Downtown Lansing basked in a big-city moment at dusk on Sept. 10. The grand opening of Rotary Park, a new riverfront hangout with shoreline seating, a sand beach and colorful lights, drew hundreds of early autumn strollers. Just downriver, the MSU Professors of Jazz played at the pavilion in front of the convention center.
All night, the boardwalk was jammed with people who wanted to be where the action was, from curious kids to dancing lovers to a showboating cyclist who orbited the boardwalk in a tricked-out neon bike.
The Grand River Princess riverboat, back in Lansing after a 10-year hiatus, cruised past the pavilion like a floating cake, with dozens of waving hands for candles.
Lansing, like many cities across the nation, is beginning to embrace its riverfront in earnest. But there are holes in the picture. Perched above the park, in a prime spot on the river, sits the empty shell of the pole barn that housed Lansing’s dead City Market.
The empty shell raises questions about the future of the riverfront and what vision, if any, is taking shape there. City leaders, including Mayor Andy Schor, have talked about flipping the precious, city-owned asset into a brew pub and restaurant as soon as possible — a block away from the Lansing Brewing Co., another brew pub and restaurant.
The vacancy on prime city-owned land is a rare opportunity. Is a restaurant the building’s highest and best use? What comes next on the riverfront? Is there a plan?
‘No done deal’
Across the country, cities large and small are turning their riverfronts into vibrant recreation, restaurant and shopping districts. The word urban planners love to use is “activation.”
Most of these towns, but not all, have at least one major, distinctive attraction on the river. The resurgent riverfront in Wilmington, N.C. (pop. 119,000, almost the same as Lansing’s) even has a battleship — the U.S.S. North Carolina. Davenport, Iowa, (pop. 102,000) has a bustling riverfront district anchored by the River Music Experience, a performing arts venue, and a glass sky bridge where pedestrians can look down into the water.
The riverfront district in Dubuque, Iowa, with a population about half of Lansing’s, has the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. The revitalized riverfront in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has a spectacular pedestrian-only bridge, the Tennessee Aquarium, an arts district and an amphitheater. Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park has the grand and historic Roebling Bridge. Detroit’s revitalized riverfront, run by a Riverfront Conservancy, has its River Carousel, where kids can ride local beasts like a heron or a walleye.
Lansing’s downtown riverfront has its attractions, from the Impression 5 Museum to Riverwalk Theatre and the new Rotary Park, but the vacant City Market shell, has unique potential, and will be smack in the center of any downtown riverfront renaissance, whatever form it takes.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said the city sent out a “request for information” for the City Market shell a year ago.
“We’ve had people who say it could be a dance hall, it could be this, it could be that,” Schor said. “There’s a lot of people with a lot of ideas, but very few people who can finance something. It would be great to have a water park, a roller rink, or a city market that works and isn’t subsidized. I’m not interested in the old model of the city subsidizing it.”
As far back as the summer of 2018, when the City Market closed for good, Schor said he wanted to fast-track the building’s “re-activation.”
“I don’t want to have an empty building for a year, two years, a blight on the river,” Schor said. “I want to activate the space. Anyone with a proposal that can be financed by outside assets, not by the city — we are willing to listen.” Schor said the city would keep the request for information open for “a few more weeks.”
If there are no results, he said, the city would issue “a strict Request for Proposal and set a deadline.”
It’s been widely rumored that a brewpub based in Jackson is a front-runner for the lease, but Schor said there’s “no done deal.”
Paul Brogan, co-owner of River Town Adventures, has seen the river burgeon with activity in his six years renting kayaks and canoes from his riverside station in the shadow of the City Market shell.
“I’ve heard the rumors about the brew pub, and I’m not sure I love that idea,” Brogan said. “This space is unique, especially as the riverfront continues to see positive changes like Rotary Park. It feels like this space deserves something creative.”
The nonprofit Urban Land Institute gave some cover to brew pub advocates this month. After visiting Lansing and conducting a study in July, the planning group sent recommendations to the Community Foundation and a coalition of about 20 area businesses, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations Oct. 17 with recommendations for riverfront development. A final report will be available in January.
The experts advised the city to pick a “strong, F&B (Food and Beverage) anchor tenant” for the City Market shell.
Bob Trezise, CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, strongly backs that idea.
“There’s a lot of people throughout this region who would like to regularly come to downtown Lansing and sit outside, or sit in front of big, beautiful windows, and look out on a big-city skyline, lights, kayaks going by,” Trezise said. “As far as I can tell, the only possibility of that happening is in that building.”
Trezise said the bare-bones market building is “perfect” for such a use, and would require little external modification, except to install bigger windows into the side facing the river. “We built what we could for $1.6 million,” he said. “It doesn’t work well for a lot of things, but it works really well for a craft beer/restaurant. It has high ceilings, spectacular views, an artsy feel. If you built one new, it would look about like that.”
Shooting in the dark
It’s no wonder a brewpub and restaurant looks like a safe choice to some city leaders. The empty shell of the City Market can be seen as an object lesson in civic over-reaching. In 2008, the city struck a deal with developer Pat Gillespie, ostensibly to rescue the old City Market, which had succumbed to changing urban demographics and the rise of big grocery chains and dwindled to a shadow of its former, bustling self.
Gillespie bought the surrounding land to develop into condos, leaving the market in city hands, and agreed to build a new, $1.8 million market, closer to the river.
A key part of the plan was to wrap the new market in a built-in customer base of condo dwellers. But the condos took longer than expected to build, in part because of the Great Recession, while vendors withered.
The new building, wedged between the condos and the river, was invisible to auto traffic.
“I take some of the blame for it,” former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said. “It was dying on the vine for months, if not years.”
Schor considered asking Lansing residents to sell the property, which sits on parkland and requires a vote to sell, but thought better of it. He wants the city to hang on to the market building and lease it to a third party.
“That way, whatever the next thing is, if that doesn’t succeed, we don’t lose control and end up with a use that we don’t want,” Schor said. “It’s a prime piece of property, right on the river, and we’d like to hold on to control of it.”
Bernero favors going to the voters to sell the property. Otherwise, he said, no developer would put the investment for a major conversion to a new use.
Bernero is not opposed to a restaurant, but he had questions about the decision-making process.
“Where’s the plan?” Bernero asked. “It’s a significant piece of property, no question. Where’s the constructive leadership? If time is of the essence, what about the last two years? That was the time to engage the community in a big way. Now you’re under the gun.”
The usefulness of a plan also screams out to Scott Witter, retired director of MSU’s School of Planning, Design and Construction. Witter was on the Community Foundation board that reviewed community surveys with ideas for Rotary Park.
“One of the things in Lansing’s history is, they’ve just filled buildings,” Witter said. “You drive up and down Michigan Avenue and you see this and that, but it doesn’t all fit together.”
A landlocked exception to this rule is the downtown ballpark, with its surrounding bars, restaurants and housing, but no such vision exists for the riverfront.
“We need more like that,” Witter said. “Without a plan, you’re shooting in the dark. No one is going to invest $10 million or $100 million if it’s part of a hodge-podge.”
A serious plan, Witter said, could assess the “possibilities and needs” of the City Market building.
“I don’t know that a roller rink would make a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “Brew pubs tend to bring in more, but the question is, is that how you want to use that?”
A riverfront plan, he said, could “be up and running in three or four months.”
“It’s a living document that could evolve as you move along and new opportunities come about,” he said.
Lansing has come a long way since the mid-20th century, when the Grand River was ignored at best and used as an industrial dump at worst. Environmental cleanup and the visionary beginnings of the Lansing River Trail began to reverse that neglect in the 1970s.
The pivot to the river is due to go into overdrive in the 21st century, as more people opt to live in urban settings. One indicator is the dramatic boom in kayak traffic on the Grand and Red Cedar rivers, from almost zero activity six years ago to dozens of jostling orange vessels on a nice summer day.
Chris Chamberlain, owner of the Grand River Princess, has plied the Grand and Red Cedar rivers all his life, in vessels large and small.
“It’s really nice to see people interested in the downtown area again,” he said. “People are waking up to it and embracing it in Lansing, and it’s not just Rotary Park. There’s a lot of forward momentum.”
Witter said it’s time to take this surge in interest “to the next level.”
Many cities have turned to public-private partnerships, offshoots of the Chamber of Commerce or other hybrid organizations to put together a plan that balances green space and new development while “activating” the riverfront. Since 2004, Davenport has been guided by RiverVision, a “publicly vetted consensus plan” with the help of Hargreaves, a major landscape architecture firm. Louisville, Kentucky, has the Waterfront Development Corp., a river-focused version of an economic development corporation. Detroit has the Riverfront Conservancy, a non-profit founded by public and private city leaders.
The gold standard of riverfronts in the United States is San Antonio.
“I’m a big fan of San Antonio,” Schor said. “We’re not going to be San Antonio, but I wouldn’t mind activating our riverfront like they do there and in other communities.”
San Antonio, too, had the advantage of a plan. A brilliant engineer, Robert Hugman, redesigned the city’s riverfront in the 1920s, in the wake of a disastrous flood that had people talking about capping the river in concrete. Now it’s a silver thread of hundreds of restaurants, shops and parks, employing tens of thousands, linked by cobblestone streets and arched bridges — the area’s biggest tourist draw this side of The Alamo.
The closest thing to a riverfront vision in Lansing sits in the offices of the nonprofit Capital Region Community Foundation. A glass case with a 6-foot-long scale model of the Lansing riverfront, painstakingly cut and pasted together by Port Huron artist Bob May, showcases the “string of pearls” the Foundation has planned for the downtown riverfront, from the Brenke Fish Ladder in Old Town through the heart of downtown to the I-496 overpass and the Cherry Hill neighborhood.
Six years ago, the foundation looked for a way it could make a major difference in Lansing, with limited resources, and zeroed in on a glaring vacuum — the riverfront.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Laurie Baumer said. Baumer is the foundation’s vice president. “Nobody else is doing it. We’re filling a gap.”
Rotary Park was the first “pearl” in the showcase to become reality. The foundation developed the park with input from community surveys, private partners and MSU urban planning experts.
Future riverfront “pearls” visible in the glass case include an outdoor classroom near the Impression 5 Museum, “fishing holes” made of large flat rocks, an all-abilities childrens’ playground and a community stage in Old Town. All of these projects are in development, depending on funding and public support.
“Rotary Park is the central piece,” Schor said. “We’d like to stretch activation in both directions, up and down the riverfront.”
In mid-July, a panel of experts from the Michigan chapter of the Urban Land Institute visited Lansing to look into “how to maximize the riverfront as a world-class public space, gathering place and vibrant community center.”
Their strongest recommendation was to establish year-round programming along the downtown riverfront and forming an entity that could manage it. Get a couple of dozen days a year as “activated” as Sept. 10 in Lansing, or even half as busy, and you start to reach a critical mass.
“Their suggestion was to create another entity, perhaps a public-private venture, that could manage this,” Baumer said. “It’s pretty lofty, but it’s possible.”
Witter said the time is ripe for a broader vision to take shape.
“Somebody has to be responsible for continually moving it forward,” Witter said. “You need leaders. It’s great that the foundation started this push, but how to you keep that rolling?”
Whatever ends up inside the City Market shell, Paul Brogan of River Town Adventures intends to support it.
“That building, where it’s placed, is crucial to the success of Rotary Park,” Brogan said. “I have mixed emotions about the situation, but those decisions aren’t mine to make, and I’m here to support positive development, whichever way it goes.”