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Wednesday, December 14,2011

Michigan Ave. study has potential

by Rob South


An ambitious, years-long study of a heavily traveled stretch between Williamston and Downtown Lansing will get underway soon.The Mid-Michigan Program for Greater Sustainability will take a detailed look at housing, transpiration, education, economic development, infrastructure and energy use along the Grand River Avenue-Michigan Avenue corridor.   

Supporters hope the study will give regional planners a better idea of how the area should change given declining incomes and population in the region. They also hope it will act as a new model for regional planning by addressing the needs of the community regardless of political boundaries.

But the study’s scope and breadth would make it a challenge to compile and may doom it to dusty shelves lined with similar well intentioned planning schemes.  

It’s not that this is a bad idea. The region needs a better plan of action than the suburban/subdivision model that’s been driving growth for the last four decades. It’s that Mid-Michigan is a community with deep divides and strong-held territories governed by people with their own political and economic agendas.  What could doom this study is leadership’s failure to act.

The study itself holds a great deal of promise. As a tool for regional planning, it would give invaluable data on population changes, infrastructure use and economic development.  

Housing for all

Part of the study will focus on affordable and fair housing needs in Mid-Michigan. The greater Lansing Housing Coalition’s Katharine Draper says it would be the region’s most comprehensive affordable housing study in 35 years. As the population of the greater Lansing area shrinks and incomes decline, affordable housing may be in more demand than ever before.  

But one man’s affordable housing plan is another man’s Cabrini Green. And even though we’ve come a long way since the days of high-rise ghettos, the stigma of being poor is a hard one to shake. It’s not unthinkable that richer communities like Meridian Township and East Lansing would discourage those developments.  

And they might make a good argument that their ability to attract students and young professionals would qualify them as meeting whatever suggestions are laid before them in the study. At the risk of being called out as a bigot, however, there is a big difference between poor students and young professionals, and the kind of chronic poverty which plagues rural areas and many inner-city neighborhoods.  

It has to go somewhere, right?

Another long-overdue study would look at storm and waste water control. This is certainly not a sexy topic unless you’re a planner or a politician. Getting this right is important, however. Not only does it ensure clean rivers lakes and streams, but a poorly planned sewer system can make even most well-intentioned development dead in the water.  

This literally pits the haves and the have-nots against each other. For the record, East Lansing and Lansing have their own wastewater treatment facilities. Meridian Township and Lansing Township do not.   Without wading too deep into the politics of poop, disagreements over new development can get played out in the sewer. Development delays costing thousands of dollars are not unheard of in Mid-Michigan. Maybe this study could clear the air.

You can get there from here, but you’ll have to drive

Once you’ve developed the optimal housing environment, you have to get people around. Another aspect of the study will focus on transportation. Since this project is being spearheaded by the Mid-Michigan Environmental Council, it’s not too surprising to see an emphasis on mass transit and other alternatives, like walking and biking. Mid-MEAC Executive Director Julie Powers says the Michigan/Grand River corridor carries 1.7 million transit trips each year. With dwindling tax dollars, keeping the roads and bridges drivable will become an increasingly difficult task. Adding more bike lanes and bus routes could be the answer.  

But, even though the auto industry is only a whisper of its former self in the region, we still like our cars. While some people are happy with a three-bedroom house with attached garage, we Michiganians like our three-car garage to come with an attached house. Walking and biking may be fine on those clear days with moderate temperatures, but when things get a little too hot, a little too cold or a little too wet, you can bet our bike chains are going to get rusty.  

Regional politics may get in the way here as well. I can’t think of too many issues that get people as worked up as bike lanes and sidewalks. Even the simple and cheep option of restriping roads to add bike lanes is enough to get some people’s differential out of place.

No room for negotiation

Whatever the outcome, the community should have a decent idea of how the corridor could adapt to Michigan’s ever-changing socio-economic climate. Michigan State University is even getting involved by putting together a tool-kit to help communities develop their own Sustainable Corridor Design Portfolio. But its implementation will be up to the people holding the local purse strings and their desire to be more cooperative. It will also be up to you and me and our desire to change deeply ingrained habits and beliefs.  

I wish them the best of luck.

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