Parks & Rec Advisory Commission Talks New Trails, More Food Trucks, and a Grant For Placemaking

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Groups of walkers out on the Northern Tier Trail.

East Lansing’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission discussed a new trail connection, food trucks, and improvements to the City’s placemaking initiatives at its Feb. 16 meeting. 

As it was the Commission’s first meeting of 2022 they elected new officers, choosing Adam DeLay and Chuck Overbey as the new chair and vice chair, respectively. 

Plans to extend the Northern Tier Trail met public criticism and led to a 3-3 vote, pushing further discussion to the next meeting.

Director of Parks and Recreation Cathy DeShambo presented the trail extension plan to the Commission with a request for their approval to apply for a Natural Resources Trust Fund Grant through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

If awarded, the approximately $300,000 grant would fund about half of the project to construct a trail from the East Lansing Soccer Complex to Coolidge Road.

While a public input survey and several residents of the area surrounding the proposed trail expressed excitement for the project, a few opposed voices spoke out against the trail extension. 

President of the Park Place Condo Association, and resident of the neighborhood directly south of the proposed trail, said that cutting a path and putting down a trail through the wooded area — which they consider an extension of their backyards — would unduly affect the ecosystem.

DeShambo explained that easements were secured through these plots of land years ago for the specific purpose of trail connectivity, with agreements from the surrounding properties.

But between the president of PPCA and two of his neighbors, their list of grievances continued.

They complained that the woods in their backyard have diminished over the years despite buying the property thinking the land would be protected. Also, that a trail cutting through the woods would lead the public closer to their actual backyards. 

They mentioned that there are fourteen homes that back up to the woods that have already dealt with nuisances such as parties, trash, and members of the public using the property as a bathroom, and that these kinds of troubles would only worsen if this project moves forward.

“The Willows are also devastatingly opposed to this, like us. It is inappropriate for a nursing home to have space invaded like this. It’s our woods and it’s all we have left,” stated the president of the PPCA.

He continued to mention that the Willows’ headquarters is preparing to seek legal action against the City as they await the project’s status. 

A sentiment mentioned by those opposed that was echoed by commissioner Nichole Biber is the inevitable loss of wildlife that comes with projects like this, despite the City’s best intentions to leave natural areas undisturbed. 

On the other side of the argument was a member of the board for the Willows at Stratford Place, a complex just north of the proposed trail extension. 

She mentioned that this trail was marketed to herself and others as an incentive to move into the Willows. She said this trail connection has been promised to them and they are excited about the easier access.

As the room became clearly divided, both in the public section as well as at the Commission’s table, the Commission moved to vote on the resolution for the grant application and came out with a 3-3 vote. Having a tie, the item will move to next month’s agenda for further discussion.

The grant application is due April 1 and awarded funds would be transmitted in Dec. 2022. Construction would not begin until June 2024. 

The City is working to expand access for food trucks.

Community and Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins presented the City’s proposed changes to an ordinance and a draft policy resolution that would increase the number of food trucks allowed to operate in the City of East Lansing.

Cummins solicited approval from the Parks and Rec Advisory Commission in the form of a letter of support addressed to City Council. He plans to present the same request to the Downtown Development Authority at its Feb. 24 meeting. 

Cummins mentioned that the intention of these changes would be to pull “all piecemeal ordinances in under one ordinance,” and this would allow flexibility both within the City ordinance for future changes and for food vendors in a number of ways. 

The ordinance would be updated to align City licensing requirements with those of Ingham County, provide flexibility for vendors to operate at all events and locations designated by the City, and cut back on barriers to entry such as application and licensing fees.

The Commission ended the discussion with plans to draft the letter Cummins requested to City Council as they also work to address questions such as application expenses, increasing the number of food vendors allowed at block parties, and hours of operation. 

The City’s Parks Department and Planning Department are working together to continue placemaking efforts downtown, and want to fund certain projects with a grant via the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The City is applying for a grant that could award the City one million dollars to “rehabilitate vacant, underutilized, blighted and historic structures and the development of permanent place-based infrastructure associated with traditional downtowns, social-zones, outdoor dining and placed-based public spaces,” according to Michigan Economic Development Corporation. This grant is funded via American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The City would use the money to revitalize historic buildings downtown, improve infrastructure for the farmers’ market, and create an inviting corridor connecting Albert St. with Valley Court Park. 

“Think of multifunctional light poles that increase lighting and that also have electricity capacity to be wired with sound,” Cummins said, describing some of the potential upgrades. “[We could] also do curb extensions with green infrastructure with inviting places for seating.”

Another project Cummins said the City hopes to pursue with this grant is some new infrastructure to allow for the farmers’ market to be open for business 12 months of the year. 

The potential projects that would be pursued will depend on the amount of grant money the City is awarded.

The discussion last Wednesday served to notify the Commission of the grant application. Cummins said the process will start moving quickly if the City proceeds to try and get a grant, since applications for the program opened earlier in February.

Correction: This story originally erroneously stated the name of The Willows facility as The Villas. We apologize for this error.

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