What Artspace’s Feasibility Report Tells Us About Downtown East Lansing

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The City of East Lansing recently received a preliminary feasibility report from Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that acts as a real estate developer and operator across the United States for properties that offer creatives affordable housing and workspace. 

The report mainly serves to outline future steps for the City to take if it intends to pursue a partnership with Artspace, but it also provides key insights about certain local stakeholders’ goals for reimagining downtown and the possible roadblocks to achieving those goals. 

The City first entertained the idea of bringing Artspace to East Lansing in early 2021, and a group of local stakeholders, which included artists, active community members, several members of City boards and commissions, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins, was then formed. 

By September 2021 Artspace held virtual and in-person meetings to assess the feasibility of developing a property in East Lansing. 

Now the City has the results of that preliminary study, which highlights how the City and local stakeholders desire to create a downtown neighborhood that is affordable and diverse.

The City of East Lansing wants a diverse and affordable downtown and Artspace identified where work still needs to be done to achieve that.

According to the study, stakeholders in East Lansing want to prioritize cultural diversity, affordability, and retention of recent graduates of Michigan State University. Artspace acknowledged the local commitment to these issues and pointed out where East Lansing is falling short of meeting those goals.

As ELi has reported, East Lansing prides itself on its commitment to being an anti-racist and progressive city. But the Artspace feasibility study notes that “It was mentioned that although East Lansing presents itself as wanting diversity in the community and liking the idea of it, the community and city have done very little to truly reach out and engage with populations that identify as non-white.”

The report also found that the development of many new apartment complexes downtown have led to the area becoming a neighborhood in its own right. In the last few years, The Abbot, The Landmark, and Newman Lofts have all gone up in the immediate downtown area with others like The Hub appearing further east on Grand River Avenue.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The Abbot (foreground) and The Landmark (right) are new apartments along Grand River Ave. rented chiefly to students.

While those projects have ostensibly made East Lansing’s downtown more residential, the rental prices for units at these properties are on the higher end and often unattainable for the types of residents the City wants to attract — single professionals and young families, for example. And the City’s housing study reinforced that reality, and led to greater considerations about better walkability, affordability, and denser zoning for housing.

Related reporting: Listen to the latest episode of the “East Lansing Insider” podcast for a discussion about the changing housing dynamics in downtown East Lansing.

The lack of early-career professionals and recent grads in East Lansing is noticeable, according to Artspace.

According to the feasibility report: “The 2018 Master Plan reported that the city was experiencing a significant drop in population in the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups. This indicates that the city is not retaining a significant number of MSU graduates — they are going elsewhere for housing and jobs — and also suggests that the city is not attracting new residents from elsewhere in these age groups.”

Should Artspace come to East Lansing, it’s likely that it will restrict “units to households whose annual incomes are between 30% and 60% of the Area Median Income.” Residents would be creatives, but Artspace uses a broad definition that could include many people who might not be considered typical artists.

Courtesy of Artspace

An apartment in Dearborn’s Artspace Lofts, formally the City Hall.

Where might Artspace develop and what would it look like?

In the report, Artspace recommended, “the exploration of a downtown mixed-use, live/work artist housing development” that would include a “development with affordable live/work housing for artists on its upper floors and private studio/collaborative space/commercial space on the ground floor.”

“This concept was articulated by city staff and reiterated by participants in the focus groups and Open House,” according to the report.

Artspace identified Valley Court Park, Evergreen Properties, the Bailey Lot, City Hall, the Hannah Community Center, and the Division Street Garage as locations for a possible project.

These six locations, which are either downtown or in the immediate vicinity of downtown, would ideally anchor an arts district in East Lansing and in turn help support local businesses – two other goals local stakeholders identified.

Valley Court Park was suggested as the top choice since it could extend a downtown arts district to the farmers’ market, where artists could be vendors. Since the property is currently owned by the City, it would also be easy for Artspace to purchase for development.

At a City Council meeting in January of this year, it was suggested that Artspace may propose to use the Valley Court community center as its future site, which the report confirms as a possibility.

The Evergreen Properties, just across the street from Valley Court Park, were also identified, and although the properties might be easy to purchase from the Downtown Development Authority, Artspace said the possibility of a $5.5 million price tag (assuming the DDA would like to cover the debt it owes on the property) was a “non-starter.”

When the DDA bought the Evergreen Properties in 2009, all held income-producing structures. Now, just these two small rental houses remain at 344 Evergreen Ave.

The Bailey Lot, Artspace said, was an ideal location near many shops and the Broad Art Lab, but since it is owned through a public-private partnership, it could be challenging to purchase and redevelop the property.

Although not explicitly stated by Artspace, the properties suggested by local stakeholders could provide the City with an opportunity to shed properties that seem to cost it significant money.

The Charles and Division Parking Garages in downtown East Lansing.

In recent years, particularly during the pandemic, the City has lost money in the parking system and parking enforcement, and according to the American Rescue Plan Act draft plans from the City, City Hall and the Hannah Community Center are in need of renovations. If turned over to Artspace, the City could forgo investing in these properties, saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Will Artspace be coming to East Lansing?

In its feasibility study, Artspace outlined next steps, which include the City carrying out an Arts Market Study, described as involving “an online survey of area residents followed by analysis and recommendations based on their responses.”

Artspace also recommends that East Lansing strengthen its art sector by identifying its assets, particularly underutilized ones already available in the City and take efforts to welcome more diversity among artists. The City, according to the report, should also identify public and private dollars to help support the project.

It’s unclear which steps the City will take. The feasibility report is dated December 2021 and was added to the City’s website in late January 2022. ELi was sent a copy by a member of the Parks and Rec Commission in early February. The City made no official announcement, and it has yet to be discussed in depth at any City meetings.

It appears, however, based on Council’s communication packet, that stakeholders have shared the report among interested parties, who wrote to Council to advocate for moving forward with the project.

When ELi asked the City for comment, Cummins told ELi over email, “The Artspace Feasibility Study has been shared with Council and boards & commissions and posted on the City’s website. Discussions of next steps are expected to occur at boards, commissions and Council meetings this spring.”

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