Last Sunday, the “Albert EL Fresco” — an array of outdoor seating and other amenities arranged on a closed portion of Albert Street downtown between Abbot Road and M.A.C. Avenue — was dismantled and the street reopened.
After originally approving the street closure in late May for this placemaking program, which was spearheaded by Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins and began on June 3, City Council then voted again in June to extend the street closure to Aug. 15, this past Sunday.
The Albert EL Fresco program was extended in part because of the positive feedback the City received, both anecdotally and via surveys they conducted. Since the vote to extend the street closure to mid-August, the positive feedback has, publicly, continued. Emails sent to the City Council email address show numerous people writing in to support extending, or making permanent, the closure of Albert Street between M.A.C. Avenue and Abbot Road.
At City Council’s meeting on Aug. 10, Nicholas Pidek of Foster’s Coffee called in during public comment to state his support for extending the Albert EL Fresco, and in general for the program
“Huge praise to you guys. This is something — exactly what downtown businesses have needed,” Pidek said.
So why did City Council decide to let an ostensibly popular initiative lapse?
Responding to Pidek and others on Aug. 10, then-Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said that she’d had conversations with other downtown business owners about extending the Albert EL Fresco into the fall, but some specific issues led Council not to continue the program — at least for now.
One simple aspect is that it gives Cummins and the placemaking team a chance to “catch their breath,” Gregg said.
Beyond that, there are bigger, more complex issues at play.
For one, the scene downtown and around the EL Fresco is vastly different at 2:30 a.m., after bars let out, than during the day, Gregg said. This has led the East Lansing Police Department to devote resources to specifically police the Albert EL Fresco and surrounding area on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. ELPD is staffing the EL Fresco with two or three dedicated officers on those nights, according to Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez.
Gonzalez wrote in an email that the officers working the EL Fresco are serving “dual roles” of public safety and ordinance enforcement along with relationship-building among downtown stakeholders.
“Later into the night and very early morning hours the officers have been required to give more attention to their public safety roles in preventing or responding to fights, unruly intoxicated subjects, etc.,” Gonzalez said.
And in the early hours of July 31, a shooting downtown near the EL Fresco caused one man non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
Both Gregg and Gonzalez noted that the return of students would make policing the EL Fresco an exponentially more difficult task.
“Throughout the summer we have had the staffing to dedicate to this function in the EL Fresco area since it is a slower time of the year for us,” Gonzalez said. “However, as people return for the school year we fully expect calls for service throughout the City to increase as they traditionally do. This additional workload when combined with football weekends, parties, and all of the other activities a normal fall entails would put a strain on staffing if our EL Fresco responsibilities continued.”
Gregg noted on Aug. 10 at a meeting of City Council that the students returning to campus are likely quite “cabin-fever-y” and ready to let loose. Others have noted that Michigan State University is effectively bringing in two freshman classes, at least in terms of on-campus living and being in East Lansing, by virtue of MSU going virtual last year. With a class of freshman and sophomores that are relatively new, it could be overwhelming.
“Rather than take what has been in my mind a wild success and invite failure, I think it’s best for us to kind of rest on our laurels, regroup a little bit,” Gregg said.
Gregg did note that the amenities in the City should also be to serve students, too, and that the intent is not to deny them the benefits of the placemaking.
It seems Gregg’s intent now is to revisit the concept come the Spring of 2022. She said on Aug. 10 and in a subsequent Facebook post that she wants to bring back the EL Fresco, and to see how it would work with students.
“So my suggestion,” Gregg said, “and obviously this is in the future, would be to look at setting that back up in late April, or early May, so that it was in place for the Art Festival. And so that we had a final month while we still have students in town to kind of see how it works when they are at the end of their year, rather than at the beginning of their year with a lot of pent-up energy.”