What’s Happening Now with Downtown East Lansing Development?

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Photo courtesy City of East Lansing.

The artwork called "Lemongrass" by Dane Porter in Valley Court Park, with the old BWL substation in the background.

With returning Michigan State University alumni regularly exclaiming at how much East Lansing’s downtown has changed in the last five years, the area surrounding the intersection of Albert Avenue and Abbot Road continues to function as an epicenter of attempts at urban redevelopment and renewal.

Some of the “reimagining” may soon explicitly involve Valley Court Park. 

At East Lansing’s City Council meeting this week, Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach asked for City Council’s approval to pay Mayotte Architects up to $9,000 to help produce a grant application to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to improve public spaces in and around that park and also downtown.

The state has decided to target $100 million of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to provide matching funds for placemaking in Michigan municipalities, and East Lansing’s planning staff want to develop a competitive application. 

City staff have been wanting to make some big changes to Valley Court Park for a while, and now the proposal to MEDC may include “Rehabilitat[ing] the Historic BWL Switching Station in Valley Court Park into an active space, creating a potential entrepreneurial opportunity,” and improving the farmers’ market space. 

As part of that discussion, Council member Lisa Babcock asked (again) that the City look into replacing the ramp, removed by City workers, that had allowed wheeled access from the Oakwood neighborhood into the park. 

It isn’t clear why Fehrenbach came to ask Council for approval of the $9,000 allocation, since the City Manager has the authority to approve contracts up to $20,000 without Council approval.

But in the discussion that ensued, it emerged that Artspace may soon be proposing a new live-work apartment building where the Valley Court community center now stands. A Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer, Artspace is being paid $30,000 by East Lansing to conduct a feasibility study for affordable housing for “creatives.”

The Valley Court Park Community Center is currently used by Helping Hands Respite through a contract with the City of East Lansing.

Meanwhile, MSUFCU’s office tower is finally starting to rise at what used to be a parking lot just south of Dublin Square. When completed in about a year, that building will stand at seven stories and hold a credit union branch at the base along with a yet-to-be-identified office tenant. 

The credit union also plans to rent out upper-floor office space that it won’t yet need – not that anyone thinks renting out office space is going to get easier any time soon, especially for a building that will include no onsite parking.

ELi reported recently that there’s also still no anchor office tenant for the would-be redevelopment of the Downtown Development Authority’s Evergreen Avenue properties, just west of the MSUFCU site.

One change that has already happened downtown that seems to be making everyone happy is the addition – finally – of a crosswalk signal across Abbot Road at Albert Avenue.

Also at this week’s meeting, City Council heard a request by staff this week to again close down part of Albert Avenue from late April through early September for the Albert EL Fresco entertainment area, which last year featured comfortable dining and conversation space, hammocks, and family-friendly games, but which also blocked traffic in ways that challenged some local businesses and, late at night, drew behavioral problems and extra policing. ELi will be bringing a separate report on that.

Correction: When originally published, this article indicated that the ground floor of the MSUFCU building will hold a credit union branch plus retail space for a yet-to-be-named tenant. The rental space is restricted to office use according to the terms of the land sale approved by voters. So, MSUFCU will have to find an office tenant for that ground-floor lease space.

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