Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dear Lansing: A Letter with Some Suggestions to my Adopted Hometown

Dear Lansing,

A few months ago my husband and I decided to take the plunge and buy a house in Downtown Lansing. I know some people think we're crazy. We've gotten everything from "Downtown Lansing is terrible" to "Where will you send your (nonexistent) children to school?" I get it - it is a risky move. But there's nowhere else in mid-Michigan we'd rather live. A sprawling township? Never in a million years. East Lansing? Come on, give me a break. We want to walk to work, live in a downtown, and live in a historic (and affordable - one reason why East Lansing is out) home.

With all of that being said, I would like to share some constructive criticism with my new neighborhood. There's so much to love about it, but there are some serious things that need to be addressed. We plan on living here for a long time. So here's the thing Downtown Lansing: you should probably really consider taking me up on the following suggestions. I'm tenacious, and I don't plan on dropping it.

First off - we've got to work on the street design. You're killing me. KILLING ME. There are WAY too many lanes downtown. So, so unnecessary. Let's take Capitol Avenue for instance. There are three lanes and two parking lanes in front of my office. Last year construction closed all but one of these lanes, and there was never a traffic back up. Not even once. There are way too many lanes, and Capitol Avenue is just the tip of the iceberg.
Stroading with a pal at the corner of Capitol and Michigan Avenues
Who doesn't do this on the walk home from the bar?

There are so many one way streets with WAY too many lanes. Take Pine Street a block from my house. Pine Street has a tiny bit of traffic at 8 am before work. I mean enough for one lane, not three and a parking lane. 

Here is Pine Street during "rush hour" at 7:45 this morning on my walk to work: 

Here is Pine Street at 10 am on a weekday: 

Here is Pine Street at 2 pm on a weekday:

Pine Street obviously needs significant work to be in good driving shape, but before that happens the City should think about how Pine Street should look. Do we need all of those lanes? Of course not. Should it be a two way street? Obviously. And these questions should not be asked of traffic engineers because they will surely screw up the design. There are probably a dozen streets just like Pine in downtown. Let's take a look at them, and let's make them better.

Back to Capitol Avenue for a minute. The Michigan Capitol Building is stunning. From a design perspective it's in a perfect spot at the end of a street. Driving up Michigan Avenue toward the Capitol is one of my favorite views in the entire area. I've visited a number of state capitols (with a mission to see all 50), and in other states the area around the building is vibrant. I would propose closing Capitol Avenue to cars entirely from Ionia to Allegan Street and having food trucks, a farmer's market, really anything other than 4 lanes to speed by one of the most beautiful buildings in the state. We should revere our Capitol not hustle to get past it.

In addition to street design we have to discuss downtown retail. Washington Square has grown tremendously since I moved here eight and a half years ago. There are more restaurants and fewer vacant storefronts. What Downtown Lansing is sorely lacking, however, is retail. I have visited other cities in Michigan - Kalamazoo, Holland, Ann Arbor, Marquette, Traverse City - and they all have retail establishments in their downtown. Washington used to have a Hallmark store, Michigania's gift store, a book store (albeit briefly). Now they're all gone, and there are just no real retail options. Kositchek's men's store is fantastic, but not everyone is down with spending $150 on a tie (although their ties are fabulous). Downtown Lansing desperately needs more retail. I'm not sure why we have a dozen sub shops and no card store, but I can't think of a valid reason. At this point I'd rather have an empty storefront than the new Jersey Giant that's going in on Washington. Enough with the freaking sub shops! (Note: Jersey Giant is a local business at least so at the very least we could swap it for the disgustingness that is Jimmy John's?) Lansing's Downtown Development Authority should be working their tails off to get retail downtown. The alternative is unacceptable.

I was in Holland, Michigan last week marveling at the retail downtown. Multiple toy stores, gift stores, an outdoors store, a White House Black Market (yes - RIGHT DOWNTOWN), and many others. Maybe we should stop building more stores at Lansing Township's Eastwood Towne (the extra 'e' makes it fancy!) Center and look at our downtowns. Other cities have figured it out. We should too.

Finally it is proposed (and City Council has approved) building a casino in Downtown Lansing. I implore everyone - STOP THE MADNESS. A casino in downtown would be a disaster. It's a horrible idea, and research shows that casinos kill downtowns. If we must have a casino in Lansing build it out by Eastwood Towne (fancy!) Center in a greenfield. Do NOT put it in a downtown - ANY downtown. An article in The Atlantic last week discusses the building of a casino in Downtown Baltimore. The article quotes the project manager for a new casino going in near Philadelphia as saying, "No one should look to casinos to revive cities, because that’s not what casinos do.” The article also cites economists at the National Association of Realtors as saying, "The impact of casinos on neighboring property values is “unambiguously negative." Great...great news for downtown. I'm being sarcastic - this is terrible news. Let's scrap the casino and work on things that DO revive downtowns - better street design, downtown retail, public transit. 

In the time that I've lived in Michigan, I've been thrilled to see the start of a revival of Downtown Lansing. But there's a long way to go. We wanted to live downtown because we want to be part of it. Lansing I'm psyched that we're going to get the opportunity to grow together. But please heed my suggestions. I'm kind of a pain in the a$$, and I'm not going anywhere.       

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