Capital Improvements: Michigan’s Lansing emerges as an urban planning and development leader

Katharine Czarnecki

Katharine Czarnecki

By Katharine Czarnecki, Michigan Economic Development Corporation

Like so many Michigan cities, Lansing, Michigan, struggled during the recessionary squeeze of the late 2000s. That trend has not only reversed course over the last several years, but it is becoming evident that the positive economic and development momentum that continues to build in the state’s capital city is connected to an innovative and inspired series of urban development initiatives.

For Lansing-area residents, businesses and civic leaders, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. In addition to a strengthening economy, the Lansing housing market is one of the top 10 in the country, and new construction is visible both downtown and across the broader metro area. From big developments to collaborative partnerships and creative new programs, Lansing is setting a high bar when it comes to urban planning and development.

Assets and acceleration

There are a number of factors working in Lansing’s favor. The combination of continued steady economic progress, the presence of Michigan State University–one of the top public universities in the nation and one of the top research institutions in the world–and the continuing expansion of Sparrow Hospital (which broke ground on a new cancer center on Michigan Avenue in May of 2015, and on a new health center in Lansing Township in July of 2015) are all positive indicators that Lansing’s recent growth is not only strong, but also sustainable.

The presence of large, stable employers such as Michigan State University, the State of Michigan, GM, Jackson National Life Insurance, McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital and Sparrow Hospital continually generates an influx in talent. This population growth includes a large number of international students as a result of Michigan State’s successful efforts on overseas recruitment infusing more cultural and entrepreneurial energy, as well as human capital into the city.

Development momentum

Significant development and redevelopment continues to make headlines. Noteworthy examples include the $90 million SkyVue on Michigan brownfield development, located at the former Story Oldsmobile site on East Michigan Avenue. The nine-story mixed-use project, which includes 338 apartments and about 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, is scheduled for completion in 2017.

Across Michigan Avenue, another mixed-use project­–the $380 million Red Cedar “Renaissance”–is slated to include what the Detroit Free Press reports as “two boutique hotels,” in addition to a medical office building, five restaurants, 129 town homes and student housing that can accommodate 1,200 people. Construction is scheduled to begin in June of 2016.

Collaborative partnerships

One of the keys to Lansing’s continued progress has been the city’s ability to create and leverage positive and productive partnerships (groups that include both public and private actors and interests) to great effect. ULI Michigan recently hosted its seventh annual Public Private Partnership (P3) Forum in Lansing to celebrate and build on these types of innovative collaborations. The coordination and communication that these groups afford has been hugely important for Lansing’s ability to not just promote and deliver new development, but to do so in a way that is consistent with accepted urban planning and design principles. The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), a “coalition of area leaders committed to building a prosperous and vibrant region where businesses can thrive,” is one such organization.

The Corridor Improvement Authority (CIA) is another. The CIA was formed as a result of state legislation passed in 2005 designed to assist communities with funding improvements in commercial corridors outside of their main commercial or downtown areas. The Lansing-area CIA was the first multijurisdictional CIA in the State of Michigan (including Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township), and has worked to revitalize and rehabilitate the corridor connecting the three municipalities: making them denser and more walkable, and encouraging more pedestrian traffic and public transportation.

Along those same lines, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC) has used a substantial HUD grant to make improvements along the extended corridor that runs from Lansing to Webberville, about 30 miles east of downtown Lansing. The TCRPC has looked at transit, housing and other activities along that corridor, working closely with the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA). At the same time, communities along Michigan Avenue have changed zoning to improve density, added or improved sidewalks and addressed the street interface with the built environment.

The success of these efforts has helped spur overall collaboration across the region. Even MSU, which has been somewhat hands-off in the past, has been working much more closely with Lansing and East Lansing in recent years. East Lansing is no longer siloed, and communication and coordination has been enhanced dramatically.

Public spaces and amenities

A big part of Lansing’s urban development and redevelopment story is the continuing improvement in public spaces and community amenities. In Lansing, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Michigan Municipal League have collaborated with a Detroit-based group called Patronicity that provides a civic crowdfunding platform designed to “bring together local citizens and sponsors to support great initiatives in their communities.”

The collaboration leveraged the award-winning program Public Spaces Community Places program to complete three successful area campaigns: a public art space project, a soccer field and a renovated highway underpass with murals and lighting to make it safe and pedestrian-friendly.

Principles and progress

One of the most promising aspects of Lansing’s continuing progress is the degree to which that progress is consistent with the principles outlined in a seminal Urban Land Institute Report: Urban Real Estate Investment: A New Era of Opportunity. The report describes 13 different trends driving “America’s Urban Paradigm Shift,” and the majority of those principles are evident in Lansing’s thoughtful and collaborative development arc.

While civic and business leaders in Lansing recognize that the city has room to grow when it comes to codifying more formal and more rigorous green building standards, and legislative and development tools to promote more mixed-income housing remains on the public policy agenda, the density and connectivity outlined in the ULI report are evident throughout Lansing’s development efforts.

Lansing has not only become economically stronger, it has done so while creating and promoting spaces and places that are safer, more walkable, and more dynamic and engaging. As the report’s 13 trends describe, Lansing has added transit-related value, modernized urban infrastructure, incorporated public spaces and amenities, encouraged design excellence, and developed new approaches to financing.

It seems abundantly clear that Lansing is well on its way to becoming the newest member of a category of cities that ULI refers to as “livable, integrated, self-propelling engines of the global economy.”

Katharine Czarnecki is vice president of collaborative community development at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

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