Old Town could see the effects of the shift back into the urban core

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By Zachary Barnes
Old Town Lansing Times Staff Reporter

Old Town is subject to the population shift of millennials moving back into the urban core, after so many years of sprawl, because of its walkability and number of things to do.

“What we seem to be observing is that young millennials seem to have different interests and life style choices,” said Rex LaMore, a member of Michigan State University’s Urban and Regional Planning faculty. “They want to be in interesting places where there are a lot of opportunity and things to do. So they are moving back into central cities.”

Old Town offers an array of unique festivals, an assortment of different styles of restaurants, and many niche shops as well as shops for basic necessities. Tara Smith, the marketing lead at Gillespie Group developing, says these are the kinds of places recent college grads and younger people, specifically millennials, are looking for when they are searching for a place to live. Time magazine defined a millennial as someone born between the years of 1980 and 2000.

“Those little neighborhoods with the culture, and the walkability, and the lofts above the shops; they’re so eclectic and cute. We’re finding that these neighborhoods that are their own pocket of the city is something that is really popular right now, especially with millennials and recent grads from MSU,” said Smith.

Those now in the market to buy or rent are willing to sacrifice square footage or a grand kitchen if it means they can live in an accessible neighborhood with lots to do and a good community feel to it, like Old Town.

“We’re seeing that the focus used to be a lot on the inside of the units, but now it’s on the neighborhoods,” said Smith who has been involved with Gillespie Group for 12 years. “People choose now not so much on the inside, but where the community is located.”

LaMore also spoke on what is attractive to millennials when they are in search for housing.

“Old Town has interesting architecture, novel restaurants, and entertainment facilities,” said the director of MSU’s Center for Community Economic Development. “Those seem to be attractors for young professionals in choosing where to live.”

Another thing millennials are looking for when searching for a house according to the director of Lansing’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Department, Bob Johnson, is not taking on a killer mortgage. Johnson says they want to buy, just more so in the ranges of $50,000-$80,000 range.

Comparing today’s Census data to the 2010 Census shows no real trend because it has been a slow change and for Old Town, this is a long time coming.

“This trend isn’t necessarily brand new. Old Town is 15 to 20 years in the making. It’s been that long since they’ve really started the revitalization,” said Ken Szymusiak of the Michigan State Broad College of Business.

When looking at the data though, the number of 20 to 34 year olds in 2000 in the city of Lansing, 31,423, has only slightly increased to 33,067 in 2010. However, this does not give specific evidence that would disprove the trend of young people moving back into the urban core that many developers and urban planners are noticing.

One thing that stands out to Johnson, is the absorption of units within Lansing’s core and how quickly they are rented. So even if there isn’t pinpoint data to show it, homes and apartment of this nature are being purchased quickly.

Szymusiak has been struck by the fact many buyers want all the amenities at their finger tips these days.

Tom Parks, who has lived in Old Town for about four years now and falls under the category of a millennial, said he didn’t want a cookie-cutter apartment to live in and wanted something unique. Old Town felt different to him.

“What’s kept me here is the continued growth in the area as well as the sense of community,” said Parks. “We (him and his neighbors) know there’s a sense of belonging and we all care about each other and what’s going on.”

Johnson says as these urban neighborhoods begin to pop up around during Lansing’s growth, the goal is (and developers know this) to maintain that community feel and keep quality of life high. You have that community feel when you say “I live in Old Town or I live in the stadium district, or REO Town.” There’s a sense of belonging that comes with these communities, according to Johnson.

The quality of life comes from having many things to do, says Johnson. Old Town is doing this with their various festivals, he points out.

Parks says he absolutely notices the trend of younger people moving into urban neighborhoods like Old Town. He says he gets asked all the time how he likes it and how to obtain a place. He loves the accessibility of everything.

“My girlfriend and I were talking and we said to each other ‘have you realized neither of us have started our car in a week?’ Everything is walkable,” said Parks. “We haven’t been grocery shopping in a few weeks because we haven’t needed it because you’ve got great restaurants all around. There are great opportunities to go and check out something new every night.”

Now the question remains: what is this shift back into the urban core causing?

“It has the potential to drive up housing costs in terms of the demand. Places such as Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Old Town where there is a young millennial demand for affordable apartment living or housing,” said LaMore. “There seems to be an increase in demand for that type of living style (within a city). So that might drive up housing costs for other folks who have traditionally lived in those neighborhoods, or low income people might be seeing some displacement.”

This displacement of low-income people is called gentrification. As more young talent with more income moves within a city there is the possibility of essentially kicking out those of lower income who were initially living there.

“The general negative pushback you get on urban revitalization is gentrification,” said Szymusiak, who earned his degree in urban planning from Michigan State. “If the rent gets too high, you drive out people who would like to have access to the community and no longer can because they’ve been priced out.”

“Gentrification has not happened in Lansing,” said Johnson. He also doesn’t think it will ever happen in Lansing. This is due mainly in part to the fact that many of the new urban lofts being built, were built on top of empty lots. Even the Saboury project in Old Town, is planned to be built on an empty plot of land. “No one is being displaced.”

LaMore also agrees with Johnson

“I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. I think there is a lot of opportunity for growth and development in Lansing without having any displacement or gentrification going on,” he said.

Jim Tischler the policy director at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a collaborative community development group that works close with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), spoke on how to avoid gentrification.

“All of this (the movement into the urban core) is good, provided that, that the change in the built environment continues to maintain ‘the mix,'” said Tischler. “The ‘mix’ is, the mix of activity and uses: commercial, residential, industrial and recreational. You see that in Old Town today. And it also has to maintain and improve on the mix of households by there various demographic markers: race, income, and other factors. You don’t want homogeneity to get to a level where it becomes a problem.”

Not only is having a mix in services in an urban neighborhood important for growth, but it is also important for maintaining diversity within the neighborhood, something Old Town was founded on.

“The policy and practice has to focus on inclusion or maintaining ‘the mix.’ That’s where the activity, the character, the success of many urban quarters come from. It’s not just one group of people or one income level,” said Tischler. “All of the best cases of where redevelopment has been successful, that is an underlying factor. It has maintained, enhanced, or built in a mix.”

The Managing Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship at MSU, Szymusiak, stated how not maintaining a mix of people and services is the top issue with this trend.

“We have to be open to the idea to having affordable housing and making sure that there’s developments and methodology that have all income brackets accounted for so communities are inclusive and diverse and you’re not catering to only the elite or more wealthy. That’s a real concern for urban areas,” said Szymusiak

Although it is important to maintain the mix, developers and businesses are doing their best to keep young professionals and talent in Lansing rather than going out to a Grand Rapids, Chicago, or New York. So with the trend of millennials moving into the urban core, it’s important for places like Old Town to offer something different and exciting in their neighborhood to keep great people in Lansing.

“One of the top things we want to do in our city, is retain a lot of our top talent. We have Michigan State right next door,” said Smith of Gillespie group, who is well involved with revitalizing the urban core. “Building communities like that are a real draw for those people that are graduating that we would a lot of the times lose to cities like Chicago, Detroit, or Portland. Having something like that right here, close to home where we can keep them here and keep that talent in our work force is important.”

From an economic standpoint, it is tremendously important to have niche places like Old Town in order to help the overall growth of Lansing.

“The economic impact is pretty substantial. Anecdotally speaking, the stronger a core city is or a downtown is, it provides a lot more opportunities in the way of job growth and the ability to attract and retain talent, which is the key,” said Szymusiak. “Areas like Old Town are really critical for a place like Lansing, which might have a traditional manufacturing background from an economic standpoint. But as we transition to a service based economy and knowledge based economy, there has to be really intriguing places that will make the younger generation want to stay and set up roots and work. If they’re going to do freelance work, why choose Lansing over New York, Chicago, or Boston as a location? In order to compete with large cities like that you need to have authentic, unique downtown areas that have the types of shops and amenities that millennials prefer.”

Szymusiak said despite the possibility of gentrification, there is a lot of productive things that can come to a city with having neighborhoods like Old Town.

“From a property value stand point, from a business value standpoint, job standpoint there isn’t much you can look at from the redevelopment of these areas and say ‘this is a negative,'” he said. “In most cases the positives far outweigh the negatives as these areas come back.”

It’s not just millennials and the younger crowd moving back into these types of areas, it’s also baby boomers. As most of them become “empty nesters,” the boomer generation is downsizing and adding to the movement of people coming to the urban core.

“The boomers used to be numerically the largest generation in America and in Lansing. Now they have been rivaled, and in many markets have been surpassed by the millennial population. These are two large cohorts in the demographic population, which are moving a lot of these trends,” said Tischler.

“A larger and larger percentage of the boomer population which are downsizing because their kids (the millennials) are gone,” Tischler continued. “They want the same thing, which is a neighborhood near the center of activity that they can walk to, and that they can take advantage of amenities.”

Roger Little put it simply as to what drew him to Old Town after he became an empty nester.

“What drew us in (to Old Town) was the location, the access to the river trail, the music scene,” said Little.

Laurie Alford, who was with Little, notices that there are a lot of millennials in the neighborhood and speaks on the idea, that at that young age you are looking for a neighborhood where you feel a sense of connectedness. But those of both generations share the feelings of wanting access to many things near by.

“For me it’s downsizing after retirement,” said Alford. “The location, having the neighborhood and having easy access to all of the things that add to good quality of life, is really important at this stage.”

Having the boomers move back into the urban core also has a positive economic impact.

“It’s great because they generally have disposable income. They’ve freed themselves up from their suburban life and they are most likely not supporting their children anymore,” said Szymusiak. “Living in an urban area is a great way to cut costs by downsizing, and you can stretch your dollar a little more by living the urban lifestyle because you may have better access to stores and conveniences.”

And by having another age demographic it adds to the mix Tischler spoke heavily on.

“It keeps the economy diverse,” Szymusiak continued. “It provides an economic base for a lot of different places to open. It forces an urban area to think about having diverse options like upscale dining not just go out and get drunk bars.”

Old Town is one of the many neighborhoods, and has been for a long time, that is working to revitalize its own brand to help Lansing grow.

“This is a very real segment. We just have to remain firm for what we’re trying to achieve (building a strong urban core). That might mean breaking the cookie cutter model sometimes. Even if that cookie cutter model makes profit,” said Johnson. “We just want to be able to look back in the rearview and know we made a difference.”