City Market

January 3, 2010

So if I have my facts straight, Christmas Eve was the last day of business for the old Lansing City Market, and the property passed into the hands of local developer Pat Gillespie on January 1st. These events were the source of some sadness in the Thompson household. Diane was deeply involved in the Friends of the Market group between 2006 and 2008, and became embroiled in the politics surrounding the City Council actions to sell the old market and construct a new one on some adjacent property. Now I stress that what I’m recounting here is my view, and not hers. She did tell me that her feelings have as much or more to do with the way these events played out as it does with the outcome.

My sense is that all the key decisions here were made well before Diane got involved with the issues. Indeed, they were functionally made during the earliest days of the 2005 campaign that put Lansing Mayor Virg Bernaro in office, though he did not disclose redevelopment of the market as a part of his plan for the city. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that delivering this city-owned piece of waterfront property into private hands was the quid pro quo for financial and other support that Bernaro got from real estate interests in the Lansing area. Nothing was going to stop that once Bernaro was elected, and Diane was told as much by a few of her friends who were among the old market’s most faithful customers. And in fact, Diane was not totally opposed to a new market. What she was opposed to was the bum’s rush that actually transpired.

This is a long story that was not told very well by the local media. The Lansing City Pulse did the best job, but even their coverage is not easy to access now. When I went to the paper’s website, the search function on their archive would not return any results for years prior to 2009. Indeed, the seeming boycott of the story by the Lansing State Journal and the local television stations was a major part of what made these events take on a conspiratorial feel. It was as if people in the know were sure that if the ugly details became public, the whole thing would come off the rails. So it became extremely important that anyone asking questions about the property transfer would be seen as an obstructionist, a crank or as someone clinging nostalgically to the past during a time when the city desperately needed to move forward. All avenues to thinking, planning and involving a broader community in the development of a new market were foreclosed.

The first plan did not include a new market at all, save for a spot where seasonal vendors could hawk wares under a tent in the summertime. This turned out to be very unpopular and gave the Friends of the Market an unexpected opening to the political process. The deal brokers sensed vulnerability quickly and rapidly revised the plan to include the construction of a new market, the structure that now stands on a small plot on the banks of the Grand River. The money for this would be provided by the sale of the old market property to Gillespie’s group. No one seemed to notice that this completely vitiated the original rationale for the deal, which had been to finance a totally different set of downtown redevelopment initiatives. Very quickly—too quickly—the Mayor and his cohort adopted rhetoric supporting the idea of a market as key to downtown redevelopment. And that’s the story that’s still being told in the local media.

It’s a story that the Friends of the Market might have been able to get behind as well, but no one gave them a chance. Others in the Lansing food community were enrolled in Bernaro’s program through deals that pitted one neighborhood against another. To be sure, the Friends had a mix of concerns that never jelled completely. The main one was food access, understood in both physical and economic terms. One could have done all one’s food shopping at the old market on a year round basis, and a few people did. Its demise turns a fairly large part of central Lansing into a food desert. But less abstractly, most of the access complaints that were aired centered on parking. A second set of concerns revolved around the vendor mix. This one was tricky, because some parts of the old market were more committed to food than others. Some saw it as an incubator for small scale local business, for example. And a third set of concerns took up local identity and sense of place values. It would be important for a new market to maintain some sense of continuity to the old one, and for the history tied to the old site to be maintained as much as possible. These were the issues most easily twisted into stories about obstructionist nostalgia by the media operatives who engineered the bum’s rush.

There were also some pretty straightforward aesthetic and environmental issues, too. The point here was not that the old market was perfect on these points, for it clearly had flaws. The point was that any serious effort at planning or community building was swept under the rug by the need to complete the property transaction under an undisclosed deadline. And what was that deadline? Was it Gillespie’s business plan or the ticking fuse on Bernaro’s political capital? No one knows because no one in the local media bothered to ask. In fact, none of the questions being asked in 2007 and 2008 have been answered even in 2010, as the new market is about to open. It is still very much an open question as to what we will get.

Let’s hope things turn well, if not for the best. At the very least, actions by Diane and others in the Friends of the Market introduced talk about the Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia into the vocabulary of the Lansing development community. We should hold on to that as a victory of sorts, but we should not allow the local food community to be manipulated by politics of this ilk so readily in the future.

Paul B. Thompson is married to Thornapple Core Group Coordinator Diane Thompson


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