The Albert EL Fresco is set to return in 2022 after City Council approved the closure of two lanes of Albert Street between M.A.C. Avenue and Abbot Road from Apr. 27 to Sept. 11. at Tuesday’s meeting.
The matter was decided by a 3-1 vote, with Council member George Brookover voting against. Council member Dana Watson was absent.
The 2022 edition of the EL Fresco will be tweaked to keep one lane of Albert partially open, but only accessible via Grove Street. The exact beginning and end dates have not been set, but the intention is for the placemaking program to begin sooner and run later into the calendar year.
The first edition of the project, which involved closing all three lanes of Albert Avenue between M.A.C. and Abbot through part of last summer, was highly praised by City Council at its conclusion in the fall of 2021.
But Brookover wasn’t on the Council that universally praised the first edition of the EL Fresco, and he voted against continuing the program as outlined due to concerns about equal treatment of businesses and a lack of data about the EL Fresco’s successes and failures in 2021.
“I don’t get the feeling that, other than this being a neat thing for a while, that this has necessarily been a ‘success,’” Brookover said.
He added that he was open to voting in favor of authorizing the EL Fresco again this year, but not before he could learn more about the totality of the impact it had in 2021. He also said he wouldn’t want to vote in favor of it until Council had gotten a legal opinion from the City Attorney about the impacts on businesses in the area. City Attorney Laura Genovich said she will provide a legal opinion on the matter of Albert EL Fresco and the appropriateness of how it affects merchants in East Lansing.
Brookover listed three main concerns: a data set he felt was insufficient to indicate the project was a success, the geographic location of certain merchants downtown allowing them to benefit from a City project while merchants in other areas are potentially left behind, and the strain the EL Fresco puts on the East Lansing Police Department.
He identified another concern, which is that the residents of Newman Lofts — age-restricted housing for people age 55 and older — are being isolated downtown.
“I’m sure the Mayor Pro Tem will tell me I’m a bummer,” Brookover said. “She’s entitled to do that because probably I am a bummer some of the time. But I just think it’s a data set we don’t have.”
In response to Brookover’s concern about seniors, City Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins noted that the kind of environment that Albert EL Fresco creates is “straight out of an AARP handbook on how to provide an inclusive, friendly community.”
Cummins also assured Council that there is no favor being shown to specific merchants. With the EL Fresco planned to occupy a very similar footprint, the businesses closest will be the same three as last year: Foster’s Coffee, Barrio, and Jolly Pumpkin.
Council member Lisa Babcock asked if the City has considered trying the concept out at a different location.
“We think [we] have the greatest balance [of social and economic well-being] and best impact in the location we are proposing,” Cummins said as for why the downtown was chosen. He also noted there is ample parking downtown.
Lahanas jumped in to explain that the intention behind the design of the city center — specifically the Ann Street Plaza — was to allow for the area to become an extended plaza, right down to the lowered curb heights to make it a more seamless transition from sidewalk to roadway.
The City is also planning to ask for additional money from the Downtown Development Authority to cover the cost of expanded police shifts necessitated by the EL Fresco, Lahanas said. He added that the General Fund bore the cost in 2021.
Then-ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez told ELi in August 2021 that “Later into the night and very early morning hours [on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays] the officers have been required to give more attention to their public safety roles in preventing or responding to fights, unruly intoxicated subjects, etc.”
And while a survey conducted by the City about its placemaking efforts didn’t capture the full range of people who visited the EL Fresco, they “spoke with their feet,” Lahanas said. He noted that downtown East Lansing was “the place to be” last summer.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg inquired about the opportunity to temporarily serve alcohol within Albert EL Fresco’s limits — there are currently no plans to allow it in the EL Fresco — and Mayor Ron Bacon asked what would need to happen to extend the road closure beyond the proposed dates.
Bacon suggested there might be a desire to open up Albert to pedestrians on a Michigan State football game day, and a need to remove it for the handful of days at the beginning and end of MSU’s academic year, when students are moving.
Cummins and Lahanas assured them that a vote now to close the two lanes of Albert does not preclude City Council from changing course on the EL Fresco.
Another placemaking item was approved by Council, with the aim of getting grant money to spruce up and rehabilitate public spaces.
Director of Planning, Building and Development Tom Fehrenbach asked Council to approve paying an architect $9,000 to assist in the creation of a grant application to secure funds for public space improvements.
Council did approve the up-to $9,000 for Mayotte Group Architects to perform “initial scope of work” for the grant application.
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is releasing state funds in the form of competitive grants that originate from the pool of money Michigan received in association with the American Rescue Plan Act.
Fehrenbach believes East Lansing can put together a strong application for a $1 million grant that would be used in four ways: to enhance placemaking infrastructure downtown, to rehabilitate the historic Board of Water and Light building into Valley Court Park, to improve the farmers’ market venue in Valley Court Park, and to enhance non-motorized transportation access throughout the greater downtown area.
The grant money would have to receive a 50% match from City funds, but Fehrenbach said his staff has figured out a way to make that work.
You can read more about Fehrenbach’s plans in ELi’s reporting here.