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Wednesday, December 8,2010

A plan for the future

What is a master plan? What does it do? And why is Lansing’s 52 years old?

by Andy Balaskovitz
Lansing Planning Director Bob Johnson’s downtown office is modestly sized — a computer desk, a small table and some bookshelves. Aerial views of Lansing dot the walls. One bookshelf is loaded with three-ring binders, and there are files upon files that explain why Lansing looks the way it does.

Johnson is a baseball fan, and a few of those aerial renderings take you back 15 years before minor league baseball came to town. Before 1995, what is now the Stadium District was little more than a parking lot and cement retaining walls.


He refers to the sport like a time period — “before baseball” and “after baseball.”


“We looked at baseball, something this community has never had, and generated a discussion around it,” Johnson said.


“What
did that do, my friend? We didn’t build a stadium and hope a team would
come. It said to the baseball community, ‘We are interested in doing
something’ — for instance, having a plan.”


Johnson said the city’s plan to grow investment in that particular area is the same way a master plan works.


To
Johnson, the Lansing Lugnuts are a metaphor for successful urban
planning, a precursor to the lofty ideals of the city’s first new master
plan in 52 years. It needs a few tweaks but is close to completion.


“The
plan was to bring vitality to Lansing and to eliminate blight,” Johnson
said about the baseball stadium. “The entire state should care about
this city’s master plan.”




‘Design Lansing’


The new master plan, titled ‘Design Lansing’ is, like any master plan, little more than a glorified book of ideas. In this case 175 pages long. However, those ideas are meant to shape a city’s infrastructure and lure particular development. “Defining who you want to be,” as Johnson puts it, and doing so by prioritizing.


Here is what the city has in mind, based on a series of 30 workshops held throughout the city:


A downtown focus. A higher density of people means businesses and services for those people will follow. There has been talk over the years about bringing a specialized food market downtown, but that isn’t feasible at the moment because there aren’t enough people living there.


Michigan Avenue. Perhaps medical marijuana dispensaries aren’t exactly what planners had in mind when the Design Lansing process began in 2008, but they’re here, filling vacant storefronts. Residents cited this as the main thoroughfare into the capital — an entrance to the city.


The Grand River. Consider the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, Market Place, City Market, the River Trail, Old Town and the Lansing Center as all fitting the design of the master plan. Natural resources in general hold great stock in Design Lansing and the goal is for development around them to attract people.


Road aesthetics. This will be a main component of improving such main corridors as Cedar Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Saginaw Street and Michigan and Pennsylvania avenues. Beautification projects are considered as a means to offer a quick fix to these avenues.


Walk/bicycle. People travel without cars not just because it’s healthy, but oftentimes because they have to. That is a strong concept in this plan. Lansing is fortunate to be able to build off a successful River Trail and this plan intends to do so. A main question is how the main roads will support non-motorized transportation.


Public transportation. A new and improved CATA line connecting Meridian Mall and downtown is in the works and meshes with the goal of Design Lansing: efficient, public transportation that connects Okemos to Lansing— and all the activity between — without the need for a car.


Overlay districts. This is a zoning technique meant to lift the bureaucratic restrictions on things like parking and setback requirements. Overlay districts are prominent in Old Town and are being established along Michigan Avenue. The height of a building depends on its distance to residential neighborhoods, and there are virtually zero setbacks from the road, Johnson said. This encourages dense, mixed-use development.


Storm water. A consequence of building a city means an increase of rain runoff from all of the city’s streets. “Rain garden” catch basins are popping up throughout the city to absorb rainfall instead of letting it trickle into rivers.

You approach a master plan with three main questions: Do you want to enhance an area? Transform it? Or preserve it?

Lansing has had one since 1921. The last time a comprehensive plan was set forth was in 1958, though the city studied different regions of Lansing in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


That’s because the ’58 plan read like a science fiction book and the re-evaluation of the major areas had to be looked at in a more objective way, said Bob Doyle, a consultant with JJR who worked on Design Lansing.


“There were plans for helicopter pads in that thing,” Doyle said, because the authors thought we could very well be traveling that way today. “It attempted to be a very visionary document, looking at what Lansing would be like in 50 years.”


It also was crafted from the top down, so to speak, in the offices of city planners. The work in the late 1970s and early ‘80s was meant to engage the community and give a more “nuts and bolts” view of the city, but it never presented as a singular, cohesive plan.


‘Design Lansing’ attempts to combine the two, Doyle said.


Rick Kibbey, president of the city’s Parks Board, helped coordinate outreach and surveys on this master plan. He said those oldtime plans were based on projections like population growth, houses and jobs. Now, the demographics and priorities of those demographics are changing.


“If the model in your mind is a city of 1958, you’d look around and say, ‘Oh my, all the factories are gone,’” Kibbey said. “It’s just a different world and that model of economic development has grown and morphed.”


Kibbey, who has done urban planning for the past 30 years and worked on two other master plans, said he has always been “impressed” with Lansing’s 1921 plan.


“The
city bought up property along the (Grand) river before 1921, and now we
have the River Trail thanks to that,” he said. “That’s forward
thinking. The founding men and women paid really close attention.”


So, why has it taken so long to map the direction of the city?


“The
problem has been the frequency of updating it and community
participation,” Johnson said. “That (community participation), quite
frankly, has been absent for way too long.”


To Johnson, community input is what separates a useless master plan from a useful one.


Jump
to 2008, two years after Johnson took the job as planning director. A
large group of stakeholders from the public, private and nonprofit
sectors, along with neighborhood organizations, have been collaborating
ever since. Roughly 1,000 surveys were filled out and 30 planning
workshops were held throughout the city, he said.


“It’s
been nonstop (since 2008). It’s one of those things the community is
very much ready for,” he said. “A ‘do-nothing’ history has shown us that
doesn’t work very well.”


But while Johnson totes the city’s ability to engage the community, it seems not everyone got the master plan memo.


Pete
Cunningham, director of the South Side Community Coalition Center,
first learned of the new master plan last week. Our conversation started
with an explanation that the city’s first comprehensive master plan in
52 years will be unveiled this winter.


“This is the first time I’ve heard about it,” Cunningham said.


Cunningham, who has lived in Lansing since 1968, wants to see the city make good on its effort to engage everyone.


“Over
my time here, I’ve seen a lot of the powers that be saying, ‘This is
what we have to do,’” he said. “It’s one of those things where you say:
Do we have any input?”


But if Cunningham could add his 2 cents, albeit a
little late, he wants to remind planners that just off Cedar Street and Pennsylvania Avenue are strong neighborhoods worth building on.


The
city also hired JJR Consultants, an Ann Arbor company with national
experience in drafting master plans. But its expertise didn’t come
cheap: the master plan will cost about $435,000.


Johnson says people shouldn’t think twice
about that. For one, a planning staff of 14 is now down to three
professionals and one support employee. Secondly, this is highly
specialized, hard-to-come-by talent.


“Is this money well spent on a consultant? I think it very much is,” Johnson said.


“The problem would be having 14 people on staff and spending all of that money. People
would say, ‘What are you doing, Lansing?’ and they would be justified
in that,” he said. “You buy that incredible resource pool.”


A
final version of the master plan will be unveiled in late January or
early February. A “few minor adjustments” are necessary before the mayor
gives it the OK, Johnson said, and results are presented to the
planning board.


‘A new consciousness’


The
new master plan seeks to increase the density of Lansing. That includes
a host of planning techniques, like public transportation improvements,
non-motorized travel routes and building overlay districts.


Johnson
talks of “nodal” development, or the “interplay between living and
services” and the “coexistence of uses,” not only to promote an
environmentally friendly lifestyle but to encourage commerce.


Prior development in Lansing has been scattered, void of any real focus beyond residential, commercial and industrial areas. That’s how most of America was built in the 20th century.


“Heretofore,
you will notice a pattern of segregation,” Johnson said referring to
the separation of residential and commercial activity. “We have allowed
it from a zoning standpoint (to come together), but we haven’t done the
same as far as a master plan.”


Kibbey’s point is similar. He said planners have been on cruise control since the 1950s.


Planning,
Kibbey said, is like steering a ship. "You aim to where you’re going
and put it on auto pilot,” he said. “But if you’re canoeing on the Au
Sable River, you better pay attention the whole damn time.”


There
is more to consider now, like integrating transportation routes and
mixing commercial and residential areas, which requires more attention.


“We’re
in a lot of white water. As you look ahead, you don’t know what the
bumps and ripples mean,” Kibbey said. “We really need to be paying
attention. The reward to this, of course, is that if you get it right
you don’t wreck.”


But, it’s happening.


“There is a new consciousness showing up in the master plan,” Kibbey said.


He
points to the developments already under way along the Grand River, the
majority support for funding the city’s park system at the voters booth
and the “sleeping giant” that is non-motorized transportation routes.


“Complete
Streets is not just about yuppies on bikes. Some people are walking not
because they want to but because they have to,” he said. “How do you
accommodate that? By connectivity and concentration.”


Johnson
added that the city will benefit by establishing a connection between
the master plan and capital improvement projects, like storm water
management efforts.


“Over
the years there has been a massive disconnect there,” he said. “Now we
can look at something like storm water management while recognizing the
need to minimize its flow into waterways is important.”


There
also is a new “awareness of corridors,” Johnson said, that determines
not only which ones need improving, but in what order.


“Workshops upon workshops showed interest in downtown and Michigan Avenue,” Johnson said.


But surely, Lansing is much more than those two areas.


“This isn’t all about downtown. Unfortunately
some corridors don’t present well, but on the backside of those are
strong, well-maintained neighborhoods,” he said referring to Martin
Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Cedar Street.


“This is not easily solved, and it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re talking decades,” he said.


Moving forward


But
what if this $435,000 plan was just a big waste of money? It’s nice to
have goals, but what if there is no funding to realize them?


Joe Manzella, manager of regional programs for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, said those are valid questions.


“You
do walk a line, constitutionally and by what is right, between
controlling what things should look like and allowing the market to be
creative,” he said.


But,
he added, a master plan is about flexibility. The real plan is to let
the market get creative without the master plan’s standing in its way.


For
any of this to come to fruition, Manzella said you “need a critical
mass of people to have good cities,” because people need services, and
services mean businesses.


To
prevent master plans from collecting dust, as they “generally” do,
Manzella said, it takes that community input Johnson is so excited
about.


“The more of
that, the better chance the community has to show the market what they
want. The concepts in (this master plan) are the right concepts to
have,” he said.


In
the same sentence Johnson says concerted efforts will be directed
downtown and on the east side, he acknowledges other areas of the city
need improving.


Kibbey
says with all of the rapid demographic changes and the shift in the
local economy, “There is a chance of being wrong on this.” For instance,
what is the right size to build a single-family home? How dense should
it be downtown?


“Look
at the difference between the Chandler Road apartments (in East
Lansing) and the Stadium District. Those are two very different ideas of
the future,” he said. The ultra-suburban apartments on Chandler Road
off Abbot Road a few miles north of downtown East Lansing sprang up in
what not long ago was fields.


Johnson, a Boston Red Sox fan, ends our conversation with baseball.


“Baseball changed the perception of downtown,” he said.


Then he points to his office wall with an aerial photo of Lansing from the 1980s.


“It’s a sea of asphalt — what’s that say? Abandonment. Non-activity. What we’re trying to do is change that,” he said.


“What
can we do that says we care? Like baseball. What are we interested in?
When you have the community involved, it says the community cares,” he
added.


Johnson grew
up in New Bedford, Mass., a town of nearly 100,000 people 50 miles
south of Boston. He has seen his share of urban planning. He says
Lansing’s master plan must be daring, but smart. On the heels of success
is success, he adds.


“We have a doggone good city,” Johnson said. “We need to recognize who we are, where we are — and not apologize for anything.”

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