Aug. 17 2017 10:18 AM
ShapingAvenue 2

Placemakers mull over Michigan Avenue makeover

A scene out of a Japanese kaiju movie unfolded Wednesday at lunch hour at Lansing City Hall. Giant beings loomed over the city, ripping up lanes of pavement and tossing them aside like cardboard.

The dragons breathed flames of New Urbanism as they questioned the old order.

Should Michigan Avenue have one lane of auto transit in each direction or two? Should it have parking, bike lanes, transit lanes, “amenity zones” with tables and benches?

Shaping the Avenue, a planning project managed by the Capital Area Transportation Authority Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing and Meridian townships, brought out the urban planning Godzilla in several dozen curious residents.

People played with mockups of Michigan Avenue on the city’s east side, arranging strips of cardboard representing various options. The challenge was to fit them all into the 99-foot right of way.

Brad Funkhouser, deputy CEO of CATA, explained that in the next five years, Lansing expects to rebuild Michigan Avenue, from Pennsylvania Avenue east to US-127.

Workshop planners touted a “once in a generation chance” to redesign the crucial strip.

“This is the spine for economic development up and down the region,” Funkhouser said. “Each neighborhood will have a different look and feel to it based on what the community members, the neighbors and the businesses want.”

In mid-September, planners will present another Lansing workshop where two or three “preferred alternatives” will be displayed for public comment.

Similar workshops for East Lansing and Meridian Township are planned, with dates to be announced.

Last week’s workshop was festooned with images depicting Michigan Avenue as a new urbanist template for “placemaking” — slowing down traffic, accommodating bikes and buses and adding graces such as public art, grassy medians, space for tables and benches and other amenities.

Brad Strader of the MKSK consulting firm was among several consultants roaming around with cameras, taking pictures of visitors’ preferred alternative layout.

“So far, most of the designs have preferred some type of facility for bikes, either a separated bike lane on its own or a bikebus sharing lane,” he observed.

Lansing resident Desiree Quinney said she came to the workshop with an open mind.

“I’m going around and trying to fit all this in my brain,” she said. “It’s an eye-opener.”

She studied a display of possible amenities along the avenue such as sculpture, decorative pavement, pocket gardens and so on.

The images showed people sitting at tables, bikes cruising past and foliage everywhere.

“If I’m sitting there having lunch, it would be so awesome,” Quinney said, pointing an at image of people dining on the street next to a sculpture. She likes the idea of traffic slowing down. “I’d be driving down the street, saying, ‘What is that thing? I’m going to see what’s going on over there,’” she said.

CATA is paying for the study with a pilot grant from the Federal Transit Authority to do transit-oriented development.

“Each of the jurisdictions are thrilled that we’re able to pay for the consultant to be the common thread through the corridor,” Funkhouser said But Funkhouser and other CATA officials got some flak at Wednesday’s workshops from people who took Shaping the Avenue as a sneaky way to get the controversial Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, plan back onto the table.

The BRT would have completely overhauled CATA’s Route 1 along Michigan and Grand River avenues, from the Capitol to the Meridian Mall, adding dedicated bus lanes to the corridor. CATA dropped the project this year in the face of stiff opposition from local businesses and residents, uncertainty over federal funding and other setbacks.

Funkhouser took pains to make it clear that Shaping the Avenue is “in no way a reboot of the BRT.”

“I’ve already reallocated the capital money, per the direction of my board,” he said. “The BRT is not moving forward at this point.”

But if the feedback gathered at the workshop is any indication, some features of the BRT are likely to carry over to the Michigan Avenue redesign.

The amenity option that garnered the greatest number of sticky dots signifying approval from visitors, by far, were real time arrival signs at bus stops that track buses’ whereabouts and tell you when the next bus is due — a key feature of the now-defunct BRT.

There were also numerous dots endorsing bike sharing, “parklets” along the street, public sculpture, “arty” bus shelters and native, sustainable landscaping.

Standing apart from the sounds of ripping Velcro strips and animated conversation at most tables was Sean Hammond, deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council and a Lansing native.

Working intently on his own redesign, he shrank the sidewalks to a narrow 5 feet to make room for transit lanes and bike lanes, but with “amenity zones” with tables and benches on both sides of the street.

“You walk out of Strange Matter coffee shop and you sit right outside on these little tables,” he said. “My idea is prioritizing transit” — by bus — “and bike and placemaking over getting cars from Point A to Point B as fast as possible.”

Strader hustled over to Hammond’s table and took a photo.

The input will be considered, but not quantified, as the planners boil the options down to two or three for the next public event.

“It’s not a popular vote,” Strader cautioned. “It’s just seeing if people come up with an alternative we haven’t considered. This will be part of the process the city will use to narrow down the alternatives.”

Funkhouser said that each of the municipal permitting agencies “will move forward with what they want,” primarily by tinkering with zoning codes that determine width of sidewalks, building setback, allowable height of buildings, materials, styles and so on.

“We just provide that opportunity because we are the common thread along the corridor,” Funkhouser said.

With the workshop in full swing, consultant Matt Leasure from MKSK explained four alternative street designs to three 20-something visitors.

“Here, you’re trading two traffic lanes for parallel parking on both sides, separated bike lanes and wider sidewalks,” he said. “It’s a big change, but it’s trading traffic considerations for pedestrian and cycling.”

As Leasure explained the options, a colleague came up to him and offered to validate his parking if he parked at the City Hall structure.

It turned out that Leasure’s power to reshape the avenue was only hypothetical.

“I’m parked on the street,” Leasure said. “I probably got a ticket. I’m donating it.”