EL Fresco slims down on Albert Street in East Lansing

City Council reduces the outdoor dining and play area this season


THURSDAY, April 18—East Lansing’s popular Albert Avenue EL Fresco summer street closure plan will return April 29 through Aug. 12, but it will be 70% smaller than last year.

However, the new configuration adds Ann Street Plaza to EL Fresco one night a week.

The City Council voted 3-1 Tuesday for the new plan. Erik Altmann, Mark Meadows and Kerry Ebersole Singh voted favorably, while Mayor George Brookover opposed it. Council member Dana Watson was absent.

M.A.C. Avenue will remain the eastern border, but the western boundary will move from east of the parking garage near the intersection of Albert Avenue and Abbot Road to just east of the western end of the Grove Street and Albert Avenue intersection.

But it would expand on Thursday evenings to include Ann Street Plaza, at Albert and M.A.C. avenues. Heather Pope, the city’s community and economic development administrator, said that change will nearly double the size.

“Thursday evenings are our busiest evenings when we have music and games,” Pope said. “We’d have the stage with music, or whatever activity would be taking place on the stage, and then they’d be able to have the games and set up tables at that location.”

Tables will also be added to adjacent Fountain Square and the plaza at the Marriott hotel across the street. A fleet of portable restrooms will also make a debut.

In public comment before the vote, Ali Haider, who owns the 7-Eleven at 311 Grove St., said he lost about $1,000 a month while EL Fresco was in use last year. He also said it hindered deliveries to his store and others.

With the approved changes, semi-trucks can still access his store via Grove Street.

The reduction also addressed concerns from the sizable senior population living in Newman Lofts, 200 Albert, over having to move the building’s designated drop-off and pick-up zone further west toward Abbot. The adjusted borders will preserve their existing access.

In explaining his lone opposition, Brookover questioned the cost.

 “To my knowledge, the city has never calculated the actual cost of the closure to the city in terms of government expenditures. Nor do we have any reliable figures on the financial gains and losses of businesses in the city,” Brookover said. “In absence of such calculation and quantification, it seems difficult to justify the continuation of what was once a temporary solution to a temporary societal problem.”

The last reference was to the birth of EL Fresco during the pandemic so that the public could eat outside.

The Downtown Development Authority approved the smaller version, 8-0, with Brookover abstaining.

Before the proposal passed, the Council defeated Altman’s motion to adopt the footprint from last summer and add Ann Street Plaza and other expansions. Ebersole joined Altmann as Brookover and Meadows voted against it.

“We found a use for these streets that lots of people enjoy,” Altmann said. “I think it’s important to represent the interests of the community, and that’s the basis for my motion.”

Ebersole Singh said she supported going with last year’s larger boundary ahead of that failed first vote.

“This is an important discussion in terms of where we want to take the community in providing more walkable areas,” Ebersole Singh said.

The first-year Council member said that business owners had told her that originally El Fresco was supposed to move around “to not impact a set of businesses repeatedly.”

Brookover also touched on the possibility of a rotating summer system.

“If we are serious about, quote, placemaking, end quote, there are other locations contiguous to downtown which could be set aside for social gatherings and recreation similar to what occurs during daylight hours at Albert El Fresco,” he said.

He also expressed reservations about how far the city should go in altering the downtown business landscape.

“It is unfair for city government to be involved in picking winners and losers among merchants. Absent any accurate data, it appears to me that we engage in such an exercise when we enhance the streetscape for some merchants in a limited area, while we penalize the operations of others in the same area,” Brookover said.

Brookover and Ebersole Singh also shared concerns over public safety.

Brookover said a lack of personnel in the city’s Police Department put law enforcement services “under strain,” suggesting that the EL Fresco area sometimes “becomes an attractive nuisance for those who do not bring families downtown and don’t intend to.”

Ebersole Singh mentioned wanting to look at additional security measures, like security cameras, which she said Ann Abor and other communities are employing.

Meadows said he supported “the idea” of EL Fresco but added that he doesn’t think “it’s wedded to a single type of footprint.”

“I hope that we continue this, even if we do move it around in the community at some point in the future.”

Meadows moved to approve the staff proposal to reduce the footprint to about 30% of last year’s configuration as well as the other changes, including additional street barricades near the Ann Street Plaza to protect pedestrians.

Meadows noted that he was making that motion “with the flexible understanding that this may be expanded and would be brought back to us for additional changes.”


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