The owner of the 7-Eleven convenience store in downtown East Lansing and two residents of Newman Lofts have openly added their voices to the bevy of business owners already telling the City they do not want a lane of Albert Avenue to be closed this summer — particularly not for the disproportionate benefit of three businesses.
But at least one former Council member who voted for the public-private deal that made those businesses possible wants this and more street closures for “social districts” this summer and beyond.
ELi reported that the DDA recently unanimously supported the idea of the lane closure as put forward by City staff, which would be aimed at providing extra outdoor dining space specifically to Jolly Pumpkin, Barrio Tacos, and Foster Coffee, for their customers only.
Among the great majority of business owners with whom ELi has talked, there is a shared sentiment that the City shouldn’t be doing something that benefits just three businesses in a downtown while simultaneously disrupting commerce for other businesses also in need. Some also note this concept would benefit three businesses that the City itself has a financial interest in.
The City owns the land that Barrio, Foster’s, and Jolly Pumpkin are built on as part of the Center City District development. The developers, Harbor Bay Real Estate and Ballein Management, hold a discounted land lease for 49 years, and they own and rent out the retail space in which the three restaurants do business.
After three years of this section of Albert Ave. being closed to some degree, Ali Haider expected a much-needed return to normalcy in 2021 for his business.
Haider, the owner of the downtown 7-Eleven across the street from Barrio Tacos, does not want the City to close a lane of Albert Avenue again, because the various closures have effectively killed much of his business the last three years and would likely do the same this year.
Because 7-Eleven is the only downtown business with free on-site parking, the disruptions to car traffic effectively ruin the main amenity that makes that location profitable, Haider told ELi.
“My customers are mostly the ones who drive with their cars, grab stuff, and they’re out. So that’s the uniqueness I have. So for example, my competitors like CVS or Target or anything, they don’t have parking that somebody can just park [for free] right next to the door and be in and out,” Haider said.
Construction for the Center City District project on the south side of Albert Ave. closed one lane from late 2017 through 2019, and a Covid-related business relief measure in summer 2020 closed all of the lanes along a similar portion of Albert Ave. That scheme swapped traffic for picnic tables, with the intention of attracting people downtown to get takeout food and drink from restaurants that couldn’t serve customers in-person.
The tables last year were for use of all customers of nearby establishments, not just some. But now, the idea being floated is to close one lane on the south side to support just the Center City District restaurants.
Haider told ELi that the earlier lane closures dropped his sales from roughly 1,000 customers a day to around 300.
“So when they close Albert, it just kills my business,” Haider said.
He noted that he owns three other 7-Eleven stores — one more in East Lansing, one in Perry, Michigan, and another in Zeeland, Michigan — and those provided income to help Haider withstand the losses from his downtown East Lansing store. But more disruption would be hard to bear.
Haider spoke with City Director of Planning, Building and Development Tom Fehrenbach last year after the DDA initiative closed off Albert Ave., and brought forward his concerns and issues.
According to Haider, Fehrenbach told him the City would not do it again in 2021.
In a response to ELi, Fehrenbach said he told Haider, “I don’t think it’s likely that staff will recommend revisiting the Open Air Dining concept as it was piloted in 2020.”
Compared to the 2020 program, the current proposal would only close one lane of Albert Ave., instead of all of them, marking some difference — albeit an effectively meaningless one from Haider’s perspective.
“We continue to weigh the pros and cons related to various strategies for spaces throughout downtown,” Fehrenbach wrote, “and are mindful and welcoming of feedback and perspectives from stakeholders and community members.”
Haider was not alone in expressing frustration at this plan. Several other retail business owners in that business district spoke with ELi about the same level of frustration, but did not want to go on the record for fear of reprisal.
A contrasting view comes from former Council member Shanna Draheim, who voted in support of the Center City District project.
Draheim recently took to social media to call people against the idea “a small group of naysayers” who have “nothing but negativity and narrow thinking in response.”
Draheim said closed-street “social districts are GREAT for all businesses downtown because foot traffic drives sales at retail, restaurants, and other downtown businesses much more than car access and parking! Our small businesses need the help after this pandemic. . . . We should be closing the whole street except the part that would allow people to access the parking ramps.”
She decried “this attitude that the car is almighty” and suggested that the success of this kind of approach in other cities stands as evidence this plan is a good one.
At least two residents of Newman Lofts have expressed their concerns with how other businesses have been treated, and have urged the current Council to consider the impacts to Newman Lofts tenants.
Newman Lofts is a rental apartment building limited to people aged 55 and up. The Center City District developers agreed to build this housing as part of the deal that got them the public land lease at a discount, along with $56 million in tax increment financing necessary to make the whole project happen. Newman Lofts is located right above the restaurants that City staff is proposing to help with the lane closure.
And that means the proposed idea creates an issue for the tenants.
Judith Labovitz and Sam Larson, both residents of Newman Lofts, emailed the City Council’s official account (and cc’ed ELi) to argue against this proposal, if for different reasons than Haider.
Labovitz wrote to Council saying she thinks the idea of making the downtown area more attractive is a good idea, but not to the detriment of downtown residents like herself.
“I happen to LIVE in Newman Lofts. I do not drive. I am dependent upon Spectran and friends/family to get me to doctor appointments,” Labovitz said. “While not totally legal, I get picked up and dropped off in front of Newman, taking maybe 90 seconds or less. I have my groceries delivered to me there. Blocking this lane, again, seems to ignore the needs of elderly residents.”
She continued: “I suspect few of you realize not everyone who lives at Newman drives. The idea to again block access is NOT welcome news to this 81 year old widow.”
Labovitz questioned how much the City really values diversity in age. She wrote that this proposal would likely require her to walk several blocks to get a grocery delivery or be picked up/dropped off, and this frightens her.
She also wrote that the potential for increased noise isn’t welcome either because “not all of us are college students.” She urged Council not to forget that the Newman Lofts tenants are stakeholders in this matter.
Larson also wrote to support the efforts to bring outdoor dining space in and around the Ann Street Plaza.
“As a resident of Newman Lofts, I welcome more people to our local businesses,” Larson said.
Larson then quoted an April 22 memo written by Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins to the DDA, outlining the proposal: “Staff continue to solicit input from adjacent businesses to assess the level of support for Albert St. closure concepts and what, if any, concerns they may have.”
Larson followed with a series of questions and suggested the plan seemed unfair.
“What did you learn from these area businesses? Were those excluded from this opportunity – such as Black Cat Bistro, For Crepe Sake, Omi Sushi, El Azteco, Beggars and others supportive? I ask because it does seem to be unfair – by expanding outdoor dining for some are you siphoning business from the others? Perhaps I misunderstand and the proposed areas are open to anyone purchasing food in the Ann Street plaza area,” Larson said. “Or perhaps the area restaurants are all supportive.”
Larson closed by saying if Barrio, Foster’s, and Jolly Pumpkin are to be the lone beneficiaries, their own landlord should foot the bill.