City Council Considers Feasibility Study of Affordable Housing for Artists

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Courtesy of Artspace

An apartment in Dearborn's City Hall Artspace Lofts.

Could East Lansing see dedicated development of affordably-priced live-work space for “creatives,” as has happened in cities around the country?

After members of East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) responded enthusiastically to a presentation on this concept by Artspace during their Jan. 28 meeting, Artspace Consulting’s Senior Vice President Wendy Holmes presented what the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization has to offer East Lansing at City Council’s discussion-only meeting this past Tuesday, Mar. 16.

According to Holmes, the nonprofit’s mission is “to create, foster and preserve long term affordable space for artists and arts organizations.” At the virtual Council meeting, Holmes encouraged Council to approve $30,000 in funding for an Artspace feasibility study in East Lansing.

Peter Dewan, Chair of the DDA, shared his enthusiasm for the possibility of moving forward with Artspace’s plans for the local area.

“I think what we really need to be doing in our community is to completely harness our creative sector,” Dewan said. “You don’t have to look too terribly far to see all the tremendous cultural offerings our community has, with the Broad Museum, the art fair, the jazz festival, the Kresge Art Museum, our concerts in the park, our community theater.”

Speaking to the Council, Holmes advocated for a broader understanding of who is an artist and what art is.

“It’s not just painters, and it’s not just performing artists, it’s also healing artists, culinary artists, fashion designers,” she said. “It’s a lot of people who are already in your community, and you may not even know that they’re a creative person because they’re making your coffee in the morning at the local coffee shop. They have a lot of service jobs they do in your community in addition to your art.”

Artspace owns and operates 54 projects across the country, including in Dearborn, the organization’s first Michigan endeavor. The $16.5 million Dearborn City Hall Artspace Lofts project was established in 2015 and has resulted in 20,000 square feet of mixed-use commercial and housing space with 53 units.

Relying on a combination of private and public funding, Artspace would hope to align its mission with broader community goals in East Lansing. Funding could be drawn from such sources as private philanthropy, Brownfield tax increment financing, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposed feasibility study calls for meeting with local stakeholders and leaders in the community to see who and what could drive this project forward.

According to Holmes’ presentation, the purpose of the study is to quantify the demand for arts and creative spaces; identify types of spaces, amenities, and features artists want and need; inform site selection and design; maintain community involvement; and help build and secure funding.

Ideally, the core goals are to meet the creative sector’s space needs, ensure long term affordability, reflect the unique culture and character of the community, and exemplify sustainable and efficient design.

Possible plans for spaces include mixed-use buildings with retail or gallery space, along with live-work spaces for artists and creatives. Typically, Artspace’s studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units are rented below market value, according to Holmes, to people earning 30-60% of the median area income.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Council members discussed possible ways to fund the feasibility study and considered a Fall 2021 start date for the study. But some Council members expressed concern about wanting first to talk with representatives of other cities who have participated in the study, to see what they learned and to better understand what they did to move forward.

City Manager George Lahanas indicated at the meeting that the concept of the feasibility study would be discussed with other boards and commissions and be brought back to the Council for consideration thereafter. He did not indicate support for Council simply approving $30,000 for the study at this time.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg at the July 20, 2020, online meeting of City Council.

At the East Lansing Arts Commission meeting two nights later, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg informed that group about what Council had discussed Tuesday.

She told the Arts Commission that this is not the way real estate redevelopment normally happens in East Lansing – calling it “a weird format for development” that requires “a fairly decent investment from us up front.” She said she was “not sure how it is going to play when it comes back to Council.”

Speaking also as an artist and craft-shop owner, Gregg made clear she sees this as “a very good opportunity for us to bring slightly more conscious type of development into our city,” but said she is not sure if the rest of Council will see that $30,000 study investment as a good idea. Gregg said it is likely the DDA will be asked to pay into the study cost.   

Gregg told the Arts Commission, “If we let economics dictate what gets built where, then we’re going to have nothing but student apartment buildings, because that’s the guaranteed paycheck in East Lansing. So if you’re going to try to move that needle, then we really do have to actually put in some very deliberate intention” into the zoning code and specific redevelopment options.

The Downtown Development Authority will meet this Thursday, Mar. 25. While it is likely this issue will be discussed at the DDA’s meeting, the agenda is not yet posted.

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