It takes a second to blink off the noonday glare of downtown Lansing and adjust to the butterscotch glow of the historic Atrium Building on Washington Square.
In that blink, Paul Gentilozzi zoomed a few laps ahead of me.
“This is the coolest building in Lansing,” he shouted, shrinking into a white dot. How does he move so fast?
Leaving a storied career in auto racing behind, Gentilozzi has settled into the real estate and development business he and his sons, John and Tony, have built over the past five decades.
No, not “settled.” At 73, he’s still a body in motion, the point man for the most ambitious project Lansing’s downtown has seen in decades.
A $215 million package of three major projects, announced earlier this month, promises to bring 450 units of “workforce” housing (not luxury condos) to a struggling downtown, all but abandoned by the state workers that once filled the stores and restaurants before COVID.
The centerpiece of New Vision Lansing is Tower on Grand, a 25-story glass tower on Grand Avenue, just north of the Grand Tower office building. The tower would be Lansing’s tallest building, with 300 housing units and a rooftop deck with a raft of amenities.
Capital Tower, a glassy 10-story slab and smaller cousin to Tower on Grand, is planned for the corner of Capitol and Ottawa streets and would contain 70 apartments.
The third piece of New Vision Lansing is the conversion of the century-old Washington Square building at the corner of Washington Square and Michigan Avenue, the longtime home of the state Court of Appeals, to 70 housing units.
If the three-pronged plan succeeds, and similar projects follow, Lansing’s downtown could have a fighting chance to rally from the ravages of the pandemic, and even build a permanent community resistant to the boom-and-bust cycles of the past.
“You’ve got to see this,” Gentilozzi said.
Forget the skyscraper, for now. He’s excited about the project’s crowning flourish.
A planned sky bridge will span Grand Avenue, linking the historic Atrium Building to the new tower — the perfect architectural metaphor for a project meant to usher downtown from its golden past to its next chapter.
The Atrium Building, at 215 S. Washington, was once the gateway to Lansing’s storied Michigan Theatre — a sugary, ornate arcade of retail businesses with gorgeous skylights, lush masonry frosting and a spectacular, intricate tile façade. In the 1920s and ‘30s, it was the Strand Theatre, where show-goers walked through the arcade to see live acts like Harry Houdini, Bing Crosby and Marian Anderson.
Charlie Chaplin sent a congratulatory telegram when the place opened April 21, 1921.
In later decades, after the Strand became the Art Deco-themed Michigan Theatre, Gentilozzi and his dad spent many evenings watching movies here.
“The box office was here,” he said, planting himself, briefly, under an airy pink and blue cupola. “You got your popcorn here.”
In the arcade’s next life, it will funnel Tower on Grand’s tenants and visitors straight from their apartments, across the grassy sky bridge with its dog run and pickle ball courts to the heart of Lansing’s downtown business district.
City leaders hope the residents will shop, eat, take in a show at the new performing arts center now under construction a few blocks away, maybe pick up a bag of cashews at the Peanut House — in short, enjoy a community.
Paul Gentilozzi has lived two lives. His auto racing life took him around the world, from New Zealand to Le Mans and everywhere in between. When people asked him where he was from, he noted the blank look at the reply: “Lansing.”
Little victories for his hometown meant a lot. In Gentilozzi’s drag racing days, before ESPN, National Hot Rod Association races occasionally popped up on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” The names and hometowns of the racers appeared on screen.
“When it said ‘Lansing,’ that was a big deal for me,” he said.
Gentilozzi’s father, Albert, owned a ceramic tile and marble company, Detroit Tile. The family moved to Lansing from Detroit in 1959.
Paul loved downtown Detroit and spent a lot of time in masterpieces like the Penobscot Building and Cadillac Building, tagging along with his dad on construction jobs.
“I loved big buildings,” he said. “They were romantic to me.”
Howard Stoddard, owner of Michigan National Bank, invited Albert to Lansing to do construction work on the mid-century modern Billie S. Farnum building, later the Stoddard Building, now “the Louie,” kitty-corner from the Capitol.
That sky bridge Gentilozzi plans to build over Grand Avenue reflects a longtime fascination with cool urban infrastructure.
While his dad worked 20 stories above, Gentilozzi set up his hockey goal and took shots for hours in the underground tunnel that runs under Allegan Street between the former Michigan National tower and the Stoddard Building.
He loved to take things apart and put them back together. On Saturdays, he and his buddies tooled around the Elmhurst elementary schoolyard until his friend’s go-cart broke and someone would have to push it home.
He lived in the Colonial Village neighborhood on Lansing’s southwest side and went to West Junior High, which he found “exciting” because it was close to downtown. Nearly every day, he walked or rode his bike over the Logan Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) bridge to see movies at the Michigan Theatre and the Gladmer across the street.
“Downtown was really it for me,” he said. “Everything happened here. There was a dignity to downtown. Not that it’s gone now, but I loved being downtown when I was young.”
He started working as a clerk at age 15 at Knapp’s Department Store in 1965. He started out stocking shelves in ladies’ wear, but soon moved to sporting goods.
He met his wife, Debbie, there. They married in 1971.
At 16, he spent a lot of time “cruising the gut” on Washington Avenue, between Michigan Avenue and Saginaw Street —Lansing’s equivalent of Detroit’s peel-out paradise, Woodward Avenue.
Before urban renewal projects closed it off and hemmed it in, the avenue was a wide-open drag stretch, home to the Lansing Hotel (now the site of Gentilozzi’s One Michigan Avenue), Paramount News and the Downtown Art, a porno theater.
The cars lined up, backed into parking spots and cruised up and down the Gut.
About the same time, he started racing his ’65 Cutlass convertible with a 442 engine at Onondaga Dragway.
One evening, after Gentilozzi won his class at Onondaga, he triumphantly cruised to the McDonald’s on South Cedar Street and parked under the neon, with the top down. His car number was written on the windshield in shoe polish and a trophy sat in the passenger seat.
“Man, I was it, absolutely it,” he said.
Around 11 p.m., he spotted his father’s light blue 1964 Oldsmobile four-
“He just looked at me,” Gentilozzi said.
He had to surrender the keys for a month.
At this point, we have to take the off ramp from Gentilozzi’s racing career, because there is just too much to tell — 31 Trans Am wins, the most in series history by far, a dramatic team victory in the 1994 24 Hours of Daytona race and some good times racing with his friend, movie star Paul Newman.
Gentilozzi reached full speed in the real estate lane of life when he built One Michigan Avenue in 1983. It was his first real estate coup on his own, after graduating from MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business and working nine years with real estate mogul and civic leader Walter Neller.
Striking out on his own, at age 31, was a heady experience.
“That put us on the map,” he said. “It was the first new building in downtown Lansing in 50 years. It brought IBM downtown. They leased almost 60,000 square feet at the time.”
By the 2000s, Gentilozzi built up a real estate portfolio topping $100 million, including the 16-story Grand Tower at 225 S. Grand Ave., built in 1991.
But he was getting fed up with the politics of real estate deals. Gentilozzi and Steve Roznowski, CEO of Christman Co., made a proposal to convert City Hall into the new Senate office building, but the proposal fell through.
“I got mad at the system a few years ago,” he said.
Around the same time, Gentilozzi’s brother, Tony, died of cancer.
Life was putting a lot of creases in his forehead. In 2007, he fired a young driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, from his Rocketsports Racing team.
Hunter-Reay, who went on to win the IndyCar series championship in 2012 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2014, sued Gentilozzi and Rocketsports for wrongful termination and “disparagement of character.”
The case dragged on for years like a broken exhaust pipe. In early 2017, a federal judge in Grand Rapids awarded Hunter-Reay $3.2 million.
According to a report in the online RACER magazine, federal marshals descended on Gentilozzi’s RSR Racing shop in East Lansing to seize his assets to satisfy the judgment.
Gentilozzi said he had his own reasons for opting to settle rather than seek a new trial.
“I’d been in court 100 days,” he said. “It was a doozy. It went on for 12 years.”
He huddled with his family. “I told them, ‘I’m going to pay this and we’ll never spend another day in court,’” he told them. “Let’s not have another negative day in our lives.”
For a while, Gentilozzi and his sons concentrated on racing, operating from a shop in East Lansing. They also ventured into big-time entertainment promoting, once presenting Elton John in Miami.
By the time COVID lockdowns emptied downtown offices and stores, he was feeling a familiar tug.
“We’re just turning money into noise,” he told his sons. “Let’s go back downtown.”
Gentilozzi moved back into his old offices at the downtown Victor Center, 201 N. Washington, about a year ago.
He confessed that he “stole” son John from the racing world to help with the real estate business. John is still an engineer for Ed Carpenter Racing, a team that competes in the IndyCar series, including the Indy 500.
Unpacked boxes are still stacked along one wall, next to a photo of Paul Gentilozzi racing his red Ferrari at Le Mans.
“Same office, same view that I loved,” he said.
But when he made the familiar two-block walk to Kewpee’s Restaurant, he was shocked by the lack of buzz downtown.
“There was nobody, nobody,” he said. “No one on the sidewalk. It was like a Sunday. Man, that was sad.”
Shocked by empty storefronts and bare sidewalks downtown, Gentilozzi consulted with Joe Kosik, a longtime business partner. Kosik is a partner at Bloomfield Hills-based JFK Investment Co., Gentilozzi’s partner in the New Vision Lansing project.
“Before COVID, we talked about building more office buildings,” Gentilozzi said. “Well, that’s dead. We’re not doing that.”
They talked about the urgent need to bring people to live downtown, not just to fill empty eateries, shops and sidewalks, but also to reverse the “death spiral” of a dwindling tax base.
They looked at cities that were having success bringing new residents downtown, including Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Cincinnati.
The Lumen, a glassy 34-story slab anchoring Cleveland’s thriving theater district, caught his attention. (Gentilozzi once owned the Cleveland Grand Prix.) Completed in 2020, the Lumen was only the second new high-rise apartment building to be built in Cleveland since the 1970s.
“The recovery in Cleveland is all based on housing,” Gentilozzi said. “There are 1,000 apartments under construction right now — three 25-story high rises that will bring 2,000 people.”
It made sense to plug downtown Lansing’s potential to anchor new housing into the growing demand for “workforce” (also called “missing middle”) housing, most frequently defined as housing affordable to households earning 80 to 120 percent of the area’s median income. (U.S. Census Bureau placed the median household income in Ingham County from 2017 to 2021 at $58,226.)
Gentilozzi estimated that the construction cost would be $350 a square foot. Workforce rental rates in greater Lansing would produce about $225 a square foot in income.
“I’m not Van Andel or DeVos,” Gentilozzi said. “I can’t just take the difference out of the trust and say I’m doing it for the fun of it. So do we just die and say we’re not going to do it?”
A consultant told Gentilozzi they could apply for a transformational brownfield credit of about $60 million spread over 15 years, but the timetable was uncertain. It could take two years or more to get the credits approved and assure prospective lenders that the credits were locked in.
The clock was ticking. Construction costs were rising, and many downtown businesses were hanging by a thread. (Grand Traverse Pie Co. closed last week.)
Gentilozzi drew upon his experience as director of the Michigan Strategic Fund for six years. He pressed the fund’s current leaders for hard data on where economic development money was going in Michigan from 2012 to 2022.
He found that in the past 10 years, the city of Detroit got 49.5 percent of all economic development dollars given out by the state of Michigan, at a time when the metro area represents about 25 percent of the state’s population. Grand Rapids got 25 percent of state development dollars in the same period.
Lansing got 4.7 percent. “The budget process has not always been favorable to the mid-Michigan area,” state Sen. Sam Singh admitted. “You can look at investments that have been made in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Oakland County and so forth.”
Gentilozzi found that local politicians were “cautious about being the point person for their own city,” but the arguments for intervention were hard to ignore.
“Lansing’s only here because it’s the capital,” Gentilozzi said. “Had state government not come here, this would just be a bend in the river. I got on my pity party bike and said, ‘We’re only here because of you guys. The burden of helping Lansing is yours. You’re not the Legislature of 110 years ago, but you’re in the chair now.’”
He received positive signals from former state Sen. Curtis Hertel, then Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s legislative liaison.
“When we started to show them the projects, everybody got infected,” he said. “25 stories in Lansing!”
It was time to step on the gas.
In fall 2022, Gentilozzi huddled with Sam Singh over breakfast at the Flap Jack Shack in Frandor. Newly elected to the state Senate, Singh had yet to take office.
Singh suggested that Gentilozzi make the pitch for a legislative appropriation.
“Could we get it done now?” Gentilozzi pressed him.
With an appropriation, they could get the Washington Square housing units to market by 2024 and start work on the two towers right away.
“I don’t know,” Singh told him. It wasn’t 2023 yet, and a lot depended on who would chair the House and Senate appropriation committees.
“Then, after you’ve convinced them, you have to convince the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House,” Gentilozzi said.
Whitmer also had to be convinced.
“She’s the last person to interpret the budget and where the money goes,” Gentilozzi said. “It was a long shot for all five of those stars to line up.”
But they did. When the legislative session began, Sarah Anthony became chair of Senate Appropriations — the first time a Lansing member held the post. Angela Witwer, also a member of the local delegation, was named chair of House Appropriations, and Singh was named majority leader.
With the inclusion of House Speaker Joe Tate, Gentilozzi found himself dealing with a “cabal of people who cared about downtown.”
“Your Lansing cabal,” he called it.
Singh said this year’s budget gave “more fair representation to a community that’s been impacted by decisions of the state.”
“Most of the state workers have had some level of working from home, and that’s had a significant impact on the city, and specifically the downtown,” Singh said. “It’s a fair request from the mayor and the city to the Legislature: ‘Help us make this transition during these changing demographics, post-pandemic.’”
Singh was impressed by Gentilozzi’s plan.
“Look at their past developments and there’s obviously a strong track record there,” Singh said. “He’s got a vision for how to help shape the city, and the Legislature had an opportunity to hear that, and hear from the mayor, and are supportive of the project as it’s being presented.”
Whitmer’s $81.7 billion budget for the new fiscal year, beginning in October, set aside $40 million for New Vision Lansing, alongside $40 million to create a new City Hall, with details to be announced in the coming weeks, and $6 million to restore 101-year-old Moores Park Pool.
“This year’s state budget provided an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our Capital Caucus members to put Lansing first,” Witwer said at the Aug. 8 project announcement. “I am proud that we came through for our city at this time.” The project, she added, would help “create a downtown neighborhood, a community, a city.”
The project announcement named UA Local 333 Lansing and “Michigan-based construction companies and unions” as “critical to the completion of these projects.”
“Lansing is an auto workers’ town,” Gentilozzi said. “They built our city. How on earth would you do anything without the unions?”
Gentilozzi can’t help thinking back to the days when he walked and biked from his old neighborhood to work at Knapp’s, or take in a movie at the Michigan Theatre.
“I’ve got to build parking, because people have cars,” he said. (Tower on Grand will have parking for 500 cars, tripling downtown parking availability at a stroke.)
“But the idea is to live and work and socialize in your environment.”
“This is the beginning,” Singh said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see other types of investments that look at a larger scale than what has been traditional for the downtown area.”
You don’t have to travel far to find a precedent for sudden upward growth in a downtown area.
“As the former mayor of East Lansing, if you had told me we were going to have 12- and 14-story buildings in East Lansing, I’d have told you ‘no,’” he said. In a few short years, an instant city of towering housing complexes has sprung up along Grand River Avenue, bordering the venerable north campus of MSU.
“What you’re seeing is playing out in a lot of places in the region, like Grand Rapids — more density, using the downtown footprint. Downtowns can’t grow outwards so they have to grow upwards.”
“Straddling Grand Ave from the riverfront to Washington Square, Tower on Grand will raise Lansing’s skyline with record-breaking height,” says a press release for the Aug. 8 announcement of New Vision Lansing. “At more than 300,000 square feet, the 25-story building will offer 300 units of market and workforce housing and feature riverfront restaurants and retail, as well as a unique one-acre green rooftop amenity and resident-gathering deck with views extending to and beyond the MSU campus and surrounds. Rarely found urban living amenities will include pickleball courts, dog walks, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, and outdoor grilling cabanas. Indoor parking for 500 cars, including electric car charging is planned, tripling parking availability currently in downtown Lansing. Giving a nod to Lansing’s past, the historic 1920s-built Atrium Building, now owned and managed by Gentilozzi and which fronts Washington Square, will maintain its golden-era arcade-like interior, and will play a leading role as a connecting space to the Tower on Grand.”
“With its curved and glassy face within a few steps to the State Capitol Building and state government complex centers, Capitol Tower is slated to rise at the corner of Capitol and Ottawa NW. It will offer 48,000 square feet of premium office space that has already been pre-leased. Additionally, it will harbor approximately 70 market rate and workforce apartments and feature parking for 110 vehicles, a rooftop deck and conferencing center for office tenants. Capitol Tower will support blight removal and renew the capitol building’s prime northwest corner, increasing the population density and helping to underpin adjacent neighborhoods,” the press release said.
“Yielding a historic structure with all the modern features of modern living, Washington Square will renovate a cornerstone of Lansing’s history – a 100-year historic office building that once housed the Michigan Court of Appeals. Upon completion, the new Washington Square will add 55,000 square feet of 70 workforce housing units prominently positioned overlooking the city’s main intersection, immediately east of the Executive Office of the Governor and less than a block from Michigan’s historic Capitol Building. It will feature private and secured enclosed parking in an adjacent structure. While maintaining the historic streetscape at this part of Washington Square, the midblock structure will provide 6,000 square feet of new ground floor for five new retail bays to renew street level aesthetics.”
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