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Wednesday, May 29,2013

Eye candy of the week

by Amanda Harrell-Seyburn

Property: Original Biggby, 270 W. Grand River Ave., East Lansing

Owner: East Lansing Development LLC

Assessed value: $229,700

The original Biggby location in East Lansing — an unmistakable feature of the Valley Park area just west of downtown — may soon be demolished. DTN Management has a development agreement with the franchisee to replace it with a mixed-use building for residential and retail space that stretches to the west on a vacant parcel.

While DTN is one of two finalists to redevelop the Park District area — the former City Center II project that includes publicly and privately owned land — a company spokesman said the Biggby plan is separate. According to a proposal filed with the city of East Lansing, the “300 Grand River” project would be 2,300 square feet of commercial space with 148 residential units. A Biggby would still exist at the location, but with a drive-through. The development would bridge over Delta Street, which is immediately west of the coffee shop, with commercial space fronting Delta, Grand River Avenue and Valley Court.

Built in the 1950s, the location was originally an Arby’s fast food restaurant. It sat vacant with boarded-up windows and weeds growing in the parking lot “as tall as you or me,” when the coffee shop started leasing the space in March 1995, Biggby founder and CEO Bob Fish said. He added that while the agreement is between the franchisee, Mohamed Shetiah, and DTN, the project has Biggby’s blessing. Fish called it an “old, dilapidated building” that would require “an enormous amount of money to preserve.”

City Pulse architecture critic Amanda Harrell-Seyburn weighs in on the move, saying any future building should be more architecturally significant than the original. It’s also exemplary of the dilemma we now face with mid-20th century architecture. 

Biggby’s first café building is iconic, with an unapologetically exuberant, unrestrained design. The vaulted roof arcs over the structure sheltering the activity within, its weight supported by two stone pillars channeling the look of a Conestoga wagon. During the day, materials, textures and structural interplay draws the eye. At night, the building glows like a lantern. It is bold architecture. 

The purpose-built structure was born from a forward-thinking, mid-century Arby’s restaurant. It represents a complete departure from previous architecture styles and is an example of the origin of today’s fast-food buildings. 

So, as this building is contemplated for demolition and the site for redevelopment, what is the issue? Mid-century architecture is just now beginning to be recognized for its contribution to American history. Among these, original fast-food buildings like this are beginning to be preserved for their significant architecture. Right now, these buildings are in the danger zone. 

Laura Ashlee, of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, said, “These buildings are under threat because they are considered recent, even though they are more than 50 years old and are not valued.” 

Michigan’s role in modern architecture and design is significant and East Lansing is, in fact, a bit of a modern mecca. World-renowned architects Minoru Yamasaki and Alden B. Dow made their mark here, along with some of the local modernists including Kenneth Black and Manson, Jackson and Kane.

Two things are certain. First, once a building is gone, it is gone. Second, a community that isn’t experiencing new development is stagnant. This building may well represent the dilemma Michigan faces. A slow economy and lack of development pressure in Michigan has by default preserved many modernist buildings. As communities are now beginning to face environmental and economic pressures to build up, tough decisions will have to be made. The key is to have an eclectic mixture of old and new structures to maintain a character of place. This is a subtle balance. In a city and corridor that is experiencing strong development pressure, this site is prime for a mixed-use development. 

“Style aside, this building is an important community gathering place,” said Susan Bandes, curator of East Lansing Modern at the Michigan State University Museum. According to Bandes, there are important principles about this building that should inform the new development, particularly the patio that extends the café activity beyond the glass enclosure and brings activity to the corner/sidewalk. Learn from the past to inform the future. Rule of thumb: The replacement must be architecturally more significant than the previous. Period.


“Eye candy of the Week” is our look at some of the nicer properties in Lansing. It rotates with Eyesore of the Week. If  you have a suggestion, please e-mail eye@lansingcitypulse.com or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.

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