Mixed-use development project, mixed emotions. East Town set to regenerate Lansing's Eastside

Exactly halfway between downtown Lansing and downtown East Lansing — the area's two principal retail and social districts — lies Lansing's Eastside Neighborhood, an eclectic community made up of students, young professionals, families, and retirees. It's got a gritty, bohemian feel to it, sort of like '80s-era SoHo — if any part of Manhattan could be like any part of Lansing.
 
The 2000 block of East Michigan Avenue is its main drag, populated these days by a couple of bars, two Chinese restaurants, a bookstore, a flower shop and a tattoo parlor, among other businesses. But on the north end of that block, a new $6 million, mixed-use development is on the horizon that will take the place of seven now-vacant historic retail buildings, effectively changing the face the Eastside. It's called East Town, with 11,500 square feet of commercial space and 39 high-end residential units, and it's proved to be Greater Lansing's most divisive construction project.    
 
"These buildings are functionally obsolete, so restoration just wasn't an option," says Scott Gillespie, president of the Gillespie Co., the project's developer. "We spent a lot of time studying the architecture throughout Lansing and developed an original look based on what we felt would fit in with the community. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel."
 
From Emil's to East Town
 
East Town will replace the row of buildings that stretches from 2002 E. Michigan Ave. on the corner of Clemens Street — the longtime home of Eastside Barber & Style Shop — to 2016 E. Michigan Ave., recently vacated by Capital City Homebrew Supply. The block was home to a variety of businesses over the years, perhaps most notably Lindemann's Butcher Shop, which doubled as a central Eastside meet-up spot, according to some longtime residents. For almost 90 years, it was also home to Emil's Restaurant, Lansing's oldest restaurant, which closed last fall.  
 
"It deeply hurt me when Emil's closed," says Heather Kendrick, who's lived in the Eastside Neighborhood for 17 years. "It was part of the unique personality of the block. One of the things I find most appealing about the Michigan Avenue corridor is it has a particular quirkiness to it. That includes the look of the buildings, but now they're being replaced by this monolithic thing that looks like it was dropped from space. It doesn't feel like part of the neighborhood."
 
In November, Gillespie unveiled the original look of East Town (then called East Town Flats), including the first retail tenant, Strange Matter Coffee Co. The 1-year-old specialty café would be moving across the street from its current location in spring 2017, when East Town is supposed to be complete.
 
"I've been wanting to expand for a while now, but I wanted to stay on the east side," said Strange Matter owner Cara Nader. "I met Scott because he would try to have planning meetings here in my shop, but there was never enough room for him to meet with more than one person at a time. One time I told him I wish I had more space, and then he said he could make that happen. We started talking, and now I'll be his first tenant. This worked out perfectly."
 
Gillespie said he's also working "very closely" with a restaurant that will take over another one of the storefronts, and is in talks with a fitness facility, an "art-related business." As for residential tenants, he said he's not targeting any specific group, but hopes to attract graduate students from Michigan State University, senior citizens, downtown workers, and hospital staff from nearby Sparrow Hospital.
 
The community pushback
 
However, shortly after he announced the project, Gillespie received a surprising pushback from the community. Many felt that a four-story, modern structure incorporating Art Deco flourishes would look out of place. Nancy Mahlow, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Organization, says she thinks the project will be good for the area, but stood behind neighbors who were concerned that it was too tall.
 
"It may cause some problems for the people who live right behind it, and I'll stick up for anyone who comes to me with their concerns," Mahlow says. "But Scott is an Eastsider, and he's always listened to us and taken people's feelings into consideration. I know with him it's not going to be, 'this is the way it's going to be, take it or leave it.' He doesn't operate that way."
 
Gillespie grew up a third-generation Eastside Neighborhood kid. He says he learned to ride his bike in the parking lot behind the area he's planning to build.
 
"These are my old stomping grounds," Gillespie says. "There's nothing better than doing what you're passionate about in an area you hold so dear to your heart."
 
And so a month after announcing the project, Gillespie met with more than 100 people from the neighborhood at the Avenue Café . Patrick Harrison, who owns a house adjacent to where the project will be built, was in attendance.
 
"I'm absolutely excited to see an investment in this block, to anchor the existing businesses and expand on what we already have," he says. "I'm not crazy about that name — this is the Eastside, and people lately keep trying to rename it East Town — but when you have $6 million, you can name (a project) whatever you want."
 
Harrison bought his home 11 years ago, and calls his neighborhood an "interesting mix": he lives between a senior citizen couple whose home has been in their family for almost a century and a rental property currently inhabited by a college fraternity.
 
"I live directly between both ends of the spectrum," he says. "My wife and I are dual income, no kids, and we try to support the local businesses, but there aren't a lot of young professionals like us in the area. (The East Town development) has the potential to bring more young professionals here and really energize the area."
 
Reimagining the look and feel of East Town
 
Following the meeting, Gillespie and his team reimagined the façade, removing some of the Art Deco aspects and giving it a little more color. 
 
"It's equally beautiful, and I'm equally excited about it," Gillespie says. "It was encouraging to see that many people concerned about their community. It was very heartwarming. It speaks very well for east side as a whole."
 
And that community is something that could see a whole new life, if this project attracts the right blend of new businesses and residents.
 
"Lansing schools have gone downhill precisely because young professionals become young families who, if they aren't committed to a community, move to the suburbs seeking better schools," Harrison says. "This investment is an opportunity to anchor some young professionals to the community (and) bridge the gap between the older generation who built the community and the younger generation who can't yet monetarily sustain (it). I hope that the Eastside Neighborhood will embrace the looming influx of young people and invite them to get involved and sustain this community that I love."
 
"I was very negative at the start, but I am curious to see what it develops into," Kendrick says. "If we get some of that vitality back in to the area, then maybe I'll come around on it. Especially if it brings in locally owned businesses that can attract people during the day, like an antique store or a craft store. I love the Eastside, and the fact that this raised so much of a discussion shows that a lot of people are passionate about this area, that they love it. And that's the reason I live here."

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Allan I. Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains Media. 

MI Avenue and Scott Gillespie Photos © Dave Trumpie

Strange Matter Coffee Photo © Debbie Carlos

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