Some East Lansing residents say city planners are off track

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Mila Murray

East Lansing resident Rose Vadnais discusses the Master Plan with Planning and Zoning Administrator David Haywood. The open house was held at the Hannah Community Building.

When it comes to planning the future of East Lansing, residents emphasized the need for environmental sustainability, culture and a sense of community.   

“All these different pieces come together to form a community and it’s tough because I feel like here, we put value on convenience,” said East Lansing resident Rose Vadnais, who grew up in the city. “People want more parking lots, people want space to able to pull up and park in front of buildings. That’s a thing that you don’t see happening in more progressive cities.”

Vadnais said that the city has taken missteps in its planning, and that the draft of the Master Plan has addressed this.

The Master Plan, drafted by the East Lansing Planning Commission and approved by the East Lansing City Council, is a comprehensive document that the city’s website said is used to “project land use planning 20 years into the future.” Every five years, it is revised and reviewed by the community through open houses where residents can provide input and ask questions. One of the four open houses were held in the East Lansing Hannah Community Center on Feb. 26, and residents, such as Vadnais, attended.

“My biggest interest is in sustainability and trying to drive that home,” Vadnais said. “I feel like we’re a little behind here in East Lansing.”

Vadnais, a real estate agent with a background in architecture and a member of the city’s Commission on the Environment, came to the open house to see the plan’s progress. The plan is not final yet. After amendments, a public hearing will be held before the plan can be adopted.

“I care a lot about what’s happening,” Vadnais said. “I think that there has been a lot of missteps in the past, so I’m glad that we have this opportunity. I wish more people would come out and get involved because I hear a lot of people complaining, but I don’t see a lot of people actually showing up to stuff like this.”

Changes in the Master Plan

“Really, the comprehensive plan is the community’s plan,” said Tim Dempsey, East Lansing’s director of Planning, Building and Development. “They’re the ones who have worked with staff and the Planning Commission over the years. So this is another opportunity for the community to say, ‘hey we agree with this’ or ‘we don’t, and here’s why.’”

Dempsey said one highlight of the plan is residential density, meaning housing will be closer together. He said there will be more along Grand River Avenue and Michigan Avenue, areas close to Michigan State University’s campus.

“I think the bigger impact on MSU is continued density of the downtown,” Dempsey said. “A little higher residential density near campus would potentially be future housing for students down the road.”

Vadnais said that higher residential density would be important to the East Lansing community because it would allow residents to live where they work. East Lansing resident Jenine Camilleri, who is on the Commission on the Environment with Vadnais, said this would also be good for pedestrians, and therefore good for environmental sustainability.

“I know money is tight right now, but continuing to support the ability for people to bike and walk as much as they can in our city would reduce the focus on parking and car transportation,” said Camilleri, who has a background in environmental policy and law.

Dempsey, Camilleri and Vadnais all mentioned the importance of the Master Plan improving not just the city, but MSU’s campus as well.

“I feel like that’s what gives the place its character,” Vadnais said. “And I think that we need to do a better job with the city and MSU coming together and being partners on things rather than being these two separate entities.”

And “smart planning” like this is another priority of East Lansing residents like Camilleri and Vadnais.

Concerns with the city

“Given the current state of the budget, they’re trying to get these bigger businesses,” Vadnais said. “They’re going to bring a Target in. What cute little city do you know of that has a Target as its heart? I don’t think it’s the right choice.” 

Along with the construction of the Center City project, which will place two 12-story structures on Grand River Avenue, and placement of the Jackson National Life Insurance Company, downtown created what Vadnais called a “complete dead area for pedestrians.” 

Community going forward

Dempsey said turnout for the open house was good.

“We had a couple dozen people come through,” Dempsey said. “Tonight was probably one of our better nights. But we’ve been at this for five years. And one of the things that we’re seeing is pretty much anyone who has had real interest in this has already given input.”

It was Camilleri’s first time attending one of the open houses and speaking on behalf of the Commission on the Environment, she said she hopes city planning will incorporate the commission’s perspective.

“The Master Plan is something that we’re very interested in,” Camilleri said. “We’re looking at …  the development choices that we make and how that affects the quality of our life, our city and the protection of our water resources and air quality.”

Although Vadnais said she was satisfied with parts of the draft, she said there are still things that East Lansing can improve on and hopes it maintains its culture and sense of community.

“When I grew up here, there was a movie theater downtown. There was an ice cream shop that was super cool, there were a bunch of independent bookstores,” Vadnais said. “It was way more diverse in terms of the types of businesses. Everything was independent, and it was a sweet town. So when I came back, I was really surprised. It’s like a strip mall, and its got no soul.”

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