air pollution. The bus system, known as the Interurban Transit
Partnership, is so popular that residents on Nov. 4 voted to boost funding
for the second time in three years.
Wyckoff calls the case of Grand Rapids a “work in progress”
because it doesn’t deal with all aspects of public service or
growth and participation is voluntary. “Compared to similar situations
in other states, it’s a long way from ideal,” said Wyckoff.
He mentioned the more progressive example of Indianapolis, where county
and city merged their governments.
Wyckoff said that the large number of political jurisdictions is the
root cause of sprawl. There are more than 1,800 local units of planning
and zoning in Michigan, which is five times greater than the average.
“Each one looks at the world as if it ends at their borders. With
no statutory obligation to coordinate land use decisions on a multi-jurisdictional
basis, there is no incentive for them to do anything differently.”
The most sprawled areas in Lansing border the so-called “nine-township
area” of Watertown, Dewitt, Bath, Delta, Lansing, Meridian, Windsor,
Delhi, and Alaiedon townships.
A vicious circle begins with increased development. While growing townships
benefit from additional revenues due to incoming property taxes, they
aren’t obliged to pay the necessary public service costs for police,
fire, sewer, storm drains and roads, which come into growth. Township
residents also pay fewer taxes than city residents, whereas cities continue
to lose tax revenues due to increased urban flight.
Passing land-use laws that weigh the interests of city and township
residents will be a difficult task for lawmakers, said Wyckoff, particularly
due to large regional differences. To illustrate the problem, the planner
mentioned the fact that Ann Arbor was the only Michigan city where population
has been increasing in the last 10 years. To mark a sharp contrast,
Detroit’s population has dropped below 1 million. Residents are
paying very high taxes, however, because the city’s water utilities
and sewer were built to accommodate 2.2 million people in 1955, when
the city had 1.825 million residents. “You can’t lose half
of your population, and have an infrastructure designed for more than
twice your population, without having high taxes,” said Wyckoff.
Lansing, he said, is somewhere in the middle.
role of city government
David Wiener, executive assistant to Lansing’s Mayor Tony Benavides,
said he realizes Grand Rapids has made great progress in fighting urban
sprawl and that Lansing could go further. Lansing is working with other
agencies in the tri-county area on economic development as well as mental
health and senior programs, he pointed out.
Lansing already has some mutual aid agreements with the surrounding
townships, but the city hasn’t taken the next step to “formalize
those relationships in a big picture.” During Benavides’
first year in office, Wiener said, he focused on dealing with budget
problems, housing and economic development issues. Broadening regional
planning will most likely become a priority in the next year or two.
“It took [former Mayor] David Hollister one year before he began
to broaden his vision and look regionally. I think Benavides is going
through the same process,” he said.
Ten Tenets of Smart Growth
1. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
2. Create walkable neighborhoods
3. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
4. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense
5. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective
6. Mix land uses
7. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental
8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
9. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
10. Take advantage of compact development design
“Michigan’s Land, Michigan’s Future: Final Report
of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council,” August 2003,
executive aide said Benavides continues to support a blue ribbon committee
for downtown revitalization, which Hollister started in the late 1990s.
These efforts are beginning to pay off, Wiener said. The fact that developers
have most recently finished 30 lofts on Washington Avenue has much to
do with the city’s incentive program for urban renewal, he said.
Loft developers don’t have to pay property taxes for six years,
under the city’s neighborhood enterprise zone program.
Wiener said that even though lofts and more affordable housing are key
to drawing people downtown, the city needs to create additional points
of attraction, to generate an effect similar to the one Oldsmobile Park
on Michigan Avenue brought. A 2001 plan to build a performing arts center
is still on the table, he said, but funding is a problem due to the
state’s dramatic budget deficit. There are also competing interests,
because the Lansing Center would like to expand its facility to compete
with Grand Rapids’ new convention center. “The director
of the convention center is very anxious to have us make that a priority,”
Reflecting on the 30 years he’s lived in Lansing, the Philadelphia
native said he is quite optimistic about the city’s potential
to turn things around. Wiener recalls how the initial goal in 1993 was
to save downtown Lansing. Back then, Hollister used the expression that
one could “shoot a cannon on the streets and would not hit anybody.”
Ten years later, this is no longer the case. More than a dozen restaurants,
and half a dozen shops are open after 5 p.m. and on the weekends. The
quality of life in downtown Lansing has improved. Now Wiener himself
would like to take regional cooperation one step further. At the next
meeting of area city managers, Wiener wants to address the issue of
increased regional cooperation. “I believe the time is right that
we’re talking about that.”
Patrick Hudson, who directs the environmental think tank Urban Options
in East Lansing, believes that creating walkable communities is the
key to urban renewal. “But right now, cars come first,”
he said. Even people living close to their workplaces, who could easily
leave their car at home, take it because bike lanes or sidewalks don’t
exist or are designed in an inconvenient fashion.
Earlier this year, the State Energy Office, part of the Consumer and
Industry Services Department (which Hollister heads) awarded Urban Options
a grant to explore green transportation options in the Greater Lansing
area. During a public seminar in May 2003, 50 area residents gathered
to discuss car sharing, bicycle commuting, bus routes and calculating
the true costs of car ownership. Representatives from the Mid-Michigan
Environmental Action Council, League of Michigan Bicyclists, Rails to
Trails Conservancy, Michigan Environmental Council, East Lansing Transportation
Commission, and Michigan Department of Transportation joined the seminar.
After another brainstorming session, the group proposed a five-year
plan to accomplish their goals.
Urban sprawl and body sprawl in Greater Lansing
In the last few years, researchers have linked urban sprawl with
increased obesity and high blood pressure, pointing out that people
tend to spend their days sitting in the car, particularly in highly
sprawled areas. And Lansing is in the thick of it. According to
a September 2003 study by Smart Growth America, a coalition of 100
advocacy organizations, the region with the highest degree of urban
sprawl in the country is just north of Lansing, in Clinton County.
In Clinton County, 8 percent more people are obese and 4 percent
more have high blood pressure than the national average. The study’s
authors, Barbara McCann and Reid Ewing, conclude: “Most sprawling
counties in urban regions in the U.S. tend to be outlying counties
of smaller metropolitan areas in the Southeast and Midwest. Goochland
County in the Richmond, Virginia metro area, and Clinton County
in the Lansing, Michigan, region, received very low numerical scores
on the index” (the lower the number, the higher the degree
more than 30 concrete action steps, the group suggested linking all
communities by a system of public transportation, walkways and bicycle
paths, so that one can travel from Williamston to Grand Ledge safely
without a car. They also suggested creating a bus or light rail line
connecting Old Town, downtown and Michigan State University. The state
government could sponsor a “Live Near Your Work” program
to provide downpayments on homes that are brought near the workplaces
and giving tax abatements to residents without a car.
The group also discussed problems related to the design of existing
trails, referring to cases where sidewalks or bike lanes suddenly end,
such as a sidewalk on Saginaw at Frandor’s that ends at a keystone.
Walking from Michigan State University to Frandor’s is in fact
a nightmare (this reporter has experience), especially when crossing
Michigan Avenue, which doesn’t have a single pedestrian crossing
point for more than one mile.
The group headed by Urban Options suggest revitalizing Frandor by creating
green islands in the “current sea of concrete,” accommodating
pedestrian and bike traffic, and creating more bus stops. They also
want to build bike lanes on Michigan Avenue, and prohibit “yet
another mall developed further out from Lansing.”
In order to accomplish their goal of supporting non-motorized traffic,
the green commuting group suggests a public relations campaign, that
would include billboards and ads promoting the advantages of driving
less (“Keep Dollars Local”) and hosting educational events.
Just how common is the tendency of elected local leaders to break their
own planning laws? A recent study prepared by Joan Guy, the former chairwoman
of the Planning Commission in Meridian Township, east of Lansing, found
that Jan. 1, 1997, to May 3, 2000 it was not infrequent. According to
the study, Meridian Township rezoned 627 acres of land, much of it from
residential to commercial uses. Of the 44 requests for rezoning, 37
were approved. And of those 37, a full 27, or 61 percent, violated the
township’s own master plan, which sets as one of its highest priorities
the preservation of neighborhoods and residential areas.
A pond and adjacent forest preserved through the Meridian Township
open space program.
involvement can change such a pattern quickly, however. In November
2000, Anne Woiwode, program director of the 17,000-member Michigan chapter
of the Sierra Club, was one of five new leaders whom voters in Ingham
County’s Meridian Township elected to replace a pro-development
township board. The cautious-growth board replaced the anything-goes
board elected 15 years ago.
Three years before Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt project, in 2000, Meridian
voters approved a land preservation plan to preserve open green spaces
and special natural features. The cost — 0.75 of a mill for 10
years requires the owner of a $100,000 home to pay $37.50 more a year
in property taxes.
Meridian Township Clerk Mary Helmbrecht said that the township has thus
far preserved 90 acres. The township recently accepted a donation of
a 58-acre parcel located west of Okemos Road and south of Burcham Drive.
The township, which has $2 million in its preservation fund, is negotiating
with landowners to acquire 200 more acres in the next few months.
The township planning department estimates that Meridian has approximately
6,200 acres of undeveloped land remaining, in addition to wetlands protected
under conservancy laws. Meridian has also adopted a “Greenspace
project” to provide a network of green spaces that will protect
and connect valued natural and cultural resources for pedestrian and
Meridian’s pathways millage, which has existed for 18 years, provided
$250,000 annually for the construction of pedestrian and cycling paths
along roadways. Thus far the township has installed 57 miles of trails.
Last winter the township hired Greenway Collaborative Inc., from Ann
Arbor, to help them develop a greenspace plan, which the company recently
presented. The long-term plan suggests making the township walkable
by connecting the green spaces around major parks, schools, adjacent
communities, Michigan State University and commercial centers and even
linking the new nature paths into Lansing’s River Trail.
rise of the creative class
• “Michigan’s Land, Michigan’s Future: Final
Report of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council,” August
• Dan Chiras and Dave Wann. “Superbia! 31 Ways to Create
Sustainable Neighborhoods.” Gabriola Island (Canada): New
Society Publishers, 2003.
• James Howard Kunstler. “Home From Nowhere. Remaking
Our Everyday World for the 21st Century.” New York: Touchstone,
• Matthew J. Lindstrom and Hugh Bartling. “Suburban
Sprawl, Culture, Theory, and Politics.” Lanham: Rowman &
• Richard Florida. “The Rise of the Creative Class:
And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday
Life.” New York: Basic Books, 2002.
• Creativity index of 332 regions, at www.creativeclass.org/ci.htm
For Smart Growth, 2002 State of the States
• Smart Growth America, sprawl and obesity, at www.smartgrowthamerica.com
• Michigan Land Use Institute, www.mlui.org
• “Creating Cool” conference featuring author
Richard Florida, Dec. 11, Lansing Center. Admission for four or
more is $65 per person, for individuals $85. For more information,
call Get Real! Communications at (734) 669 4360
• Meridian Township “Open Space” program, www.meridian.mi.us
11, Granholm is hosting a “cool cities” conference at the
Lansing Center, bringing cultural, economic development and community
leaders together to discuss sprawl-related challenges in Michigan. The
event features Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida,
author of the 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class,”
to discuss the revitalization of Michigan cities.
The book’s appeal to young urban professionals seems to match
Granholm’s goal to retrofit Michigan cities so they can attract
a skilled workforce, while at the same time stopping residents from
Florida has created a “creativity index,” which compares
the potential of metropolitan areas to attract professionals. Interestingly,
in Florida’s study the Greater Lansing area ranks seventh out
of 63 regions with 250,000 to 500,000 residents.
Wiener said he feels “reaffirmed” by the positive result.
The percentage of gay and lesbian residents in the area positively influenced
the ranking in Florida’s study. Wiener pointed out that the 48912
zip code in Lansing is said to have the second largest concentration
of lesbians in the Unites States, with San Francisco ranking first.
Lansing also offers a strong higher education system and serves as a
regional high-tech hub for the area.
But the creativity index doesn’t take urban sprawl into account.
Ron Whitmore, the director of the Northwest Lansing Healthy Neighborhoods
Initiative, said he was surprised about the good ranking. “I always
felt that Lansing has everything it needs,” Whitmore said, “but
it also has this kind of ‘stuckedness’ about it. There seems
to be something that keeps preventing it from taking the next step.
I’m not sure what that is.”
Wyckoff, who read the research results with “big eyes,”
said that the positive rating could be explained by the tri-county area’s
stable work environment, a considerable amount of high-tech firms, Michigan
State University and the auto industry, as well as cultural offerings
in East Lansing. But given the book’s list of criteria, Lansing
wouldn’t even come close to Ann Arbor. Interestingly, the study
contains no data on Ann Arbor.
Added Wyckoff: “When you create an index, you frequently get anomalies.
This might just be one.”
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