Frandor: Revisited

I gave myself a challenge in December: redesign the Frandor area in accordance with the master plan vision for the area while preserving the same footprint for retail currently on the site.

The entire site is 68 acres. It is bounded on the West by Homer Street (a frontage road of US-127) and on the East by Ranney Park. The site faces Michigan Ave. (M-143) on the South and Saginaw Ave. (M-43) on the North. Clippert street is the only public right of way that cuts through the site. With the exception of the new residential tower, it is exclusively retail and commercial space.

I think this site offers a compelling opportunity for a suburban retrofit because of its location. Frandor sits halfway between downtown Lansing (the state capitol) and Michigan State University. Michigan Avenue connects these two regional hubs.

Streets and Blocks

Lacking GIS data for the site, I sketched in approximate property lines and right of way using the information I could find on the city and county websites. My first step in redesigning was to come up with a system of streets and blocks. Living in Savannah has taught me the value of short blocks and alleys (or, as they’re called here, lanes) in creating walkable urban environments.

I eventually decided on a pattern of 17 blocks. The block in the southeast corner of the site contains the SkyVue apartment building. A large central block contains a public park.

In order to encourage people to walk throughout the site, I laid out streets that are safe, comfortable, and desirable for pedestrians.


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I had two primary goals for the buildings: to meet the residential density target set in the Lansing Comprehensive Plan and to accommodate the existing large-format retail properties. To achieve these goals and provide housing for a broad mix of people, I incorporated 30 different building types on the site.

Conceptual Design

The video below illustrates a conceptual design for the Frandor area. The buildings are simplified massing models which lack fenestration and other ornamentation.  I’ve included a few elements such as trees, parked cars, and people to scale the site. Otherwise I have kept the model simple to focus on the urban form.

This design achieves an overall site density of 25 dwelling units per acre – which aligns with the city’s vision for the area. The table below describes the commercial and residential development potential for each block. (Block ID labels shown above.)

Block IDAcresCommercial Gross SFResidential Gross SFResidential UnitsDwelling Units per Acre

What about the zoning?

My cursory overview of the zoning for this area indicates that the current rules would not allow many elements in the design I came up with. Most of the land is zoned F (commercial). Buildings in this zone are required to include front yard setbacks (20 feet), limit height (40 feet), and provide parking. (The parking requirements took up three pages of zoning ordinance text.)  This would make it impossible to establish the type of environment I’ve sketched for the area. Unfortunately, these requirements are also out of step with the Comprehensive Plan’s goals as they artificially restrict the density allowed in the area.

A savvy developer approaching this entire site would likely attempt to rezone it to a PUD (planned urban development) classification. In essence, that proposal would initiate a long and complex negotiation between the developer and the city. Only the biggest developers can afford to engage in projects like these due to the high legal costs and uncertainty.

Mending the Urban Fabric

There is one major capital investment that might make the Frandor site much more attractive for redevelopment: a lid over highway US-127. This limited access road creates a noisy, hazardous moat between Frandor and the remainder of Lansing. Cities around the country are exploring the possibility of capping urban highways. Each of these projects offers unique benefits to the surrounding community such as increased green space, improved connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists, and even additional potential for urban development.

Yet, for communities with tight budgets, these projects can feel like an unnecessary luxury. The capital required to pull off a successful highway cap project may simply be outside the range of possibility. Thankfully, communities with similar issues are finding ways to make highway underpasses more attractive, pleasant and safe.

Finally, if this site is going to be developed in the manner I’ve shown, it will need frequent transit service. This service needs to connect the development to major employment nodes in the region (such as the capitol, MSU, Sparrow Hospital, etc.). The provision of useful transit will substantially reduce the need to build parking on the site.

Institutional Neighbors

About a month ago I became very familiar with our local hospital (especially the maternity wing and the cafeteria). This got me thinking about how institutional buildings fit into the urban transect.

Hospitals and other institutional buildings typically have rigid architectural programs. Unlike commercial office or retail spaces, institutional tenants have specific needs for their buildings to accomplish.

Unfortunately, architects rarely find ways for these unique structures and campuses to blend into the urban fabric of the city. Instead, institutional buildings tend to feel isolated from their immediate neighbors. Continue reading

A plaza in name only

Lansing, Michigan is perhaps best known for being the state capitol and neighbor to Michigan State University – my alma mater. It is also home to the Frandor Shopping Center, the second oldest suburban shopping center in the state. As an undergrad student, I often found myself imagining redevelopment scenarios for this site.

Frandor – facing south (Lormax Stern Development Company)

Frandor’s 450,000 sq. feet of retail floor space surround a massive 1,000-car surface parking lot. Whenever I shopped at Frandor, I felt like it was missing something important. Few major improvements have been made to the site over the nearly fifty years from its construction in 1954 and my first visit.

While the site typically felt busy and seemed to have few vacancies, it also felt strangely isolated. The three state highways bordering the site fed shoppers in automobiles but also served as trenches separating it from the rest of the city.

I still believe that Frandor offers a unique opportunity for urban infill. And I’m not alone.

The 2012 Design Lansing Comprehensive Plan (PDF) classified the Frandor area as a “Community Mixed Use Center” in its Future Land Use Map. The plan defines typical densities and building heights for the district as follows:

Building heights of 4-6 stories (25-60 dwelling units per acre) transitioning to 2-3 stories (6 -20 dwelling units per acre) and a more residential emphasis on neighborhood edges. (Page 195, Design Lansing Comprehensive Plan)

Two years ago the Lansing State Journal reported on a development called “SkyVue” which proposed to add 359 new residential units to the southeast of Frandor on the site of a former Oldsmobile dealership. The 9-story building  will bring roughly a thousand new residents within walking distance of the shopping center. I wonder how the tastes and preferences of these new customers will affect the retail offerings inside Frandor. The Google Streetview image below shows the development underway.

In spite of this progress, Frandor remains a plaza in name only. Its central courtyard could be an attractive public space. Instead it is used as a parking lot. Given the site’s location within the region and the age of the existing development, it is only a matter of time before all new buildings take shape. In future posts I will explore some desirable urban development futures for the area.