Muskegon Mall Group Confident

February 25, 2003
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MUSKEGON — Redeveloping the defunct Muskegon Mall downtown certainly isn’t just another commercial real estate deal. Yet the fundamentals still apply.

So as a Detroit-area development and construction firm formulates and examines ideas for the future of the mall site in the heart of downtown, market sustainability and continuity with the surrounding business district are important toward eventually doing “the most successful development that could be there.”

“There is no magic to this,” said Doug Bock, vice president and general manager for Charter Development LLC, the Southfield-based firm chosen late last year by the owners of the mall property to draft conceptual plans and undertake redevelopment of the 26-acre site.

“We don’t want to force anything in there. We have to make sure it’s something that naturally should be there and there’s a reason for it,” he said.

The Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. in late December gave Charter Development six months to draft a workable conceptual plan for the site that creates an “urban village” consisting of a mixture of residential, retail, office/commercial and entertainment uses.

In analyzing the property and formulating a development plan, Charter Development first wants to understand the history of downtown Muskegon, how it developed and the forces that today are driving a rebirth of the business district, Bock said. The idea is to ensure that the end result blends with the current market dynamics and the direction that downtown is taking.

“All that has to tie together. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past and look at what the future is going to be in Muskegon,” Bock said. “What we’re doing now is taking a bird’s eye view and looking down at what’s happening and how all these things interplay and how this mall fits in.”

The Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. — consisting of the Paul C. Johnson Foundation, the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, as well as representation from the City of Muskegon — bought the mall property last fall to secure local control over how the site is redeveloped.

The mall’s redevelopment is the centerpiece of a wave of downtown investment that includes Edison Landing, the high-tech business park planned nearby, and several other projects that will alter the landscape and character of downtown Muskegon for years to come.

The downtown development group expects Charter Development to submit a conceptual plan for the project around the end of June, spokeswoman Roberta King said.

The partners involved in Downtown Muskegon Development are committed to their vision for the property and “we’ll hold steadfast until we’re proven wrong,” King said.

Much of what’s ultimately proposed for the mall property will depend on the result of Charter Development’s market research. Charter Development will need to support its conceptual plan for the project with detailed market research showing that future uses are sustainable and build on downtown’s existing base, King said.

“What business can they bring in and what businesses are interested in the area?” she asked. “And when you find that perfect combination, then you know where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do.”

Charter Development was chosen for the mall project from five finalists that sought the work.

The selection has drawn some criticism from parties who contend the downtown development group did not open up the process to public input and opinion, as well as who will control the project’s direction. At one point in December, the city offered Downtown Muskegon Development $2 million for the mall property, King said. The group rejected the offer and chose Charter Development to work with, she said.

The selection process was based on choosing the firm that was most qualified to take on the mall’s redevelopment, and not the conceptual ideas each group offered. Downtown Muskegon Development chose Charter Development because it has extensive experience in urban redevelopment, King said.

“They have done downtown urban renewals. They have done these kinds of projects,” she said.

Urban redevelopments are Charter Development’s niche and “it’s what we do best,” Bock said.

Among the projects in which the principals of the 50-year-old company are presently involved is a massive $375 million development to turn a 216-acre former medical campus in Pontiac into a 670-home residential neighborhood and technology park.

In planning the local project, Downtown Muskegon Development and Charter Development plan to engage area residents in an upcoming public process to garner opinions on what should occur at the site, King said.

The public input will occur “continuously and will involve many different incarnations,” she said. The goal, King said, is to settle on a development plan that is both economically viable and can earn the support of the City Commission, which will have the final say over a site plan and zoning for what’s ultimately proposed.

Except for working within the framework the development group set down, Charter Development has started the planning process without any preconceived notions, Bock said.

“We’re going in with a clean sheet of paper. We are very open-minded,” said Bock, who’s confident Charter Development can offer a plan that will gain the support of all parties and achieve market sustainability.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we could come up with a very viable plan,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be a very successful development.” 

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