Downtown Muskegon Back On Track

February 2, 2004
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MUSKEGON — The pending resolution over the fate of five old buildings on the site of the former Muskegon Mall should revive plans to redevelop the property into a new residential and commercial neighborhood in the heart of downtown Muskegon.

The site’s owner, the nonprofit Downtown Muskegon Development Corp., will agree to incorporate the facades of two structures into designs for the development as long as the City of Muskegon does not attach any historical designation or restrictions to any of the buildings. The resolution, which still needs the approval of the Muskegon City Commission, will enable the downtown development group to bring Southfield-based Charter Development back into the project.

After working with the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. for more than a year, Charter Development stepped away from the project in late November to avoid getting caught up in an emerging debate over the possible preservation of the five older buildings. The debate brought redevelopment of the 23-acre mall site to a temporary standstill as a resolution was sought.

Chris McGuigan, president of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, which is a partner in the downtown development group, was confident the issue would get resolved and Charter Development would return to the project, putting the mall site’s redevelopment back on track.

Charter Development, she said, plans to reinstate a purchase agreement with the corporation once the city commission signs off on the deal to use the facades of the Century Club and Muskegon Savings Bank buildings and raze those structures and the three others to make way for redeveloping the mall site.

“I anticipated it would work out this way because the larger good is shared by everybody,” McGuigan said. “It was the community seeking the right solution. Together we figured out the optimal solution. It reclaims our history and still allows us to claim our future.”

In addition to the community foundation, partners in the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. include the Paul C. Johnson Foundation and the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.

While all the buildings themselves are rundown and would cost far too much to rehabilitate to make them useful, the Century Club and Muskegon Savings Bank facades do speak to Muskegon’s heritage and history and are worth preserving, McGuigan said.

“These facades are pretty. They evoke a memory of our past, and because they help us remember a traditional downtown that we love, we want to keep them,” she said. “If we can work with these, we’ll keep them.”

The next step, presuming the city commission accepts the resolution that a study panel unanimously endorsed late last month, is for Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. and Charter Development to finalize plans, line up financing, submit a site plan to the city by early spring, and formally seek zoning approval for the project, McGuigan said.

According to preliminary schematic plans drafted last year, Charter Development envisions turning the mall property into an urban village by extending Western Avenue through the heart of the property, re-opening First and Third streets leading toward Muskegon Lake, and developing 75,000 square feet of commercial space and 200 residential units via surrounding town homes and upper-floor lofts above storefronts.

Frank Bednarek, vice president for Hooker/DeJong, the Muskegon architectural firm working with Charter Development to design the project, said the final development plan will incorporate the vision formulated in the recent Imagine Muskegon community planning process that encourages development and redevelopment that builds on downtown Muskegon’s history and heritage and creates complementary uses and the free flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

In showing off ideas for the mall site, Bednarek emphasized that plans are still evolving and will continue to do so. Market demands will dictate specific building sizes and heights and architectural designs, he said.

“We’re still in concept here,” Bednarek, whose company was a consultant in the Imagine Muskegon process, said recently in unveiling preliminary schematic designs for the mall site.

“It is a work in progress. This is not the final piece, but there are some elements that are very related to the development,” Bednarek said. “Obviously, the market is going to drive this to the large extent.”

Though the façades of the Century Club and Muskegon Savings Bank buildings are usable, saving them comes with a cost. Using the facades will add to the cost of the commercial space developed using those facades, Bednarek said.           

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