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Big Ideas For Georgetown's Mall

Traveling south along Packard Avenue in Ann Arbor, you can't miss the big hole that the Georgetown Mall makes. Now desolate, it's like dozens of other moldering second-tier strip centers across Michigan. What's going to happen to them? They can't all become burn-it-down practice for the fire department.
 
Suppose something great could be done at the Georgetown site - assuming no budget or planning constraints. Suppose people thought big and unconventional, choosing the site as an example for new urbanist transformation. Should we build a film studio complex? Retail-work lofts – luxury-goods workshops where skilled craftsmen create and sell high-end leather goods or adorable winter hats?
 
What if we built a dense, 15-story mixed-use condo building with an Olympic pool/skating rink? Or a locavore "food hive" with artisanal food makers and a huge Parisian-style food hall? How about a commissary for preparing gourmet happy meals for tots on airplanes and a fat Delta contract to go with it?
 
Dream big. The sky's the limit. The site has a lot going for it, despite current conditions. It's in town and on a major transportation route. Depending on what goes in, there's strong potential neighborhood support. The site is large – around four acres – and near existing housing and the popular Buhr Park.
 
The minuses? The existing buildings are set far back from the street, in a sea of parking spaces. The site slopes down sharply from Packard Road to Page Avenue on the west. The current owner seems totally indifferent.

Nevertheless, the site has good bones, a solid foundation to build on. So why are the most outlandish and innovative ideas limited to this author? Is it stolid midwestern practicality? Or a lack of imagination that delivers suggestions that, well, lack a sense of revolution… or even evolution.
 
"If the existing building were demolished and the new building built close to the street with parking in back or maybe underneath, it would be better," says Doug Allen of Peter Allen & Associates, Ann Arbor real estate developers. "If we were the developer, we'd build a two-to-four story mixed-use development with retail on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and residential above for grad students and active seniors."
 
To handle the grade changes, you could put in nice retention ponds, something green in the back. How about an Olympic swimming pool? Not out of the question, he says.
 
Peter Allen, the name partner in Peter Allen & Associates, fills in the picture: "Because it's a straight shot to campus down Packard on a bus, the site might appeal to grad students. Or you might have a market for senior care. Retail (on the site) needs a combination of food convenience, drugstore, neighborhood restaurant, neighborhood bar."
 
"Ann Arbor is becoming a place for workers to say, 'I think I can stay here. I can work, play, live in this town.' We're getting to critical mass, helped by our attitude towards culture, recreation, and environmental thoughtfulness" the senior Allen continues.
 
Transit connections between downtown, the hospitals, north campus, and the former Pfizer complex, along with the imminent arrival of east-west rail to the airport and Dearborn/Detroit and the potential for trolley service will transform Ann Arbor – and soon, he says.
 
If Stewart Beal had the project, he'd try to resurrect it as a neighborhood retail center with housing. (The most recent configuration was retail and office.)
 
"I used to live just a couple of blocks from there. Kroger was great there – there's another one nearby but it was nice to be there in one minute," says Beal, who is president of Beal Properties, a real estate development firm. "I'm a big fan of mixed-use development. Maybe build something like the small center on Zeeb Road across from Meijer with first floor businesses and retail and second floor condos. Put a park on top of Kroger and surround it with two or three stories of housing."
 
People who live in the neighborhood near Georgetown mourn the shopping center's demise. George Fisher and his wife, Kari Magill, live just off Independence and frequently walked to the center. "We both feel the loss of all the basic services that were there a year ago. We'd like to have groceries, a post office, and a drug store within walking distance again. We also used the antique store and the gift shop at various times," Fisher says.
 
They'd like to see a deli or florist or most of all a brewpub/restaurant overlooking an outdoor plaza where the store patrons could enjoy outdoor meals. In winter, it could be flooded for ice skating.
 
"Maybe the pub could sponsor an outdoor movie on summer nights. I understand the reluctance of a big supermarket chain to build a smaller-than-usual store…but every location needn't carry a full line of groceries or pharma to be effective and useful to its customers," Fisher says.
 
Some people mention Trader Joe's, an unlikely possibility unless the current store decides to move from its current location. However, a specialty food store could meet the neighborhood need for basics, as well as draw foodies from other parts of town.

Anyone who has visited the Whole Foods Market on London's Kensington High Street
knows Ann Arbor food resources continue to be lacking, in spite of their inflated self-image. The urban, three-story food hall is a landmark of good eating – and it has no parking.
 
Doug Allen says the main theme of a redeveloped Georgetown Mall should be to give people what they need without going downtown. "A grocery store, any sort of civic use and common amenities so people feel relaxed there," he says. "Don't just go home, park your car, sleep and go downtown for entertainment."
 
Richard Murphy, Ypsilanti city planner, offers up a more ambitious view when he calls the Georgetown site "ideal for something urbanist, a shopping cluster with a mix of commercial spaces with residential, offices, or townhouses."
 
"When we talk about needing to look at places other than just downtown as walkable, human-scale neighborhood nodes, it's an opportunity for that," Murphy says.

What does he mean? Think of a city like Boston, Chicago, or Denver, and how individual neighborhoods outside the downtown have small commercial and retail districts linked to the residential streets.  Georgetown could become a transformative hub, eschewing the strip mall-style development of traditional suburbs in favor of a neighborhood that attracts both businesses and residents while promoting greater walkability.

Of course, given our current economy and the impact of the credit crunch, there are many who would dismiss talk of ambitious reinvention as pie-in-the-sky foolishness. And maybe they’re right. Or maybe the downturn means that now, with the stakes so low, is the perfect time to take a risk and try something innovative and new.
 
The most radical suggestion for the Georgetown site comes from Jim Tischler, a planning and redevelopment consultant based in Monroe. He describes an approach that has been discussed in urban planning circles for several years. It's one which is gaining traction in some heavily blighted urban centers: demolish functionally obsolete strip centers and let the sites lie fallow until the economy recovers sufficiently to support redevelopment. Demolition costs would be subsidized by the state. This tactic is sometimes linked to strategies that build density in a community's downtown core, limiting cheap alternatives for commercial or retail space.
 
In the worst case, if the economy doesn't recover for years, Tischler says the land can be converted to agriculture, raising crops for alternate energy use, such as saw grass. Echoing "brownfield" as a term for contaminated urban sites, such distressed or dead centers are known as grayfield sites.
 
Parallel to that idea, he says urban planners have embraced an outlook that would reverse the preferential planning approval treatment now given to single-family construction on greenfield sites. Instead, grayfield or brownfield redevelopment projects would enjoy administrative approval, permitted by right.  "Real estate developers have to grasp this. It requires participation by landowners and city planning. There are social equity issues of property blocks lying fallow at least for the next two years," Tischler says.
 
He estimates only four to 10 percent of real estate industry professionals now share this viewpoint – including contractors, engineers, surveyors and other associated specialties. Their numbers will need to grow to 20 to 50 percent of the industry before we see grayfield redevelopment on a large scale.

Even big-idea developers are downbeat at the moment. That means Georgetown Mall will be back-burnered even if a turnaround comes quickly. But the strong neighborhood, the mall's presence on the bus line linking Ypsi to Ann Arbor, and the scent of a bargain (it could be sold for back taxes, if the worst case comes to pass) will help Georgetown move up quickly on the development to-do list. The question remains: Could big plans mean a big future?


Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Neel Hajra. Send feedback here.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Photos:

The Back View of Georgetown Mall

The Packard View of Georgetown Mall

Doug Allen

George Fisher and his wife Kari Magill in Front of Georgetown

Georgetown Mall

Georgetown Mall




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