After all that cities have learned about humanizing scale and design, and after all the recent talk about properly developing the Michigan Avenue corridor linking MSU to the Capitol and downtown Lansing, it’s almost unbelievable that an abomination like SkyVue could be built in 2018.
Yet there it is — a sterile, cheap-looking cube of student housing so huge it’s visible for miles around, perched at the north edge of the Frandor Shopping Center, with a parking structure extruding from its back like a concrete goiter.
At least SkyVue is honest. At nine stories tall, with very little variation in shape and color, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is — a CAFO for college students, where a maximum number of tenants can roost, hip to hip, while their tuition eggs roll down the chute to neighboring MSU.
If not for the gym equipment in the first-floor window, you’d swear you were on the outskirts of Moscow, circa 1975, in one of the innumerable Communist apartment blocks that made every Soviet city indistinguishable from every other.
Mark Twain said that mosquitoes were put on this earth to make you think better of flies. The best thing about SkyVue is that it makes you re-evaluate surrounding buildings you used to think were ugly.
Frandor, a generic, unadorned strip mall, suddenly feels as quaint as a Sicilian fishing village. The giant dormitories south of the Red Cedar River on the MSU campus, slapped together in the 1950s and 1960s to meet post-World-War-II boom in enrollment, look like paragons of modernist chic by comparison.
Even the newer developments towering over downtown East Lansing, along Michigan and Grand River avenues east of SkyVue, are making token attempts to vary their scale and texture. Make no mistake, though — SkyVue is part of a wave of blandness and blight sweeping over many Midwestern college towns. Grand River Avenue’s campus commercial strip was once a distinctive, neighborhood of local businesses and eateries. New two-story buildings were big news. Now the street is being walled in by national chains and towering stacks of blah boxes — a conversion that turned a big corner in 2018 and almost qualified the entire city of East Lansing as Eyesore of the Year. People still love to complain about the Broad Art Museum, but the sleek silver shark designed by Zaha Hadid is starting to look like more and more like a rare jewel, dwarfed by the generic nothingness piling up around it. And it’s not over yet. Developers Joel Ferguson and Frank Kass are promising that in spite of all commercial pressures, the biggest project of all – the planned Red Cedar project across from SkyVue — will be done right, with trees and parks and amphitheaters and other amenities. In view of the soul-crushing skyline that is going up across the street and all around MSU, trust doesn’t come easy.