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Capital City Comeback


It doesn’t take an urban planner or a census taker to tell you that Lansing has turned some subtle but significant corner on its transformative journey to thriving cityhood. All it takes is a Thursday visit to the corner of Michigan Avenue and Larch Street on a hot summer night when the Lansing Lugnuts are in town.

There are approximately 118,000 residents in the city of Lansing; another 47,000 or so live just down the street in East Lansing. When the Molson-sponsored Thirsty Thursday party hits downtown during the long summer minor league baseball season, it can feel like all of them are suddenly there at once. For anyone who hasn’t been downtown recently, the bustling crowds on the sidewalks and the din of the city around Oldsmobile Stadium, a few blocks east of the state’s capitol building, will be a surprise.

Things are changing fast downtown. With rivet guns rattling as the new four-story Stadium District development rises from the bustling street across from the stadium, a ten-plus-story crane humming up the street at the expanding Sparrow Hospital, and the sun settling behind the iconic brick Board of Water and Light cooling tower on the Grand River, the hectic street corner could be one in any great American city on game night: Chicago, Boston, St. Louis. “Oh, yeah,” Lansing seems to be saying to itself these days: “This is what a city is supposed to feel like.”

For a long time now, conventional wisdom has said that sidewalk life in the central city of Lansing ends at 5:00 p.m., and all city life revolves around three things: building cars, running the state government, or imparting wisdom to new undergraduates at Michigan State University.

But conventional wisdom must have been waiting in line for another $2 beer and a hot dog and missed the moment when Lansing switched gears.

While our own Big Three—General Motors, State Government and Michigan State U—are alive and kicking, the city and the region have diversified, jumpstarted a culture of local creativity and entrepreneurialism, and discovered what it means to be an eclectic, energetic city in the 21st century.

Cities Reborn

Urban energy, local character, after-hours excitement and cultural creativity. They are some of the hallmarks of the new urban revival in America. Across the country, central cities long saddled with struggling downtown districts and outdated infrastructure are being reborn as the centers of a new economic paradigm. Information, innovation, and new ideas are becoming the cash crops of a generation drawn once again to the architecture, convenience and energy of cities. From Detroit to Pittsburgh, America’s rustbelt image is being remade.

Mid-size cities like Lansing are reaping the benefits as they recruit top talent, invest resources in city amenities and services, and cash in on mixed-use, walkable developments that bring new life, vitality and money back downtown. Small startups, local artists, health care investments, energy technology companies, and information services are finding fertile ground in Lansing. Area storefronts and home offices are increasingly taking on the look of a young and talented workforce that will build future success.

Just ask Marcus McKissic, the 27-year-old director of the REO Town (pronounced Ree-o Town) Commercial Association. Over a beer at the popular local pub called Izzo’s, Marcus took a break between planning the neighborhood art sale and the upcoming music festival to explain his neighborhood's rebirth.

He tells me that REO Town, a once-bustling neighborhood and commercial district about a mile south of the capitol building, “went from bustling to stagnant, and was pretty much forgotten by the city” when the neighborhood’s namesake auto plant closed down in the 1970s. In a story retold all across the country, the expressway that was completed in the 1970s (I-496) cut through the heart of Lansing and isolated the neighborhood and its commercial corridor from the rest of downtown.

But about five years ago, the business owners got together and created a plan and began actively focusing on business support, recruitment and neighborhood development. “You started seeing sidewalk patios, flowers, couples moving into the area,” says Marcus, who bought a house with his wife in the neighborhood before becoming director of the commercial association.

Now the area is often cited as one of the hippest in Lansing. New loft apartments are going up above local businesses, and young people are setting up business in the area, such as the Elm Street Recording studios, located in a renovated turn-of-the-century house just off the main commercial strip. Studio Intrigue, a major architectural firm in the region, relocated their offices from suburban Okemos to 1114 S. Washington in REO Town, with residential lofts through Wenco Properties above their renovated building.

Urban Essentials

Such unique neighborhoods are the heart of any city, and another essential of urban success. Luckily, Lansing has them in abundance. Aside from the obvious geographies of the neighborhoods (East Side, West Side, etc,), Marcus says there are also more subtle difference in community character that make each area unique and attractive to different people.

“If the city was a high school, you’d have your art folks and thespians in Old Town, and maybe the debate team would be downtown. We (REO Town) would be the kids with the cigarettes rolled up in our sleeve, driving the SSR. They listen to jazz and blues in Old Town and its great; we’ve got our classic rock and funk here.”

Such diversity keeps cities interesting and helps attract new talent and fresh creativity, which brings innovation and new jobs to the area. Add to that mix new investments in city services, cultural amenities and updated infrastructure, and the Lansing area takes on a larger role in the emerging new economy.

Another essential: good transportation. From Lansing's Capital City Airport to the region's  (recently named the best transit system of its size in North America), Lansing has the fundamentals right, and continues to focus on linking people and ideas across the region and to the rest of the world.

On a smaller scale, expansions and improvements to the Lansing River Trail, one of the longest paved urban pathways in the country, make the area more attractive and allos easy access by bike or foot to various neighborhoods and business districts, including REO Town, Old Town and East Lansing.

That’s a big deal for a workforce increasingly mobile, professionally flexible, and interested in quality of life as well as good compensation when they’re hunting for jobs. They also look increasingly at innovative, environmentally green projects, such as Lansing’s new urban rain gardens. and the separation of storm sewers to protect the Grand River which flows through the heart of they city. These features make the region more exciting and attractive to residents and investors alike.

Of course, Lansing still has work to do. Like all cities, there are issues with public schools, crime and poverty to address, and the city and region are working on them. But in the meantime, for the crowds attracted to city life, the fact that Lansing is remembering what it means to be a city, and focusing on the essentials, is a good thing.

And the beer and baseball aren’t bad either.

Brad Garmon is the managing editor of Capital Gains.  

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography specializing in business, advertising and public relations photography.



Photos:

Stadium District construction

Sparrow Hospital's new addition

Marcus McKissic

Studio Intrigue

Lansing Riverwalk

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie




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