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Wednesday, November 11,2009

Born again, or barn again?

Lansing’s new City Market faces opportunity and risk.

by Lawrence Cosentino

As a new City Market springs up along the banks of the Grand River downtown, Lansing has an addictive new winter pastime to set alongside the Sim City video game: Sim City Market.


It’s summer 2011. Food and flowers cascade from an overstuffed Lansing City Market onto the newly renovated riverfront. Patrons throng to the market on foot, by bike, by car, by kayak, by River Trail, attracted by a mix of specialty foods and local produce, savvy marketing, entertainment, and a panoramic view of the riverfront. Some savor a meal or sip wine at a bistro tucked into the market’s southwest corner. Developer Pat Gillespie’s new multi-story condominiums are shooting up a few yards away, jacking up the buzz and bustle. So many vendors clamor for a piece of the action that workers install a mezzanine. In another year, City Market Manager John Hooper tells Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero that he no longer needs the city’s $50,000 per year subsidy. Everybody wonders why the city waited so long to make the move.


Second round: Few people notice the new building from big one-way Cedar Street, and those who do are turned off by its plain metal shell. The economy keeps on tanking and Gillespie’s condos don’t go up soon enough. Vendors can’t sustain the new market’s higher rent. One man paddles a kayak to the market and gets a spot on the 6 p.m. news. Vendors use the market’s longer hours to catch up on their reading. Leases are dropped and the place becomes a money pit. Finally, Gillespie swoops in, takes the white elephant off the city’s hands, and uses it as a hangar for his private blimp.


Market games are fun for armchair speculators, but it won’t be a game when new market opens “soft” next month, with most vendors in place, followed by a grand opening in the spring. Vendors, city officials, market shoppers and supporters are dead serious about the once-in-a-century chance to reboot the troubled City Market as a riverfront “public urban market.”




One Acropolis, hold the Parthenon


“Some people see a barn on the river,” Hooper said on a visit to the new site two weeks ago. “I’m still ecstatic we have this. It’s going to offer us a whole new breath of fresh air in this market.”


“All I ask is that people not rush to judge,” Hooper said. “It’s a work in progress.”


Hooper predicted that the City Market might become the second spot people go when visiting Lansing, after the Capitol.


“It’s not a stretch. We have everything in place — the vendors, the potential customers,” he said over the roar of two steamrollers smoothing the sand in front of the main doorway.


Hooper said all but three of the market’s 44 vendors are moving to the new building. The East Lansing Food Co-op isn’t going. The owners of Green River Café left the restaurant business. Another longtime vendor, Anna Harris, often seen playing solitaire among her figurines and knickknacks.


Most of the other vendors are enthusiastic. Fresh produce vendor Nan Jasinowski has brought produce from Sweet Seasons Orchard in Jackson County to the market since June. “I’ve got a beautiful spot overlooking the river,” she said.


Breadmaker Neva Austin, with the market since August, loves the new site. “I’ll have ovens and work tables,” Austin said. “I’ll be able to bake on site and people can watch. The aroma will go all over.”


The newer vendors aren’t the only ones who are eager to go. Perhaps the most notable booster is veteran market cheese man Glenn Hills, born in April 1938, four months before the present City Market building was dedicated. Hills loves to tell people that he came to the old market on opening day “in a basket” and never left. He started his cheese booth at the City Market in May 1961 and has aged along with the Gouda, but he likes the new place.


“I don’t think there’ll be any tears shed here when the bowling ball hits these walls,” he said.


Hills said the new building’s open floor plan will even out the “good and bad” locations of the present H-shaped building, with its elongated segments, blocked views and dead spots.


“We’re gonna give it a good shot,” Hills said. “I think it can be successful over there.”


When you’re standing inside the new market shell, looking out, it’s easy to share Hooper’s enthusiasm.


The new market sits on a ridge with a panoramic view of the Grand River. The east bank below is newly clad in a stylish, angular array of embankments and walkways. (Strikingly modernistic light fixtures and stainless steel railings are coming.) In spring, seasonal growers will display their wares under huge 10-foot-wide umbrellas.


A plaza on the market’s southwest corner will fit about 20 tables for outdoor seating that may have the best view in town, with the redeveloped Ottawa Power Station as its centerpiece.


Hooper said a restaurant and bistro with a liquor license has “committed” to that corner spot, although he couldn’t name the vendor.


About $2.3 million from the state Department of Environmental Equality’s Clean Michigan Initiative went to develop the first 25 feet on each side of the river. The new market’s pedestal is impressive — a Lansing version of the Acropolis.


But the structure on top is no Parthenon.




Two words: pole barn


After ogling the riverfront with Hooper from the commanding heights of the new market, I went down to the river to look back up at the market with two Lansing architects, Rick McKinstry and Francis Wilmore of Architectural Solutions Limited.


First, we watched workers slap glass walls on the modernistic annex to the redeveloped Ottawa Power Station. Then we swiveled our heads to the east bank.


It took McKinstry less than two minutes to say the “b” word.


“It looks like a pole barn,” he said. “This is something you would see in an outlying rural community.”


Wilmore said he liked the site and position of the market, facing downtown.


“But it’s so standardized,” he said. “There’s no excitement there. It’s a sad missed opportunity.”


McKinstry said the city could “definitely” have done better, even within its budget.


“It lacks downtown presence, especially being across the river from such a monumental development,” he said. Hooper admitted the building is “functional.”


From the start, the city was determined to limit the cost of the new market to $1.59 million, the amount Gillespie paid for the old City Market property.


According to Hooper, Studio Intrigue’s David Vanderklok designed the building, with input from Hooper, consultant Fidel Delgado of the United States Department of Agriculture, and Eric Hart, former president of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, or LEPFA, which runs the market.


It’s no coincidence that Delgado’s design for the Santa Fe City Market looks similar to Lansing’s.


“We used that as somewhat of a model,” Hooper said. “For the newer city markets, that’s the look, unless you’re renovating an old building.”


Hooper
said that he and the design team decided to go for “the largest
structure the site could hold.” The original design had brick facing,
two banks of windows and a mezzanine.


The
first round of bids came in $700,000 over budget. A second round of
bids came in from $200,000 to $300,000 high, according to Scott Keith,
interim president of LEPFA.


Hooper said he and Vanderklok were in a “state of shock” at the bids.


Local developer Gene Townsend said that level of sticker shock is “not an uncommon problem.”


“It happens over and over,” Townsend said.


Townsend
said it takes a “substantial effort” to make a precise line-item cost
estimate “at the stage of conceptual plans.” Unless that is done, he
said, “it’s going to come in higher than anybody thought.”


Keith said a preliminary analysis is the architect’s responsibility, “and they did that.”


Vanderklok
agreed to talk to City Pulse last week, but two days later he told me
the city asked him not to, because of its confidentiality agreement
with Studio Intrigue.


The
market’s money troubles deepened when the project ran into unforeseen
problems under the ground. Crews running a water main to the building
ran into an old scale once used to weigh railroad cars. Another crew
found an old brick foundry chimney buried under Museum Drive.


Hooper said the debris and soil contained mercury and arsenic from old plating factories in the area.


“All that material just can’t be taken to the landfill,” Hooper said. “It has to be taken to Granger’s contaminated soil area.”


Civil engineers told Keith the old scale might create a sinkhole under the parking lot or interfere with drainage.


According
to Keith, soil-related costs, including buildup and cleanup, ate up “a
substantial part of the budget” for the new market, between $200,000
and $300,000.


In
summer 2009, the design team went back to the drawing board to cut
costs. (Keith called it “value engineering.”) The 80-foot-wide building
was shortened from 166 to 139 feet long, reducing the area from 13,500
to 11,100 square feet. A community kitchen for cooking demonstrations
and other events was taken out. A planned mezzanine, or partial second
floor, was taken out. (An
elevator shaft, elevator pit and control room are in place and ready
for duty, should the market grow in the future.) A pavilion for covered
outdoor seating and a plan for geothermal heating were also eliminated.
Hooper said the geothermal system would have paid for itself in 14
years, but the capital outlay was just too much.


City officials and Hooper say there’s always time to retrofit most of the line items lost.


“If something isn’t right, there’s no reason we can’t add something to the building,” Trezise said. “We’ll just keep adding on.”


For
his part, Hooper is ready to invite the city to a slow-motion barn
raising. “If the people of Lansing decide the building would be better
with bricks, all right, let’s have a fundraiser,” he said. “Music and
cash bar, $10 cover charge, all proceeds going to brick fascia on the
market.”


But Hooper acknowledged the building isn’t what he envisioned.


“The
city had a great opportunity to put in something that’s going to last
for generations,” Hooper said. “That’s the short-sightedness I see
here.”


Twice the
budget, Hooper said, would have brought the city a “crown jewel.” He
would have liked to see the city bond for another million, but Trezise
called the idea “ridiculous.”


“It
was a bird in hand,” Trezise said. “If we’d done a bond, it wouldn’t
have passed last year, this year, next year. Another administration 10
years from now would be trying to figure out what to do with the City
Market.”




Inside the apple


Among
market vendors, East Lansing Food Co-op manager Dave Finet is among the
new market’s few doubters. He said he lost money there during the past
year, and the move was a good time to “re-evaluate.”


“I’m
not sure what’s going to make this market different,” he said.
“Besides, we want to support local growers, and it’s gotten away from
being a farmers’ market to being a specialty market.”


To
Hooper, that’s the whole point.


“We aren’t a farmers’ market,” Hooper
said. “It’s important that people understand that. We may have been a
farmers’ market a hundred years ago, or 30 years ago, but we’re
reinventing ourselves.”


Hooper
said local growers are still crucial, but the mix of local products,
from hot foods to art to artisan yarns or soaps, has expanded under his
watch.


“We will
operate as a professional, public, urban market, a la Reading Terminal
Market in Philadelphia, Milwaukee Market, Pike Place in Seattle,” he
said.


Strict
retail hours are the centerpiece of the market’s new business plan. The
market will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m.
to 5 p.m. Saturday. Vendors must be there when the market is open.


“We have to give customers what they want, not, as has been the case so often in the past, what the vendors want,” Hooper said.


“Everybody has heard it over the decades — you go over there and the building is closed, or the booth is empty,” Trezise said.


Bob Falsetta, a City Market produce vendor since 1960, demonstrates the mindset Hooper is fighting.


“The
longer you’re open, the more you’re spread out,” Falsetta objected last
week. “If people know you’re open certain hours, they now they got to
be there then or they ain’t coming. I guess they don’t think it’s going
to be a city market, it’s going to be a grocery store.”


Bingo — Trezise called the new market “an eclectic grocery store for businesses and neighborhoods in and around downtown.”


Still,
Falsetta says he’ll “give it a try.” “If everybody else does, I guess
you have to,” he said. “If it proves this 7 o’clock stuff works, I’ll
surely admit I’m wrong.”


“Change is hard,” Hooper said philosophically.


Eventually, Hooper said, he’d like to see the market operate seven days a week, 12 hours a day.


Hooper
said the market could also expand its marketing, education and
entertainment schedule. He said the marketing budget would go from
$8,000 for 2008-09 to $14,000 for the grand opening year.


In
sum, market planners hope that the spectacular site, the reliable
hours, the mix of goods, the boost in promotion, and special outdoor
events will combine to target the 35,000-plus people who work within a
halfmile of the market, plus a few hundred thousand people in greater
Lansing who may be ready for a different shopping experience.


“We’ll
entice them over,” Hooper said.


With the extra traffic and lower
overhead projected for the new building, Hooper hopes the market will
break even within a year and go off the $50,000 city subsidy within
three years. He called the hike in vendor rent from $1 a square foot to
$1.40 a “non-issue.” City Market rent compares favorably to communities
such as Flint ($1.80 a square foot), Milwaukee ($2.80) and North Market
in Columbus ($1.80 to $3). None of the seven vendors I spoke to said
they were worried about rent.


Trezise
said it’s important to consider the Market, the riverfront dress-up,
the surrounding Market Place development and the Accident Fund project
as part of an overall package.


“The
key was not just building a new City Market, but finding someone else
to pay for it, and placing it as part of an overall urban village, a
sense of place,” he said.


If and when Gillespie’s condos go up on the old City Market site, they will be yards away from the back of the building.


The
condos won’t just bring people and activity. They’ll also cover the
stark east wall of the market, which will only get uglier when it
bristles with vents and duct work for hot food vendors along that wall.


Trezise said the building’s starkness this fall was just a “teenager phase.”


In spring, he said, when all of the landscaping, green awnings and outdoor umbrellas in place, the market will flower.


Hooper, Trezise and Keith stressed that everything, from the signs to the hours to the mix of vendors, is open to change.


“It’s
an evolving, organic entity,” Hooper said, smiling at his own choice of
words. “It’s not like you open a Starbucks — here it is, it’s just like
the one down the street.”




A new lease


Friday
afternoon, a cheerful man in a dress shirt and ponytail came to
Hooper’s office. Hooper handed Kevin Nichols a lease agreement for 2010
— the first to be signed for the new market.


Nichols
and his wife, Karen, support themselves and four children with their
two stands at the market, a handmade jewelry shop and a fresh produce
stand.


“I think it
will renew interest that may have been lost over the years, and
hopefully bring in whole new clientele we’ve never had before,” Nichols
said. “I’m tickled.”


He signed the lease and flew out the door.


Hooper,
a more reflective type, took a minute to consider an aerial photo taken
on the market’s opening day, Aug. 26, 1938, hanging on his office wall.
Somewhere in that building, baby Glenn Hill is crying in a basket.


In the background of the photo, the bare girders of the Ottawa Power Station, then under construction, are poking up.


“Seventy-one
years later, that building is being totally refurbished, and we have
another new market,” Hooper said. “History’s repeating itself.”

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