Once a bustling, prosperous community, North Lansing — known today as Old Town — fell into disarray in the second half of the 20th century.
However, toward the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, people in the community began to take an interest in the revitalization of the area, with the hope of restoring it to its former glory.
Revitalization of downtown areas is not unique to Lansing. Ken Schroeppel, an expert in downtown revitalization as well as an assistant professor in urban planning at the University of Colorado Denver, said this phenomenon can be seen all over the country.
“Up until World War II, cities were vibrant. They were where the jobs and the shopping were,” Schroppel said. “In the era post-World War II, there was massive suburbanization. There was a lack of investment in cities, which led them to fall into economic decline. However, in the ’80s and ’90s, people who were passionate about downtown areas wanted to recapture the glory days, and a lot of urban planning over the past 30 years has revolved around downtown revitalization.”
So far, revitalization in Old Town has been quite successful. The president of the board of directors for the Old Town Commercial Association, Jamie Schriner-Hooper, said that progress is more than what people see at first glance.
“We started off in a small area,” Schriner-Hooper said. “We kept the revitalization condensed so that the impact of the work would be shown. If we did projects randomly all over the place, it would be much harder to see the progress. However, we are spreading out.”
When looking at a map of Old Town, it’s easy to tell where the revitalization process began. There are a lot of businesses clustered in a fairly small area, with most of of them centered near East Grand River Avenue and Turner Street. However, with a closer look, expansion is clearly visible. Businesses are popping up farther down East Grand River and Turner as well as the neighboring side streets.
“There are no city designations for Old Town,” Schriner-Hooper said. “So we slowly have businesses that are pushing out and expanding the boundaries, really pushing the limits.”
Almost all of the businesses in Old Town are small and locally owned. They vary greatly in what they offer, from small boutiques to restaurants. According to Schroeppel, uniqueness is a very good sign.
“Smaller independent businesses are a very important part of revitalization efforts,” Schroeppel said. ”They are the one who are committed to the community and want to see it take off. Eventually, they are the ones who expand into the shady or less developed areas and begin to make that area better. They take a chance that by opening a new business, they will help expand the revitalization.”
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for a revitalization effort to be successful. Whether or not a community’s efforts will be successful relies heavily on the community members’ commitment and effort.
“The thing about urban planning is that we can study ways that help a community be successful, but every community is going to be different,” Schroeppel said. “There is no specific way to ensure a community’s success. It’s really a case by case situation. However, if people are really committed to their local community, they have a good chance of being successful.”
The people of Old Town are very committed to their community. Schriner-Hooper stated that the commitment is something that really helps to draw new businesses to the area.
“The fact that we have a really supportive community is really attractive to prospective businesses,” Schriner said. “The people who are down here are here because they want the area to succeed, and that encourages other businesses.”
Jared Field, owner of Bloom Coffee Roasters, believes that the strong community can help the area expand even further.
“Old Town and the businesses here are pretty established,” Field said. “Using that expertise and good name, we need to be great at partnering with businesses in the nearby neighborhoods to expand and grow together.”
According to Schroeppel, it is important for neighborhoods to find their market in order to be successful in their revitalization efforts.
“Downtowns have to understand what their niche market is,” Schroeppel said. “Downtowns can’t be everything to everybody. They need to focus on their competitive advantages.”
Field has certainly found this to be true.
“Building a brand doesn’t come easy in an urban setting like Lansing. Experience has definitely taught us the importance of building our community, and the community that was already here, while sticking to producing a craft product.”
Progress has been good for Old Town. Schriner-Hooper believes that revitalization efforts have been very successful, although expansion can be a slow process.
“Even though we have been successful, expansion is difficult,” Schriner-Hooper said. “We go through periods where there aren’t any open spaces for new businesses to come in. There aren’t many times that we have a lot of vacancies, so even if businesses were looking to come in, they wouldn’t be able to.”
A successful neighborhood is never really finished. The world around us is always changing, and even the most successful cities go through a natural cycle of growth, decline, and regrowth.
People today are rediscovering downtowns, and downtown areas are seeing increased investments as well as population gains.
“In a way, downtowns have come full circle since World War II,” said Schroeppel.
All in all, things look promising for the Old Town community.