Michigan Avenue: What If?

Imagine what the Michigan Avenue corridor, which stretches between a world-classs land-grant university and the State Capitol building, could look like.

It could be busy —not with only cars, but with bicycles, walkers, joggers, trolleys and light-rail. It’s vacant storefronts and empty lots could be crowded with boutiques, restaurants, bars, shops and residential areas. The street could be clean, walkable, well-lit, accommodating for those with disabilities, and above all, popular.

The Stretch

The Michigan Avenue corridor stretches from Michigan Avenue’s split with Grand River Avenue, just west of the campus of Michigan State University (MSU), to the railroad tracks east of Clara’s restaurant near Downtown Lansing.

However, there are major gaps in activity along the corridor.

While efforts have been made to include Michigan Avenue in the Walk and Bike Lansing campaign and the Allen Neighborhood Association, and other organizations have under taken smaller-scale projects to improve the avenue, preliminary work for a large-scale revitalization project has only recently been completed with the help of two MSU professors and their spring 2009 classes.

The students, who extensively researched the project, are prepared to turn their findings into a forum for public discussion.

Assessing Opportunity

Last spring, MSU Director of Center for Community and Economic Development Rex LaMore, had seven of his Urban Planning students complete an assessment of Michigan Avenue — including the good, the bad and the potholes.

“My students walked it, photographed it, assessed it on both the north and south sides of the street, and prepared their findings in report,” says LaMore. “They did a block-by-block assessment to figure out how to make Michigan Avenue more walkable, how to improve the lighting, the aesthetic treatments on sidewalks and accessibility and the bus stops.”

LaMore pointed to recent business developments along the corridor as an indication that work is headed in the right direction.

“We are here in a building that is owned by Scott Gillespie," he says. "There’s interest in rehabbing the gas station next door to us. There’s been a huge amount of restaurant development along this stretch. The interest is there from the developers, and these are the people who can get it done.”

Making Connections

“Lansing is smaller than most cities undertaking projects like this,” LaMore says. “Cities the size of Madison — where the distance from the Capitol building to the campus is less than one-third [the distance] it is in Lansing — have had a much easier time with similar revitalization projects.”

That’s not to say that the task facing Lansing is impossible. “Our development path might be different,” says LaMore. “We’ve got several local developers who have already undertaken revitalization projects along the corridor. We have smaller, easier improvements that could easily be made, and we have the Corridor Improvement Act.”

The Corridor Improvement Authority Act, passed by the Michigan legislature in 2005, encourages historic preservation, promotes economic growth of the districts and creates a board with the authority to levy taxes and authorizes the use of tax increment funding to improve key community corridors. 

In short, the legislation allows the governing entities of Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township, which all host part of Michigan Avenue, to pool their resources to improve the multi-jurisdictional corridor.

“The governing authority will be like a multi-jurisdictional Downtown Development Authority,” says LaMore. “They can all work in cohesion and share ideas through the board, which will have members appointed by each government.”

Adding Authority

The East Lansing City Council recently voted to establish the Michigan Avenue Corridor Improvement Authority, the first step in a process that will involve the cooperation of multiple jurisdictions and businesses. Lori Mullins, senior project manager for the City of East Lansing, is a member of the committee.

“The students’ work is just the first step in getting funding from the Federal Transit Administration,” says Mullins. “The purpose of our exploratory committee was to evaluate the students’ work and determine whether or not it made sense to establish an authority, which we did.”

Mullins was impressed with the work of the MSU students and the depth of their research.

“Specifically, LaMore’s work has really helped us to take all the input that we got on a conceptual level and break it down to what the priorities are — installing bike loops, pedestrian signals, better walkways. We also established long-range priorities that affirmed what we’d been hearing from community members.”

Corridor Planning 2.0

Input from community members and other interested parties was gathered and synthesized by students of another MSU professor, John Monberg. Throughout the spring 2009 semester, his students created an interactive website, www.ourmichiganave.org, that has become the one-stop shop for all things corridor-related.

“The cities that do best in confronting the economic challenges related to globalization are those that have a common area to get together and exchange ideas,” says Monberg. “I looked for an opportunity to connect an educational project for my students with my own interest in new media and something to benefit the community. And the Michigan Avenue corridor fit the bill.”

The website includes profiles of residents who live and work near the corridor, development news, an interactive map and the ability to link the website to other applications such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google Maps.

“We wanted to use these other programs not just to have all the bells and whistles, but to actually add content,” says Monberg. “Visitors to the website can read well-researched content, vote on issues that are important to them, add comments, send links to their friends. If we can get the website out to the people on a large scale, and space they need to discuss the issues is there for them.”

Economy of Change

As a resident of Lansing’s Eastside, Monberg’s interest in the Michigan Avenue Corridor is more than academic.

“In college towns, when the university and the town are integrated, there are better jobs, better parks, it’s a more fun city to live in. Over the last 20 years, almost every city that’s done well has been integrated with a strong university system, like Chicago and Portland."

"50 years ago Lansing could be very independent and still thrive," he says. "But now there needs to be cooperation between Lansing, East Lansing and the township.”

Monberg says the website is an ongoing project that his students have volunteered to maintain.

“Michigan Avenue has some tremendous resources as it connects the state capital and Michigan State,” he says. “The volume of traffic and the density and diversity of the neighborhoods along the corridor are also important advantages. Michigan Avenue ought to become a vibrant, attractive space that supports the connections, conversations and innovations that will be the foundation for sustainable economic success in the emerging economy."

Next Steps

"Given the current economic challenges and budgetary realities, there aren't enough resources for a magic transformation," says Monberb. "Instead, all of the regional stake-holders need a place to create a vision, develop incremental improvement ideas, and reflect on the ideas that other people have.  I'm hoping that the Our Michigan Avenue website can be a space where everyone in the community recognizes that these conversations are happening.”

When asked about his vision for Michigan Avenue, Monberg waxed optimistic.

“I would like the community to recognize that the horizon is much greater than they could have ever imagined. After we start the discussion, a new vision can emerge," he says. "The issue isn’t money. The more important resource is imagination. From there, the possibilities are endless.”

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Gabrielle Johnson is a law student and freelance reporter for Capital Gains. 

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


Lori Mullins, senior project manager for the City of East Lansing, and views of Michigan Ave from the Capitol to East Lansing.

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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