Mall Site Seen As Growth Catalyst

October 17, 2003
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MUSKEGON — Final plans should emerge in the coming weeks for the redevelopment of Muskegon’s downtown mall into a retail and residential neighborhood reminiscent of past eras.

The company that plans to purchase the 28-acre site, Southfield-based Charter Development LLC, hopes to begin construction next spring. Charter Development is going through a due-diligence process for the property’s purchase and hopes to secure city approval for the project within four months, said Doug Bock, the firm’s vice president and general manager.

Although redevelopment plans aren’t finalized, Charter Development has decided on a concept to create 60,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet of retail space for specialty retailers and to develop 200 residential units on the mall property through owner-occupied townhomes and second-story condominium lofts above the storefronts.

Brock said Charter Development wants to extend Western Avenue through the heart of the property, connecting Third Street and Shoreline Drive, to create a “central core” for downtown — which now lacks a focal point.

It also wants to re-establish First and Second Streets, Bock said. The project’s design and architecture, he said, will build on Muskegon’s history and heritage.

“It’s going to be tremendous,” Bock said of the “new downtown” that Charter Development hopes to create. “It’s going to remind you of downtown Muskegon of the past.”

In fact, it was 30 years ago that a public-private group closed First and Second Streets and roofed over a two-block stretch of Western, making it the concourse of an enclosed mall.

Bock could not say how much of an investment the project would require, although “it’s going to be expensive.”

Charter Development signed a purchase agreement Sept. 24 with the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp., a nonprofit organization formed last year to acquire the defunct Muskegon Mall to assure local control over the site’s eventual redevelopment. The corporation, which chose Charter Development late last year as the preferred developer of the mall property, consists of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce and the Paul C. Johnson Foundation.

Located in the heart of downtown, the mall property is seen as key to the business district’s revitalization. Demolition of many of the mall’s structures may begin next month.

Many hope the site’s redevelopment will serve as a trigger and model for other projects that extend well beyond just the downtown.

Charter Development, Bock said, is planning for such an outcome.

“This will really establish a downtown area and hopefully will be the catalyst to spread out into the entire community,” he said.

In conceptualizing plans for the project, Charter Development has sought to follow guidelines set down in the recent Imagine Muskegon planning process that envisions the development and redevelopment of downtown parcels in ways that create complementary uses and encourage the free flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Adhering to that vision is key to formulating a final redevelopment plan that will gain the support of city planners and the community, Bock said.

“We continue to have an understanding of what the city wants to see. Everybody’s on the same page,” he said. “We just need to come up with a project that is marketable and meets the needs of the city and the market’s needs.”

Charter Development took an active part in the city-sponsored Imagine Muskegon planning initiative. The company’s concept for the Muskegon Mall redevelopment reflects that participation, Imagine Muskegon co-chair Peter Sartorius said.

“What they’re trying to do is create a development that has popular support in the community,” Sartorius said. “There was a dynamic and a mutual influence and to some extent we’ve have a modicum of success.”

Charter Development’s conceptual plans, which Bock expects will become final within 60 days, will seek to create an environment that gives people “a reason to come downtown and a real friendly downtown area,” he said. One of Charter Development’s goals is to draw new people and businesses to work and live downtown, rather than relocating them from other neighborhoods in the city.

“We have to look at what’s best for the whole city,” Bock said. “We’re not looking to relocate people from one area of Muskegon to another area of Muskegon.”

That same thinking is seen in the lack of any significant office space in the conceptual plans. Charter Development intentionally is incorporating little office space in the project so as not to compete with Edison Landing, the high-tech commerce and residential park, or SmartZone, that’s beginning to take shape nearby along Muskegon Lake.

“There’s no reason we want competition for us from the SmartZone. It’s not good for the city,” Bock said.

Demolition of many of the former mall’s structures will begin soon.

The Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. recently awarded a demolition contract to Melching Inc. of Grand Rapids. Muskegon Construction Co. will manage the demolition, which could begin as early as Nov. 10.

All but five buildings on the site are slated for demolition. The exceptions are the former Century Club, the former Hackley/Comerica Bank building, the former Muskegon Savings Bank, National City Bank and Daniels Office Supply.

Those five buildings are all “under review” for their historic value and potential use in the mall’s redevelopment, and could still fall to make way for the project.

“While we believe in the preservation of any buildings that are important to the history of Muskegon, we also need to make sure that these same buildings have enough economic viability and consumer appeal that the purchaser will want to undertake the extensive renovation needed to preserve them,” said Chris McGuigan, president of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. “If they can’t be developed, then they will hinder the future of downtown Muskegon.”           

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