Lansing Growth Series Part 2: Housing - Where Are We Living?
A pretty cool thing happens when you use Google Maps’ Streetview to look at the Stadium District in Downtown Lansing. If you cruise down Michigan Avenue eastward from the Capitol, you’ll approach the four-story building that includes more than 50 residential units under construction on a gray day in November of 2007. Move your little yellow Google person into the intersection of Michigan Avenue and South Cedar – right at the foot of the development – and as if by magic (Google magic, that is) the sky brightens, the year changes to 2008 and The Stadium District is complete.
This fun glitch captures before and after footage of a turning point in Lansing history. Before that cloudy day in 2007, most Lansing residents lived where they’d been living for several decades – miles from the city center in residential neighborhoods, townships and suburbs. Over the last ten years, however, something has changed. Living in Lansing isn’t the same today as it was a decade ago, and the major change had more than little to do with the completion of The Stadium District and the gut instinct of a few developers.
“It was pure demand and a hunch,” says Pat Gillespie of The Gillespie Group of his firm’s decision to switch their focus from developing suburban apartments to urban lofts. “People said, ‘you’re nuts.’ People thought we were going to need a security guard; that no one will live next to a railroad track and no one will live on Saginaw. It was just a myth.”
It doesn’t take a whole lot of research to confirm that Gillespie’s hunch was right on. Co-Director of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership’s New Economy Division Ken Szymusiak’s job is to watch and foster local growth. The growth in downtown housing, he says, is one of the most highly visible areas of growth in the Lansing area.
“The incensement of loft development at that a period of time was incredible,” he says. “This was unfeasible 10 years ago. It wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s mind to build something like [The Stadium District]. How much it’s changed in the last six years in particular – the numbers are staggering, actually.”
Indeed, they are. Added to the 50 Stadium District residential units are 119 units in the Motor Wheel Lofts, 120 units at Prudden Place, 48 at The Arbaugh, and those are just the big ones.
These relatively new downtown living spaces have remained reliably at or near capacity because, as he mentioned, Gillespie’s hunch was paired with demand.
“About seven years ago we sat down with a lot of our residents who were living in Delta Township but were going to school or working downtown,” Gillespie says. “We asked, ‘Why do you live here instead of downtown?’”
The answer surprised them: because, and only because, there was nowhere for them to live. With washer and dryer and two parking spots, that is. So Gillespie decided to change that.
“We basically drew a one mile radius around the state capitol,” he says. “For five years, we decided to focus our energies on doing developments inside that circle.”
Meeting Housing Needs
They started with Prudden Place on May Street between Pennsylvania and Cedar in 2006, building 72 urban lofts in a building that used to house The Lansing Wheel Company, which used to make wheels for R.E. Olds.
“It was kind of a guinea pig and it was a huge success,” Gillespie says. “There is still a huge demand right now. We are finding an huge influx of people who want to live urban.”
Who are those folks? Of course, the quintessential urban resident is the young, upwardly mobile professional who is pre-kids and looking for fun. While it’s true that there are plenty of those filing into the lofts in Downtown Lansing, the true makeup of the growing urban community is more diverse than just “college plus.”
Take Derick and Deanna Thomas, a 50-something couple who came across the option to live in The Stadium District after decades of doing the house, yard and kids thing in Lansing.
“I owned a house over on the northside, not far from the Capital City Airport,” says Derick Thomas. “It was good. But all our kids are grown now, so a house just wasn’t the right thing for us. Once we heard about all the enthusiasm downtown, we came down to look around.”
The Thomases wanted to be through with yard work and home maintenance, and wanted instead to invest that time in something more meaningful – fun.
“We have access to the whole city here,” Thomas says. “The ballgames, the Capitol, downtown restaurants. It’s fantastic for adults.”
While the Thomases knew about those amenities in advance, what they found surprising was the sense of community in their new urban neighborhood that seemed to spring up as quickly as the housing developments themselves.
A New Sense of Community
“It seems like once the bartenders and restaurants find out that you live down here, they pay you a little bit more attention,” says Thomas. “They start to recognize you by name. In most major cities you have your neighborhoods and boroughs, and if you’re just a neighborhood guy or gall you get more love there, and that’s great.”
The new downtown community is more than just a pleasant footnote in Lansing’s development over the last decade: It’s becoming a huge, cyclical economic driver.
“It’s really transformational what they’ve done,” says Gillespie, about the rush of downtown living options developed by his firm, as well as their local colleagues. “Right now I’m talking to three companies who are having a hard time attracting and retaining a workforce and are looking downtown to build a new headquarters or a new technology facility. They don’t want to be on the highway exchange anymore.”
They want to be downtown because that's where the talent they’re hoping to recruit wants them to be, so the employees can have the true urban living experience that includes walking to work.
And as the Thomases prove, the urban living experience is more than just a passing phase for Downtown Lansing when this generation of young professionals starts to settle down. Though the couple is still working now, they look forward to enjoying their downtown home even more in the near future.
“We’re getting close to the time when we won’t have to work anymore and we can really enjoy downtown, says Thomas. “We plan to stick around and stake full advantage of what’s yet to come. We look forward to the future here.”
They and the rest of their urban neighborhood ought to; with the cityscape out their front windows, after all, have front row seats to whatever Lansing’s future may bring.
Natalie Burg is the news editor for Capital Gains.
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Developer Pat Gillespie
Motor Wheel Lofts
Stadium District residents Deanna and Derick Thomas
Photos © Dave Trumpie