Even as East Lansing’s Mayor Mark Meadows, Downtown Development Authority Chair Peter Dewan, and others have expressed praise for the proposed Center City District redevelopment proposal, owners of small businesses in the proposal area tell ELi they’re worried that the reality of two years’ construction might put them under.
A press release about the proposal put out by the City of East Lansing and LEAP (the Lansing Economic Area Partnership) quoted Meadows as saying, “This project proposal is about bringing a long-discussed vision for Downtown East Lansing to life. Over the last 30 years, East Lansing leaders and residents have collectively sought to create a true main street, where diversity in all its forms coalesces in the heart of downtown. We are on the cusp of realizing this dream, and I want to say thank you to the Ballein Family and Harbor Bay Real Estate for their partnership and efforts in working to redevelop this critically important area of the city.”
But multiple small-business owners I spoke with in the project area last week told me they feel as if the Balleins and the City are chasing big-store chain retail in a manner that may spell the end of their locally-owned businesses. That’s because they believe the significant street and parking disruption that will be caused by the project—as well as the noise and dirt from the construction—will drive their customers away for up to two years.
Several said if they do survive, they have a hard time imagining their customers wanting to use a parking garage to visit their businesses. They said that people in the Midwest in small cities think of parking garages as difficult and unsafe.
Few wanted to speak to me on the record with their names and business affiliations. They feared both retribution and bringing negative attention to their businesses. But all hit on the same themes of anxiety, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness.
I tried several ways to find a business owner in the area feeling positive about the project—I left notes for those I did not reach and even asked developer Brad Ballein to help me identify local business owners who felt optimistic about the project—but I encountered only negative views about the major redevelopment plan.
The most neutral statement came from one individual who told me that, given that it’s a city, you just have to “roll with the punches.”
Two people willing to talk on the record were Linda and Tom Dufelmeier, owners of Mackerel Sky, a “gallery of contemporary craft” on M.A.C. Avenue. Their building will not be demolished if the proposal goes through, but they believe the construction may make it so difficult for their customers to come to the store, the business may suffer irreparable harm.
“It’s going to put us all out of business on this block, except maybe for Beggar’s Banquet” on Abbot Road, Linda said.
The Dufelmeiers told me that already, during retail’s peak season of the winter holidays, the project planners were doing core ground sampling on City Lot 1 for construction planning, shutting off important parking for many of the store’s customers and interrupting the Dufelmeiers’ ability to do business.
With the parking garage under the Marriot also closed for reconstruction, parking would be significantly more limited in the area during construction of the Center City District project.
The Dufelmeiers also told me they worry that businesses being forced to move, like Charlie Kang’s, will not be able to survive because of the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to relocate a business and because customers don’t always follow a business through a move. (The Dufelmeiers experienced the challenges of a move when they reclocated their store from Albert Avenue to M.A.C. for the construction of St. Anne Lofts.)
They questioned how an entertainment business like Lou and Harry’s can survive when major construction work is going on right next door and when the place where customers expect to park is taken away for two years.
Business owners in the area told me that the construction of St. Anne Lofts and The Residences (the HopCat building) on Albert Avenue caused serious downturns in revenues from which they’ve only just recovered. Four business owners I spoke with about the Center City District construction plan were so upset that they were brought to the verge of tears talking about the situation.
Linda Dufelmeier said that the Balleins, the local developers of the project, talk about bringing business diversity downtown, but that what they will bring is more national chains. “The fact that I’ve invested my life in the downtown doesn’t mean anything to them,” she told me.
She and other owners were particularly disturbed at how the new project was announced with a press conference by Mayor Mark Meadows, and questioned why he appears to be so much more enthusiastic about this project than about dealing with the vacant properties on Grand River Avenue just west of Abbot Road.
Linda Dufelmeier told me, “I’m so bitterly disappointed in Mark Meadows.” In a follow-up email she explained, “I think he is not handling proposed projects in a neutral manner with the good of the City in mind.”
She added, “One alarm was raised when we read that the City would continue to own the land under the proposed parking ramp on Lot 1, avoiding a vote of the people on the land use. The other alarm was announcing a project of such proportions when the already blighted properties continue to be in limbo.”
I asked Meadows to respond, and he did: “I am not neutral in my approach to projects. I am an advocate for the best deal for our citizens. Period. And am unafraid of making developers unhappy, no matter who they are.”
He said he sees the retention of ownership of Lot 1 as keeping leverage and an important asset for the City. “As to the core samples and emptying businesses,” Meadows said, “that’s the developer’s decision. They have a game plan.”
He says that the Center City District plan “has nothing to do with the Convexity project” at the blighted corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. He says he did the press conference for the Balleins’ project because he was asked to do so, and “If Convexity asked” him to do the same, “I would have said sure. I am excited about both projects.”
Meadows told ELi, “I always act on the up and up. I don’t even know if the Ballein project [Center City] will be approved and I won’t decide my vote until the Planning Commission, the DDA [Downtown Development Authority] and the BRA [Brownfield Redevelopment Authority] make their decision.”
Said Meadows, “The devil is always in the details and while I love the idea, I still have to get comfortable with all the economics of the project.”
Asked for his take on the proposed project, Peter Dewan, DDA Chair, said, “I see multiple benefits of having a $132 million investment in the City of East Lansing’s downtown. The project addresses a number of key aspects of the City of East Lansing’s Strategic Initiatives and Comprehensive Plan for our downtown including diversified housing, new retail options and an urban grocery store component. In addition, it is estimated that the project will further stimulate the City of East Lansing’s economy with the creation of 400 to 500 temporary construction jobs and 75 permanent jobs.”
Dewan, who joined Meadows at the press conference announcement, added, “The diversified housing options of the Center City District proposal will help the City of East Lansing become a more vibrant community. A multi-generational population and greater density in the downtown will drive customers to existing businesses while acting as a catalyst for future investment and creation of new businesses to support this new population of citizens.”
The project will be discussed at a public hearing at East Lansing’s Planning Commission this Wednesday evening, March 8.
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Disclosure: Linda and Tom Dufelmeier and Peter Dewan are donors to East Lansing Info. To see a list of who supports us, click here.