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Lansing business leaders say population density, housing are key to downtown revitalization

Five panelists sit in front of a "Lansing Regional Chamber Economic Club" sign and in front of a seated crowd.
Arjun Thakkar
The panel was held at the Kellogg Center on Michigan State University's campus.

A group of prominent mid-Michigan business leaders says Lansing needs more population density to revitalize its downtown district.

They spoke at a panel Thursday at the Kellogg Center as part of the Lansing Regional Chamber’s economic club. Their conversation centered around what needs to be done to generate activity in Lansing’s downtown.

All of the panelists said more housing and businesses would make the area a more attractive and walkable destination for visitors.

Cathleen Edgerly is executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc. She said getting more residents living downtown is key to the area's growth.

"They attend the events. They enjoy the amenities. They drive future investment. They support the businesses," Edgerly said. "People matter, and we need more people in downtown Lansing."

The group seemed optimistic about the city's future. While Lansing saw a loss in foot traffic as state and office workers began working remotely during the pandemic, they said several recent and upcoming development projects have been promising. Those include the Stadium District around Jackson Field, The Ovation performing arts venue, and more than 400 planned apartments with New Vision Lansing.

Pat Gillespie is founder and CEO of Gillespie Group, a real estate company that owns several properties in the city. He said more people are visiting downtown Lansing now than before the pandemic.

Gillespie called for more housing developments and a greater presence from Michigan State University students.

"I think we could build another 500 (units) every six months, and they would fill up," Gillespie said. "That changes a lot of trajectory for restaurants and entertainment and social life there...that would be a game changer for Lansing to have a giant block 'S' downtown and have active students on a daily basis."

Others said the city is still struggling to fill vacant office and business spaces.

Van Martin, President and CEO of Martin Commercial Properties, said Lansing has about 700,000 square feet of vacant office space, close to double the amount vacant before COVID-19. He said more housing and businesses would make Lansing more resilient to economic uncertainty.

“We need population density. That's what we need in the downtown," Martin said. "At some point, we have to reach critical mass. And until we reach critical mass, we're not going to get to sustainability, which is essential, I think, for the vibrancy of a city.”

Martin suggested that converting office buildings into residential spaces could spur further development, but he said those projects tend to be expensive and would require business incentives and government support.

One person in the audience asked how the city could provide more "missing middle" rental units that would be more affordable for young professionals.

Gillespie said he expects the city to see about 200 affordable units come on the market in the next couple years.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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