How Greater Lansing is working together and Shaping the Avenue

The corridor where Michigan and Grand River avenues run from Lansing through East Lansing into Meridian township is the perfect starting point for developers to begin work on the greater Lansing region and make it a city-center for each respective community.

But what happens when developers want to come in and develop a part of the corridor that stretches into two of the three, or even all three sub-groups? Different zoning ordinances and township requirements might make things difficult, if not impossible, for developers and could deter them from working in the area. This is just one of the problems that the Shaping the Avenue project aims to fix.

Why it’s here

The major players in this project include the City of Lansing, Lansing Township, the City of East Lansing, Meridian Township, and CATA. “The intention is to have a cohesive plan for the corridor so that developers can have some certainty of what they can and cannot develop,” explains Darcy C. Schmitt, Senior Planner of the City of East Lansing.

The Shaping the Avenue project was originally put in motion after the Capitol Corridor Study of 2014 began. The study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and other local partners, looked at how the corridor could be improved regarding what is known as Livability Principles. The principles include:

  • Providing more transportation choices,
  • Promoting equitable, affordable housing,
  • Supporting existing communities,
  • Coordinating and leveraging federal policies and investments,
  • Valuing communities and neighborhoods, and
  • Reducing greenhouse gases and addressing climate change.

The study included an enormous amount of public participation in order to find out what each community wants and needs, all with the above points in mind.

What it is

The study ran its course and prompted the first step in the Shaping the Avenue project: the creation and implementation of a Master Plan (or a comprehensive plan) for each municipality along the corridor. The master plan is an organized plan for how each municipality wants to see their chunk of urban greater Lansing to look, feel and operate.

So that is the first step of the project – each municipality is to create a master plan in conjunction with the members of their community. This will include information about building forms, but it will also reflect general land uses and express what sorts of public spaces (think sidewalks, plazas bike lanes, etc.) are desired. In summary, the master plan creates a roadmap for how livable the community could be and what would make people and businesses want to locate there.

Once each community adopts its own finalized master plan, it moves on to the next step of the project: creating form-based codes. While traditional zoning codes are concerned with the use of a building, a form-based code is concerned with buildings’ physical form.

“Unlike traditional zoning, [form-based codes] addresses the relationship between buildings and the street, the form and the mass of buildings in relationship to one another, the pattern of blocks and streets and the location and type of public spaces [to be] developed,” explains Schmitt.

During this phase of the project, each municipality will separately work to create form-based codes that are consistent with the direction of their master plans. This part of the project is very time consuming and extremely detailed. For Peter Menser, Principal Planner for Meridian Township, it’s a lot of learning, interpreting and teaching. “My job is to interpret the ordinance, learn about it myself and teach the planning commissioners and the public,” says Menser.

While it’s a lot of explaining, and wading through technical vocabulary, involving the public ensures that members of each municipality have a say in the future feel and look of their community. Eventually, when put into action, the form-based codes will create exactly that – a new look and feel to each community as future developers utilize the codes.

“The hope and intention is that you’ll have a cohesive development, more public space amenities, a lively street front, better housing and commercial space so that people can work and live in the same area,” says Schmitt.

How it’s being implemented now

According to Piper & Gold Public Relations, who has been spearheading the communications efforts for the project, each municipality is at different stages in the project.

The City of Lansing is the furthest in the project. Their master plan was adopted and they have drafted a city-wide form-based code, which will guide future development. The form-based code is being considered for adoption at this time. Shaping the Avenue is also currently assisting the City of Lansing in creating a street design manual, which should be completed by spring.

The City of East Lansing is currently working with the community to update its master plan, and they are hoping to have it adopted this April. Once their master plan is adopted, Shaping the Avenue will assist the city in creating a form-based code, which will focus on the vision for Michigan and Grand River Avenues.

Meridian Township adopted its master plan in November of 2017. A draft of the form-based code, which focuses on the vision for Grand River Avenue and Okemos Village, was reviewed with the Planning Commission in late 2017. “We are hopeful that the overall process used in developing the code will provide the community with a useful tool to shape the future development of the corridor,” says Schmitt. But according to officials like Schmitt and Menser, it’s still a long time coming.

“It’s going to take some time for everyone to digest the ordinance language,” says Menser. “We’re really just dipping our toes into it.” 


Megan Westers is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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