EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Everybody knows the “hamster cage” or “Habitrail” parking garage in East Lansing.
But do you know the actual history behind it?
Constructed in 1988, during the tenure of Mayor Joan Hunault, the parking garage was part of a larger effort to provide East Lansing with a more vibrant, arts-friendly aesthetic.
Wes Blackman, a city planner for East Lansing during the conception of the garage, recalls that its initial purpose was to provide parking for the then brand-new downtown Marriott Hotel.
But East Lansing officials, pushed by the East Lansing Arts Commission, weren’t interested in building something boring and drab.
“The arts were a major component of economic development,” Blackman said. “There was a unanimous upwelling that we didn’t want a plain brick parking structure, because it’s boring.”
Blackman remembers staff that developed the project were impressed by the renderings and didn’t make the Habitrail connection whatsoever until the public responded to the finished product.
“Everyone was wowed by it. When it went up – it was kind of a realization – it was the public that said, ‘Oh, it looks like a Habitrail.’ So, it does. It’s art. It’s how it feels to you; your interpretation and reaction to it,” Blackman said.
Whether it’s considered beloved or maligned, it certainly can’t be called boring.
Blackman went on to have a long career as a development planner and historic building preservationist, moving to West Palm Beach, Florida. He spent a decade as the project director for Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
He still visits the East Lansing area regularly, which doesn’t look a thing like it did back in 1988.
“Back in the ’80s, if we drew our future East Lansing like it looks in 2022, we would’ve been laughed out of the room. We would’ve been tarred and feathered,” Blackman said. “Nobody would believe what was going to be.”