Capital Improvements -- Cooley's presence helps spark growth downtown

By Mike Scott

Legal News

A downtown developmental revival of Lansing has been well under way for the last five years, thanks in large part to the continued growth of the state's largest law school headquartered a few blocks from the State Capitol.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School held its first classes in an old print shop in downtown Lansing in 1973. Today, Cooley Law School is at the center of significant housing and retail growth that has seen 450 new apartment and loft units be added to the city in the last three years.

In addition, an area around Cooley's library at Washington Square and Kalamazoo Street is home to new bars, restaurants and shops that have created a small, but quickly growing nightlife that previously existed only around Oldsmobile Park, home of the Lansing Lugnuts minor league baseball team further east along Michigan Avenue.

Cooley, which was founded in 1972 and held its 100th graduation ceremony in January, has grown prodigiously over the past decade. In the fall of 1998, it had 1,694 students. This past fall, it had 2,493 at its Lansing campus alone and most of its recent first-year classes have included anywhere from 675 to 880 students.

As such, Cooley is one of the largest and fastest-growing law schools in the country. Counting its Grand Rapids and Auburn Hills campuses, there are more than 3,700 students currently enrolled.

But the growth in Lansing has been particularly noticeable. Only a few years ago, most Cooley students lived outside the downtown core in apartment complexes in East Lansing, Delta Township and on Lansing's far south side. There simply wasn't enough affordable downtown housing and apartments to cater to the needs of most Cooley students.

Over the past three years, new downtown lofts and apartment buildings have brought more Cooley students into the center of the city. This was by design, as student surveys have long indicated a desire for housing near Cooley's Lansing campus, within walking distance, if possible, said Paul Zelenski, Ph.D., associate dean of enrollment and student services.

"We've conducted housing surveys of students and have shared that information with local developers," Zelenski said. "Obviously when you are a student, the closer you are to the campus the more attractive a downtown apartment would be.

"The available lofts may be pricey, but many students are finding housing downtown, more now than ever before," Zelenski added. "More of these apartments and rental units are reasonably priced."

It was Cooley's growth which first moved some local developers to begin investing in the downtown area. A study titled "Blueprint for Downtown Lansing" was conducted 10 years ago that indicated the city's desire to add 40 apartment units, a low number that was a positive step, but one that would not help Lansing to meet its developmental goals, said Bob Trezise, president of the Lansing Economic Development Corporation.

"We've bettered that by more than 10 times and I feel we are still just scratching the surface," Trezise said.

In the past couple of years, Lansing has also created downtown festivals, such as "Blues on the Square," a series of R&B concerts held downtown on several consecutive Thursdays in the summer, and a "Trick or Treat" night last October that drew 8,000 people to the city.

It has been long the norm for college and law school students at any level to want to live and attend school in a vibrant downtown area. As many as 45 percent of young professionals live in cities and 64 percent decide where they want to live and then look for a job there in data provided by Michigan Future, Inc., a local nonprofit organization that strives to be a source of new ideas to promote statewide growth.

There is no silver bullet to attracting and retaining young professionals to a region outside of having a strong, large central city that meets the needs of a young workforce said Lou Frazier, president of Michigan Future.

Frazier's research shows that young talent typically chooses to live within, or very close to large cities of several hundred thousand residents or more. While many of these professionals will consider a move to the suburbs once they have kids, the importance of attracting these young professionals is important because once they've set down roots, they are more likely to stay.

"In our research we can't find any place of high concentration of young professionals that isn't near a major city," Frazier said. "When trying to attract recent college graduates and young professionals, having suburbs that are viewed favorably isn't enough."

That's because young people are more interested in living in areas that include diverse populations with individuals of many races and backgrounds, something the traditional suburbs don't offer. These suburbs also may not have the amount of entertainment or thriving social life that young professionals desire that will encourage them to move to that area, Frazier said.

Cooley Law School administrators have become more aware of the importance of a vibrant downtown area with a strong nightlife in recent years, Trezise said. It helps the school not only recruit students, but also faculty from around the country. And local developers are realizing that there are opportunities to merge a burgeoning nightlife community around Cooley Law School's campus and Oldsmobile Park several blocks away.

"Once you get some housing and restaurants, everything else begins to fall into place," Trezise said. "Right now it can be tough to find parking down here on a weeknight or during the weekend and we have virtually no available retail or office space."

Indeed, for many years, downtown Lansing had little nightlife, as the exodus of state governmental workers from their jobs in the late afternoon and early evenings on weekdays left little business for downtown retailers and restaurants. Many were only open until the lunch crowd cleared out.

Cooley's growth has brought more students and faculty downtown on a permanent basis and developers have noticed. They regularly work with Cooley administrators to determine where housing and retail additions may be made in the Capitol city.

"While we can't steer our students in any particular direction with where they should live or shop, we do want to let them know what is available," Zelenski said. "We do have a list of available housing and developers and others can advertise openings to our students.

"Cooley has been a constant for 35 years in downtown Lansing, and what's great for us is that a large portion of that growth has come from out of state," Zelenski added.

Cooley's impact on Lansing's downtown is felt daily at the Arbaugh Building. The 1905 structure that sits kitty-corner from the Cooley Law Library, sat empty for three years before local developer Richard Karp began converting it into a combination of lofts and commercial space in 2004.

The formerly vacant building today is mostly filled with Cooley students as part of its 48 apartment units. Cooley students and faculty, state governmental and Sparrow Hospital employees all have begun moving downtown with more frequency in recent years.

Today, half the 120 units in Gillespie's Prudden Place development in North Lansing and a quarter of the 50 apartments and condos in the Stadium District on East Michigan Avenue are filled by Cooley students and staff.

The downtown revival isn't perfect or complete. Students who live downtown have expressed their wish for a downtown supermarket, as many have no or limited access to a vehicle while attending school, Zelenski said.

"Our students are a constant presence downtown, but development is really a catch-22," Zelenski said. "If you build it they will come, but there has to be a natural balance. I get the sense there is a general move in a positive direction and basic amenities."

What really brings students to Cooley though is the quality of classes, faculty and the flexibility that is offered. It has allowed Cooley to recruit nationally with the help of high-tech facilities and learning center.

But a lively downtown matters to people if they are living, working or going to school in the area and school administrators feel the downtown will become more and more vibrant in the coming years.

"We're building momentum and Cooley Law School really was the main catalyst," Trezise said. "I think pretty soon we'll be able to attract that grocery store somewhere downtown."

Published: Thu, Dec 3, 2009