Nov. 30 2017 10:40 AM

Development continues to push the town from its original image

It’s quickly disappearing. “Old East Lansing had predominantly two-story buildings lining Grand River,” said Ron Springer, a former city development analyst. “But people knew it wasn’t going to be that way forever.”

With the old bank building on Abbot Road demolished to make way for the Park District development, and the Center City District development project chugging right along, East Lansing residents are watching the future of their city unfold — and the end of the road for downtown’s familiar, low-level skyline.

“Independent of the university, this could be the single largest investment in the city’s history,” said Tim Dempsey, East Lansing’s planning and development director.

Boasting a price tag of $132 million, the 11-story project begins vertical construction next year and will house a 23,000-square-foot “mini” Target store, along with an apartment high rise providing 273 residential units.

The deal was struck by the city with a partnership between Howard and Vivian Ballein, owners of Student Book Store, a staple of downtown East Lansing, and Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors from Illinois. Demolition necessary to clear space for the project is expected to be completed by Christmas.

What will go in place of the old bank building as part of the Park District development is yet to be determined. The developers for that deal are the Chicago based DRW Holdings and Convexity Properties.

Dempsey said the Center City District development foreshadows what’s to come for downtown East Lansing, going vertical with pumped-up density. The long-gestating development deal was finalized after a lengthy string of false starts following the completion of the City Center development, a series of condominiums on the 300 block of Grand River Avenue built in 2002. “City Center II,” as the project was known 10 years ago, is finally seeing fruition.

The development has East Lansing continuing to shadow its single- and two-story brick buildings with larger corporate retailers, apartment structures and parking garages.

Springer worked for East Lansing’s Planning Department for almost 30 years, retiring in 2010. He was in charge of the Historic Preservation Code, which was adopted in 1989 and focuses primarily on residential neighborhoods rather than downtown itself. He remembers two distinct schools of thought among his colleagues, a classic dichotomy between preservation and modernization.

The retired development analyst recalled the city’s move to lift regulations on structure height as a major turning point. The construction of the downtown University Place Hotel in 1988, now the Marriott Hotel, was a watershed moment for development.

Due to the code, East Lansing’s residential neighborhoods have a protected and maintained image, but downtown has been in flux for decades. Architect Liz Harrow, who served on East Lansing’s Planning Commission from 1991 to 2000, recalls a “patrician like” desire for things to remain the same.

“Modifying isn’t a lack of respect,” Harrow said. “I never wanted East Lansing to be static or stuck in an ordered up stasis.”

Ray Walsh, owner of the Curious and Archives book shops, has been in business throughout all of the changes. A mainstay since 1973, Walsh has seen the city continuously morph around him and is not fond of the Center City District development’s prospects. “The project takes down a lot of decorative storefronts to put in a large 20,000-foot Target,” Walsh said. “I’m not sure if that’s what East Lansing needs to welcome customers, and I’m not looking forward to two years of construction. It’s challenging for any business, not just me.”

Jon Howard, manager of Flat, Black and Circular, has been working in East Lansing since 1984, with a brief stint in Detroit. Howard remembers the city when it was fleshed out by small, spacedout buildings, a look he described as “Ivy League.” Flat, Black and Circular has fallen victim to construction woes in the past, but Howard welcomes the Center City District development.

“I don’t want to be seen as anti-progress,” Howard said. “That’s one thing the city does not have for the students, a supermarket or a clothing store right across from campus. You have to go to Frandor or Okemos. It could drive some retail traffic down here.”

A growing influence from consultants encouraged the city to welcome larger retailers, Harrow said. Changes made to East Lansing’s design during Harrow and Springer’s tenures were partially modeled after other national college towns such as Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“East Lansing is an inconvenient place to reach,” Harrow said. “The old style was not made for modern shopping.”

Both Harrow and Springer claimed the welcoming of corporate entities onto Grand River Avenue was a necessary process to keep East Lansing economically stable. “You miss mom and pop stores when they’re gone, but they leave for economic reasons,” Springer said. “With a mall on the east and west side, East Lansing needed something to keep people coming downtown.”

Current city officials like Dempsey share the same thoughts about the need to modernize.

“In terms of physical development itself, in some cases there’s been a dramatic change,” Dempsey said. “Single story sprawling development is not the kind of environment people want to live in these days. People want a vibrant urban environment.”