The University Record, April 1, 1998

Students help revitalize state's capital

By Janet Nellis Mendler
News and Information Services

A riverfront village, above, is one of the six designs presented to Lansing City Council by the 23 students in the Lansing/Grand River Case Study studio course taught by Robert Beckley, professor of architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The students' plans were welcomed by the council members, who commented on their professionalism. Illustration courtesy College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Using colorful display models and a slide show, students enrolled in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP) recently presented their proposals to revitalize a section of downtown Lansing to City Council members in the capital city.

The 23 students were enrolled last semester in the Lansing/Grand River Case Study studio course. Working under the direction of Robert Beckley, professor of architecture and urban planning and former dean of the College, they developed concepts that would change the use and appearance of a one-half-mile, 160-acre stretch of cityscape along the Grand River, an area that connects Lansing's downtown to Old Town.

To address political, civic and geographical concerns, they met throughout the semester with Mayor David Hollister, planning manager Eleanor Love, and other civic and community leaders to learn about citizen concerns, environmental issues and the results of previous studies. At a December presentation to Hollister, "the students showed such sophistication that some community residents who attended the event remarked that they thought these were professional developers making proposals to the city," says Veronica A. Johnson, director of the U-M Lansing Service Center.

"Veronica thought there were several planning and development problems we could help the City of Lansing address," Beckley says. Johnson arranged for an initial meeting with Beckley, Robert Marans, chair of the U-M's urban and regional planning department, and Love. Love identified several possible projects and led a tour of the prospective sites.

"We wanted a project that would be useful for the City of Lansing and that would be a stimulating learning experience," Beckley says. From the students' perspective, Beckley says that using specific sites and conditions helped simulate real-world planning parameters that students are likely to encounter once they graduate. Beckley and city officials agreed that the area identified has a great potential for redevelopment.

"The exciting part of the experience was having direct contact with the mayor, who really set forth the vision and objectives for the study. His participation right from the beginning helped frame the project in a way that gave us a very ambitious set of objectives and goals and set our sights high," Beckley says.

The design workshop students developed six proposals for the area.

"Our intent was not to provide a single 'solution,' but to identify viable options. It wouldn't surprise me if we see some of these ideas appear in the city's long-term vision," Beckley says.

"I saw strength in every one of these plans," Hollister told the Lansing State Journal. "We'll pick parts of all of them." In fact, says Beckley, the final planning document is being used to stimulate thinking in both the public and private sectors.

In addition to CAUP, students who worked on the project came from the Business School and the schools of Natural Resources and Environment and Social Work.

Eager to do this type of work elsewhere, Beckley is teaching a design studio in which his students are working with the Eastern Corridor Cultural Organizations (ECCO) in Grand Rapids. ECCO, Beckley says, is a group of community and cultural organizations on the edge of downtown that is anxious to create a stronger image for the area, add to its aesthetic appeal, economic vitality and sense of security.

"Like so many central city cultural areas," Beckley says, "this area remains vital even though it has suffered the ravages of inattention over the last 50 years. We are excited about having been given the opportunity to help the ECCO area regain the excitement and charm it once had, and to build upon new opportunities for revitalizing this important area of Grand Rapids' cultural and social life."