Old Town’s futuristic approach

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By Kara Albrecht
Old Town Lansing Times Staff Writer 

Corner of Turner Street and Grand River Ave. that make up the main streets of Old Town.

LANSING, MI. –Old Town businesses are slowly thinking about how they want to see their town in the next 10 to 15 years.In the early 1980’s, Old Town was run down and abandoned.

“There really wasn’t a lot of crime,” said Tina Ray of MessageMakers. “Just boarded up buildings that made it look empty like a ghost town.”

In 1982, Terry Terry, founder of MessageMakers, came to Old Town and started to renovate. In 1984, he created the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art (MICA), and he collaborated with a group of artists to make an art district.

Ray said, “We’ve done a great job transforming this area from where it was as a ghost town to a vibrate place where there is all kinds of activity going on.”

“The goal of Old Town was never to be a shopping district,” Terry said. “The goal was to build a community through art.”

“The Old Town Commercial Association is always focused on bettering the community and the future of Old Town,” said OTCA Vice President Shannon Rolley. “We have an official vision statement that encompasses what we’d like the community to be in 10 years.”

The OTCA Vision Statement states: “Old Town serves as a state-wide destination and the cultural and creative center of Michigan. Every building is restored and occupied with a high density of successful and sustainable businesses. Rich and vibrant streetscapes provide a gateway to our livable, walkable and family-friendly community. Residents of Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods are invested and engaged in the success of the Old Town community.”

Art lining the walls of alleys in Old Town. Photography: Kara Albrecht


Small Projects 

“There is no long term master plan for Old Town like some communities have, but we do have some steps in mind,” said Old Town Commercial Association Executive Director Louise Gradwohl.

Most of these steps involve place-making projects. The first project is to make the alleys of Old Town more comfortable places to be.

The OTCA plans on doing this by placing art in the alleys to make them more approachable.

“Alleys are short cuts most of the time and we want our people to feel comfortable using them,” said Gradwohl.

A second project that is being planned is a memorial garden along the river trail that would include artwork and outdoor furniture. The OTCA is working with a landscape architect on the garden design.

“I think little projects like these are the things that make Old Town as unique and artsy as it is,” Old Town resident George Watters said. “It makes Old Town feel more like home compared to any other neighborhood or city.” 

The Main Goals

“The next level, since we have the infrastructure in place, is to have some more night time activity,” Terry said. “So a couple of good night-time restaurants where you can hear good music, get a drink and have some good food. That will take us to the next level.”

Terry would like to build a night environment where shops can be open later and get more flow and activity in the evening.

“I would love to see Old Town gain a night life,” Watters said. “I’ve secretly wanted that to happen for years.”

In terms of the business composition, the OTCA would like to see Old Town remain mostly mom-and-pop store fronts.

“Being a neighborhood of just small businesses is what makes us unique compared to every other neighborhood or city,” Gradwohl said. “Our businesses focus on certain things and projects and they do them really well.”

To help the businesses out, the OTCA wants to give most of the buildings a little outside makeover.

“A lot of the buildings just need a little outdoor care,” Gradwohl said.

“There are some blank lots in Old Town that also provide opportunity to build some new structures and for new shops to arrive,” Terry said.

The OTCA would also like to add a couple destination restaurants to the neighborhood.

“We would like to see restaurants, not like McDonalds, but ones that families have started and want to chain into Old Town,” said Gradwohl.

“I’d love to see more ethnic restaurants here too,” Terry said.

Spreading the Word 

Beautifying and modernizing Old Town is one thing, but gathering people to experience and take in all of the renovations is another.

The current size of Old Town is around 2,000 people, but the OTCA would like to bring in younger people to keep the town growing.

“We are lucky to have places such as Michigan State and Lansing Community College so close to us, and we want to make it known to them that we exist,” said Gradwohl.

“There’s going to be a little more of coming together between downtown and Old Town,” Terry said. “That space I think will fill in with more developments.”

Old Town is solely based on volunteer involvement, so bringing in younger generations to get involved is a key component in keeping Old Town alive.

The Old Town Commercial Association Photography: Kara Albrecht

“We’re always working to better engage volunteers to serve on committees and assist with the many programs that make Old Town what it is today, and will help propel the neighborhood into the future,” said Rolley. “While the OTCA has a small staff, the organization is really driven by the work of hundreds of volunteers.”

“The more people involved, the more opportunities for growth,” said Gradwohl. “We want to be able to collaborate with greater Lansing and sell the whole package of Old Town.”

Contact Kara Albrecht: albrec56@msu.edu

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