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A 6-foot-long diorama of Lansing’s downtown riverfront is stopping visitors in their tracks at the offices of the Capital Region Community Foundation, in the old Armory building on the east side.
The miniature spectacle makes people late for meetings, but the foundation’s executive vice president, Laurie Baumer, likes it that way. The model highlights a series of downtown riverfront projects that are in the works, from shoreline “fishing holes” made of flat rocks to floating docks, outdoor fireplaces, benches, public art and clearer views of the river.
The foundation will match any tax-deductible donation, up to a total of $1 million, toward the projects. Donors can pick the improvements they want to fund.
It took Port Huron artist Bob May two months to paint, cut and glue the glass-encased model, centered on a rippling indigo ribbon representing the Grand River.
An old-fashioned diorama, Baumer thought, might charm potential donors more than the usual renderings or computer models.
It looks as if she was right. The foundation has already received $85,000 from two donors, Auto-Owners Insurance and an anonymous person. Baumer said work will begin this spring on a series of piecemeal projects she called a “string of pearls.”
The stretch in question runs from Cesar Chavez Avenue in Old Town through the heart of downtown to the Cherry Hill neighborhood, south of the I-496 overpass, near the confluence of the Grand and Red Cedar rivers.
A place-making committee of 17 urban development experts from MSU, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Lansing Economic Area Partnership sifted through ideas gathered from the public in the “penny for your thoughts” campaign of 2016- ‘17.
Kayaking has exploded along the river in recent years, but foot traffic and general buzz is often close to nil, except for special cases like fireworks nights or the wave of Pokemon madness that packed the riverfront in summer 2016.
Mayor Andy Schor acknowledged a lingering perception that the riverfront is a shady part of town.
“We could build buildings made out of gold and people would still think it’s not safe,” he said. “You have to change the perception.”
That’s part of the reason the foundation decided to concentrate on the downtown riverfront.
“Nobody was doing anything and it was a real gap,” Baumer said.
The state Department of Environmental Quality helped vet the suggestions from the start, to avoid running afoul of environmental regulations along the river.
At the north end of the project area, a small band shell is planned for the park near the Brenke Fish Ladder, with an outdoor fireplace and gathering place on the nearby grassy hill.
Other planned features include a new kayak launch near Oakland Avenue and a “fishing hole” with large, flat rocks to sit on, an idea taken from a similar river project in Port Huron.
Floating boat docks will be placed on the banks of Adado Riverfront Park, with a stronger boardwalk. Another fishing hole, to be used as an outdoor classroom, will go in near the Impression 5 Museum, along with an upgrade of the nearby pocket park and boat docking near the Lansing Center boardwalk, taking advantage of the railing’s little-known (and never used) swinging gate to add a gangplank.
The City Market plaza will get a new set of heavy-duty, colorful umbrella tables, similar to the ones that line the bustling San Antonio River Walk, which Schor called the “gold standard” of riverfront development.
Baumer said the foundation is working on getting food trucks to commit to staying downtown for clearly posted hours and days. She’s also working with the city and other groups to “activate” the stretch from Michigan Avenue to Shiawassee Street with live music and other events. A “lighted forest” with vertical, glowing tubes will be placed in the grove near the Shiawassee Street Bridge over the River Trail.
“Building infrastructure is not enough,” Baumer said. “It takes food and music and cool things going on to activate the space.”
At the south end of the stretch slated for improvement, a shoreline park in Cherry Hill neighborhood is in line for a pavilion, a pickle ball court and a boardwalk, if enough donors come through.
“All of it needs to work together,” Baumer said. “One project alone is not going to change the riverfront.”
May’s model is a marvel, but a stark brown band running along both sides of the river, where green stuff grows in real life, might raise a red flag for some river lovers.
“The first thing you might notice is that we’re cutting down trees and shrubs to make the river more visible,” Baumer said.
Many people already enjoy the river, at least in part, because it gives them a semi-wild refuge from the paved, mowed and overly fussed urban grid surrounding it. A drastic tree massacre in 2012, when the new Lansing City Market was built, turned the plaza next to the market into a scorching anvil of southern exposure.
“We’re not cutting down all the trees,” Baumer said. “But in some places you don’t even know there’s a river there.”
If the city had a do-over, Schor said, it would never have put office buildings, industrial shops and parking decks on the river so close to downtown.
But, as they say in old movies, nobody gets a second chance on the waterfront — or do they?
About a mile of prime Lansing riverfront, very close to downtown, will open up when the huge Eckert Power Station, just south of downtown on the Grand River, closes in 2020, and the nearby Penn- Hazel service area on the Red Cedar moves to the west side.
Developers have already approached the city with ideas on ways to re-use Eckert. A mix of housing, shops, riverfront restaurants and parkland would instantly double the downtown stretch slated for improvement by the Community Foundation and give those river walkers and kayakers a much bigger playground. Schor believes the “activation” of the riverfront is cruising closer to critical mass.
“We may have a blank slate there,” Schor said. “Everything the Community Foundation is doing on the river downtown — we can go even further when we get a little further south.”
To see the diorama, call Laurie Baumer at (517) 664-9852 or email her at email@example.com to make an appointment.