f I asked you to meet me by the Division Street Garage, you might draw a blank. If I called it “the Habitrail,” “the Hamster Cage” or “the Colorful Parking Garage,” chances are you would know exactly where to be. Since 1988, that big, bright structure has been a landmark—and a source of controversy—in East Lansing.
Questioning random East Lansing residents for this story, I got wildly varying opinions:
“I get [East Lansing] is supposed to be The City of The Arts but it looks more like a Fisher Price getup instead of something worthy of this self-appointed title. Now that the colors are fading it looks worse now than 10 years ago.”
“I have always loved it. Seeing it always cheers me up.”
“I thought it was an eyesore when built and I haven't changed my mind.”
“Always have called it ‘The Habitrail.’ I remember when it was finished and I kept thinking that I was certain that there was still siding to be put on it. It has actually grown on me over the years.”
“Hated then and [hate it] now—and who made the decision to paint it blue and gold for goodness’s sake?”
According to Wes Blackman, who was on the City’s Planning Staff at the time the structure was designed and built, the size and appearance of the Division Street Garage represented an attempt to meet a need for more parking spaces in downtown East Lansing combined with the strong wish of then-mayor Joan Hunault that the structure s be a landmark worthy of “The City of the Arts.” Ralph Monsma, a City Council member at the time, also identifies Hunault as the driving force behind the project.
Blackman explains that the City knew the days were numbered for Jacobson’s parking ramp, and Lot 1 was fairly small. Parking surveys were conducted regularly, and surveys at the time indicated that parking downtown was at 85% to 90% of utilization; anything over 85% was regarded as “full.” Even with the pending addition of the multi-level ramp beneath the Marriott (for which ground was broken in 1987), the City needed more parking spaces to accommodate both the new construction in University Place and the numbers of MSU faculty and students who could not find spaces on campus and chose, instead, to park on the City side of Grand River and walk to classes.
Since the need for more parking was clear, the City could have chosen to construct a brick-faced structure that reflected the style of Jacobson’s, the brand new Marriott, and many buildings on campus. Instead, Mayor Hunault and City Council decided to create something unique and memorable.
Blackman recalls discussions of the fact that East Lansing might never be Ann Arbor or Birmingham, but that there was an opportunity to do something “out of the box. It had to be art.” The architect was instructed that the structure should be “festive,” and use no brick. Monsma states that the garage “was by far the biggest artistic statement that the City has ever made.”
Both the architect and the City’s Arts Commission viewed the garage as a large piece of sculpture, and they worked together to select a color scheme, and overall design. Retail space was included on the ground level so that there would be no blank space, and there was a designated area for CATA buses to park and for riders to sit and wait. Although the space allotted for buses remains intact, CATA’s route changes have rendered it obsolete for the time being.
Blackman is a fan of the structure, but admits that criticism from the community was quick and harsh. The most common complaint was that it was “too maize and blue.” (Blackman says green and white were never considered.) Blackman thought criticism was shortsighted. “It was the 80s,” he explains, it was all about “go big or go home.”
Monsma also recalls criticism: “people complained about it after it was up. ‘Why did they do that?’ ‘You wrecked our beautiful downtown East Lansing.’ ‘Why not use a more traditional façade?’”
Dan O’Connor, currently a Parking Administrator for the City is pro-habitrail. “I grew up here and remember a lot of the history of the downtown,” he says. At this time there was a big emphasis on East Lansing being the City of the Arts. I still remember seeing the garage from the air for the first time as I arrived on an evening flight. The golden hour had its earth tones looking absolutely spectacular.”
On the other side of the aesthetic divide, The State News published a 1989 editorial referring to the structure as “silly,” a “smurf-colored blue skeleton” with “yellow pipes shooting out the side of it.” Monsma reports that his fellow Council members didn’t resist construction, but later wondered “what on earth did they do? How did it fit in with the stately brick buildings? Shouldn’t it have fit in better with architecture like Jacobson’s?”
Love it or hate it, it is a landmark in our City. It’s “the Habitrail,” it’s “the Hamster Cage,” but it’s also a monument to a Mayor and a Council that took a risk and chose to create large-scale, controversial public art because they seriously embraced our charter as “The City of the Arts.”
This article originally appeared in February, 2015.