Close a Lane for Only Three Restaurants? Other Biz Owners Say “No, Thanks.”

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Albert Ave., shown looking west. (The Center City District project is shown on the left, and HopCat and 7-Eleven are on the right.)

Downtown business owners have been telling ELi that they deeply appreciate the work put in by City staff – especially Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins – on making downtown more attractive and welcoming.

Under a multi-pronged emergency placemaking project that has involved crowdfunding and securing matching state funds, Cummins has overseen the addition to downtown of lots of inviting outdoor seating, warm lighting, and bright artwork by local children and adults alike. There have been special advertising campaigns, social media engagements, and an underground winter market (until the current Covid spike caused the market’s cancellation).

But one thing many local business owners tell ELi they’re not in favor of is an idea to give three (and only three) restaurants several months of greatly expanded outdoor seating space at the cost of a lane on Albert Ave.

The “Pedlet Pilot Project” concept was floated at last Thursday’s monthly Downtown Development Authority meeting. And on the whole – in sharp contrast to the business owners ELi spoke to afterwards about it – DDA members loved the idea, especially Chair Peter Dewan and City Manager George Lahanas.

The special project would involve closing the eastbound (southside) lane of Albert Ave. in front of the span that runs from Foster Coffee, past Barrio Tacos to Jolly Pumpkin. The closed lane would be used not for diners, but to reroute  pedestrians and bicyclists. Drivers could not go eastbound in this section but would have to go around the block.

City of East Lansing

City staff’s sketch of how this “pedlet” project would work. A section of eastbound Albert Ave. would be closed to reroute pedestrians and bicyclists and to give over the sidewalk space so that Fosters Coffee, Barrio Tacos, and Jolly Pumpkin could have much more outdoor seating space.

There would be an attractive pedestrian pathway put in, possibly with lighted whiskey barrels surrounding the walk-space, and also a bike lane to preserve the ability to bike eastbound in a dedicated lane.

Meanwhile, the entire width of the sidewalk would be given over to Foster Coffee, Barrio Tacos, and Jolly Pumpkin for outdoor seating space for their customers (only) in front of their businesses.

Cummins told the DDA this would allow Jolly Pumpkin to go from having about 5 tables outside to having 20 to 22, and that Barrio’s outdoor tables would increase from 7 to 16. Foster Coffee would also benefit, although the table increase was not specified.

More outdoor seating space is something many restaurants would love to have even in a non-pandemic summer. Last year, the City attempted an outdoor “picnic” area in the same area, closing the street, but the tables provided by the City for that project were available to all take-out customers of all nearby businesses.

On Thursday, DDA Chair Peter Dewan called this new idea “simply an extension” of all of the improvements to downtown aimed at getting people to come patronize businesses.

Dewan moved to have the DDA commit up to $15,000 from its project development fund to support the effort, subject to further review of the DDA when more details are available. This was unanimously supported by DDA members.

The funds would go chiefly to the purchase of attractive barriers to be placed between the pedestrian walkway and the new temporary bike lane to protect pedestrians from bikes and cars. Last year’s lane closure for the picnic area involved orange construction barriers that some felt made the area look ugly and closed – not welcoming. Lahanas said he would like to see something he’s seen in other cities – barriers with planters on top.

Asked what he had heard from other business owners, Cummins said ten businesses he had spoken to were in favor but wanted better signage about businesses being open in spite of the lane closure, and they wanted nicer looking barriers. He said that five businesses he spoke to were not in favor.

The business owners we contacted for reaction did not want to go on the record as being against any efforts by the City to help downtown – they had much unsolicited praise for Cummins specifically – but they all felt this idea would hurt, not help, them.

Several said they had barely survived over two years of construction from the Center City District and Park Place projects combined with the pandemic, and they thought another lane closure was going to shoo people away from downtown.

Several also noted that the MSUFCU project will again involve lane closures (on Albert Ave. and Abbot Rd.) and will kick up still more dust, pounding, and noise.

The idea of an elective partial lane closure on Albert Ave. – especially one to benefit only three other businesses – was described as insult on top of multiple injuries. Several referred to the City “picking winners and losers.”

But at the DDA meeting, City Manager Lahanas said he was “very supportive of this” idea in part because, he said, this section of Albert Ave. had been designed as part of the Center City District project to be closed for festivals.

Vice Chair Jim Croom agreed with Lahanas, saying about the Albert Ave. design, “this area was supported [with tax increment financing] for this purpose, with this purpose in mind.”

But the festival road closures happen for only a couple of weekends a year – not an entire summer – and do not specifically favor only a small number of businesses at the potential expense of others.

DDA member Jeff Smith said he was sure everyone agreed that permanent beautification efforts are needed. Several people have indicated being in favor of the type of pole-hung planters seen in many Michigan downtowns.

When the vote was taken on Dewan’s motion, all were in favor, including Lahanas, Croom, Smith, Jacqueline Babcock, Kristin Clark, Mike Krueger, Luke Hackney, Reuben Levinsohn, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg (who was subbing in for an absent Mayor Aaron Stephens), and Greg Ballein.

Ballein usually recuses himself on votes related to the Center City District project, because he was co-developer of that project, but this time he did not.

For the project to happen, a majority of City Council would have to vote through approval of the lane closure. That is not on Council’s agenda for tomorrow night, which means the idea may come forward later for Council approval, or may be reworked.

What is on tomorrow’s agenda is a resolution to cancel the annual business license fees and entertainment license fees normally charged to downtown bars and restaurants, a move that will help all businesses that normally pay these fees and that will cost the City about $75,000 from its normal (non-pandemic) revenue stream.

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