Thursday morning, Shane Stiles of Spartan Landscaping walked along a narrow concrete embankment seven feet above the traffic roaring westward along Oakland Avenue at up to 50 miles an hour toward downtown Lansing.
“After a long winter, I like to see that first color popping up, that burst of hope that summer’s coming,” Stiles said.
This week, his crew is going to some extreme lengths to spread that color, in an urban ditch where it’s sorely lacking.
Below Stiles’ feet, landscaper John Weaver could be seen, bent double, feet on the curb, digging a flowering mandavilla into the topsoil lining the embankment. The light turned green on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks east, and a semi truck bore down on Weaver’s posterior.
“That’s a little dangerous,” Harry Hepler said.
Hepler, whose company, H Inc., owns the hulking Motor Wheel development, was also perched on the wall, watching warily while maintaining his usual cocky air.
He pointed at thin wires running down the wall. “These mandavillas are going to climb up the wall 30 feet,” he said.
A horn honked and a man waved from a car window.
“We get that all day,” Stiles said. “So many compliments.”
The Saginaw and Oakland embankments are steep cuts in the earth, mostly sheathed in concrete, about a mile east of downtown. They are remnants of Lansing’s industrial heyday, where motorists feel free to exceed the speed limit and furtively toss garbage out of their car windows — for the time being.
This week and next, thousands of perennial flowers will go into the beds, with the aim of transforming the embankments into colorful gateways in and out of Lansing.
Hepler estimates that when you add up the grading, plants, irrigation and other costs, he’s sunk over $90,000 into the landscaping project.
Stephen Purchase, president of H Inc., walked up to Hepler on as the mist thickened Thursday.
“They’re here,” he said. That morning, UPS shipped 9,000 day lilies — 2-year-old roots and stems lovingly wrapped in soft paper — and stacked them in cardboard boxes in Hepler’s office. Crews from Spartan Landscaping started putting in the day lilies Monday.
Purchase tracks the project from a GoogleEarth image in his office. He pointed at the rights-of-way on the north and south sides of the old factory, blocked out in color-coded planting zones.
“This will all be mulched, day lilies, grasses and so on,” he said. “There’s a portion of the hill that’s too steep to mow safely and it gets neglected, so that’s the area we’ll concentrate on both sides.”
As the day lilies multiply, they’ll treat the planting as a farm, thin out the extras, replant them down the road and keep the project going as far east and west as it will stretch.
“We’ll just keep spreading the flower power,” Purchase said.
In the 1950s, Motor Wheel was the world’s busiest wheel factory, with 3,500 employees. Railroad deliveries were stopping local traffic for hours, so two-way Sheridan Street to the north became oneway Oakland and tunneled under a new viaduct, as did its eastbound counterpart, Saginaw, to the south. As with most industrial progress, there was a price. The neighborhood was chopped into three zones and the highways became zoom-under territory.
When Hepler converted the abandoned factory into lofts a decade ago, he persuaded the city to create Prudden Street, an access road that cuts across from Saginaw to Oakland, but the apartment complex is still an island.
Across Saginaw Avenue from Motor Wheel is Oak Park, a hidden city gem with a soccer field, a grand new toddler playground, ancient oaks and a lot of space.
Crews will clear out weedy trees and plant perennials on the Oak Park side of Saginaw in hope that people will remember it’s there.
Hepler praised the city of Lansing and the state of Michigan for greasing the skids so he could adopt the rights of way.
The project started a few years ago with a modest stand of 200 to 300 mums near the entrance. About 800 more will go in soon.
About 300 arbor vitae trees, humansized cones of dark evergreen that line up like shark teeth, help to soften the concrete wall and do a surprisingly good job of muffling traffic noise of 15,000 cars a day on Oakland and 19,000 a day on Saginaw.
Now the whole thing is just out of hand.
Besides the 9,000 day lilies, Stiles and his crew have been deploying hibiscus, daisies, astilbe, ornamental grass, geraniums and a dozen other types of flowering plants.
Not all of them made it. Near the north end of Prudden Street, the frazzled leaves of thigh-high banana plants attest to a losing battle with wind exposure. But Stiles and his crew are learning what works and what doesn’t.
“We have early flowering annuals for spring color followed by perennials to keep the color going,” he said.
Hepler, a hard-charging, hard hat kind of guy who calls the flowers “bad boys” when he doesn’t remember their names – which is most of the time — spent years pounding and sawing through 6-inch concrete floors to turn an old factory into market-rate housing, and seems disappointed that he never got a letter of thanks from anybody. (To be fair, he’s making a few bucks with those lofts.)
But just plant a few flowers! Hepler excitedly ran to his office to grab a letter he recently received from the Garden Club of Greater Lansing.
The language of the letter is very Garden Club and best read in a wavering, high, matronly voice. “I would like to commend you for the most beautiful, colorful chrysanthemums you have planted around your Motor Wheel building,” It reads. “Many of our members have commented on the pretty flowers on display.”
Hepler cackled in delight. “That made my day more than anything,” he said. “It makes me want to invest more in this thing.”