The rebirth of REO Town

When Ryan Wert first moved to REO Town, he used to sit and tally the number of police cars that passed by the local diner at night. That was 10 years ago. And the numbers filled the minutes it took to drink a cup of coffee.

Today, things are different for the business owners and residents of this urban community just across I-496 from downtown Lansing. Green space and creative signage serve as the district’s gateway rather than a dilapidated and sketchy motel. The corridor’s main artery has been widened, landscaped, and made biker- and pedestrian-friendly thanks to the city’s streetscape project and a federal transportation grant. New restaurants and businesses are opening.

And the city’s hometown utility has invested millions to make REO Town the site of a new cogeneration plant and headquarters.

"There’s a real boots-to-the-ground attitude of people in this area," says Wert, who owns Elm Street Recording and serves on the board of the REO Town Commercial Association. "REO today is a blank canvas with a whole lot of potential."
 
Regenerating the history 

Like many parts of Lansing, REO Town has lived and breathed the auto industry. Just south of the Capitol, this small
South Side district boasts a lively history within a border defined by Main Street and Washington to the north, Mount Hope to the south, Cedar Street to the east, and Townsend Street to the west.

Many historians consider REO Town as one of the birthplaces of the commercial automobile industry in the United States. Named after the auto pioneer Ransom Eli Olds, the area was home to workers who assembled cars and trucks from 1906 to 1975. A historic marker near the district’s railroad tracks marks the site of the REO Clubhouse that served as Lansing’s cultural and recreational hub for the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

City, business and community leaders are seeking to reawaken REO Town’s business and cultural vibrancy through significant investments and economic redevelopment. The catalyst, many say, will be the $182 million investment by the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

“The new BWL Cogeneration Plan and Headquarters will be a game-changer for REO Town,” says J. Peter Lark, general manager of the BWL. “We’re confident this project will be transformational for this historic neighborhood.”

Slated to go commercial July 2013, the state-of-the-art facility will infuse REO Town with energy—literally and figuratively. About 180 employees will work onsite to generate up to 300,000 pounds of steam and 100 megawatts of electricity. The new facility, BWL Communications Director Stephen Serkaian says, will be greener than the soon-to-be-decommissioned coal-fired steam plant at Moores Park.

The BWL project also involves the restoration of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot. Once restored, the historic structure will function as a BWL training facility, a meeting place for the BWL board, and a gathering spot for the REO Town Commercial Association. The century-old depot is located adjacent to the new plant and right across the tracks from where the previous REO factory had sat.

“The BWL is as much of a part of Lansing history as anyone around,” says Serkaian of the BWL locations in and near REO Town that have provided steam to Lansing since 1919. “We’re cognizant of that role and saw the day-to-day link to preserving part of our city’s history.”
 
Creating the surge
 
Business owner Kenneth Jones was among the early believers in the economic and cultural vitality that the BWL plant would bring to the area.

Jones moved his architectural firm to REO Town from Okemos in 2005 based on his commitment to urban renewal. Studio Intrigue, in fact, designed the BWL plant, creating a structure that pays homage to the factories and industrial buildings that dotted Lansing’s landscape.

“The facility could have been a shiny glass box, but that wouldn’t have fit,” says Jones who co-owns Studio Intrigue with David VanderKlok. “Instead, we used brick and large factory-esque windows to give it that old factory flair."

Jones also serves as the president of the REO Town Commercial Association. Along with others on the all-volunteer board, he actively promotes REO Town to businesses, visitors and residents. Several festivals involving art, music, food and craft beer are in the works or gaining momentum from previous years.

“We’re trying to do things that will get people down here,” says Jones of annual festivals like Art Attack. “Once they’re here, they’ll see the potential.”

Jones talks of urban pioneers renovating homes in the Moores River, Fabulous Acres and River Point neighborhoods, as well as entrepreneurs hanging up shingles for restaurants, boutiques and non-profits. And he mentions prospects for development – about a half dozen, in fact – for various multi-use facilities or renovations to existing structures.

"We have clients who never considered this area before," says Jones. "Now they’re seeing the opportunities of an area that is essentially an extension of downtown. They see the new infrastructure from the streetscape, and they see the investment of the BWL. They want to be a part of it, too."

As an urban district, REO Town is rooted in serving the people who live and work within its boundaries. Originally platted to provide housing and businesses for automotive workers, today’s businesses and developments will spring up in response to the influx of workers serving Lansing’s hometown utility.

Building owner Alan Hooper agrees that REO Town is a great little area on the upswing. Hooper purchased a property on South Washington in 2011 and is now gutting and renovating the three-storefront facility that was previously home to a family of raccoons.

"REO Town is distinct, it’s accessible from the freeway, and has a traditional main street appeal,” says Hooper. “When you’re here you know you’re in Lansing."
 
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Ann Kammerer 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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