MSU Prof Looks to Engage Students, Community, on Development and Design

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Wednesday, December 11, 2019, 8:48 am
By: 
Chris Gray

(Photo by Raymond Holt)

Tax-increment financing and form-based zoning rules may not generally be considered the most exciting topics of conversation, nor are they the easiest municipal development tools for the average citizen to understand.

But these tools can have big impacts on a local community, by limiting property uses and rights, changing the look and feel of a place, diverting millions in tax dollars — sometimes even determining whether new redevelopment can happen at all.

Enter “Our Michigan Avenue.” Dr. John Monberg, a digital rhetoric professor at Michigan State University, has launched a website that he hopes will be a forum using new media tools to help people access information and understand the money flowing toward community improvement projects or restricting the kinds of development that can be built.

Monberg admitted he was skeptical of the use of tax increment financing, which is a key component of East Lansing’s Center City District redevelopment and the Red Cedar redevelopment under construction across the street from the Frandor shopping center.

Tax-increment financing (TIF) works by diverting new local property taxes generated by a redevelopment — taxes that would otherwise be dedicated to various public services such as schools, public transit, parks, city operations — and using that money to reimburse costs of public infrastructure, private development, or the cleanup of environmental hazards on properties known as brownfields.

Form-based zoning limits the exterior features of redeveloped properties, specifying its aesthetic elements and not just its use. Advocates of form-based code argue that it will help streamline the process of getting the kinds of development the community wants, make the review and approval process easier for everyone, and give community members greater say over the look and feel of the community. Critics argue that it actually can stymie private development by making more demands, locks in a particular aesthetic for years, and denies private property owners rights they should have.

“If there’s not much information, developers have a lot of power to push things,” Monberg said, speaking of his reasoning behind his project. ”The Our Michigan Avenue website is organized by project, so we’re looking for ideas to make those ideas more inclusive and the presentation more useful.”

Monberg has been working with MSU students to build the website, which focuses on the Michigan Avenue/Grand River Avenue corridor from East Lansing to the eastern edge of downtown Lansing. The site currently has short essays about different major developments built or underway, with suggestions about how to help make them more community-friendly.

Team task: Cultivate an Online Audience

This semester the class was tasked with how to increase the usability of the site, and recently presented some of those ideas to the public in an open forum.

“People want to learn about this but people don’t like to read or do the boring work,” said Max Moses, a junior Experience Architecture major at MSU. His group’s design ideas called for increasing polling of the public and easier navigation to guide online browsers to “frequently asked questions” (FAQs).

Josie Davidson, a senior in the class, recommended adding a search feature and so-called “breadcrumbs” that show the website’s navigational structure on each page. Rather than get overly complicated on the Our Michigan Avenue website itself, she suggested helping to direct viewers to external pages.

“If you want to dive into it, it would give you resources for more info,” Davidson said.

The site is still very much a work in progress, and it’s unclear how Monberg will be able to generate the online traffic to make it a viable resource. He says he hopes to collaborate as an almanac resource to more regularly updated websites such as East Lansing Info (ELi), and he’s reached out to area resources such as the Downtown Development Authority and the Lansing Economic Area Partnership to link information.

“I’m trying to create a complementary website to ELi. I think it’ll take a year or two,” he said. (Monberg has not met with ELi about this project other than to be interviewed by this reporter.)

Monberg has received a $1,000 grant to help with coding the site, and brought on two undergraduate students to complete that project, including Syrian student Louai Massri. “We didn’t start from scratch. The information was out there. We’re just changing the design,” Massri said.

East Lansing Council Member Lisa Babcock attended the public viewing of the students’ latest ideas at the Broad Art Museum Lab.

“This is a great example of reaching across Grand River and getting ideas from the university and showing students more about the operations of the city,” she said.

Babcock campaigned on a platform calling for greater transparency in the development process, a goal she sees as aligning with Monberg’s.

“I think people have a lot of questions. We pick up news of development or planning changes. Few of us know much about them,” Babcock said.

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