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Friday, July 30,2010

Another feather for REO Town

Land Bank sells old Ramon’s Restaurant to developer

by Andy Balaskovitz
New developments in REO Town keep pouring in. The latest is an agreement between the Ingham County Land Bank and a local environmental consultant to transform the old Ramon’s Mexican restaurant at 1146 S. Washington Ave. from asbestos-filled blight with natural skylights (holes in the roof) to a multi-use retail center.

Alan Hooper, president and chief geologist of Triterra, an environmental consulting firm in Old Town, agreed to pay $160,000 for the roughly 11,000-square-foot property, which will need some serious renovating before he attracts potential renters. That, Hooper says, is much more important than tearing it down and starting from scratch.

“It’s about saving old structures and retaining the character of things built 80 years ago instead of going for something brand new with no character (to the building),” Hooper said. “And the economics don’t make sense to tear it down most times.”

Hooper said the space is ideal for retail shops, restaurants or office incubator space. He has already been in talks about the possibility of a coffee shop.

Ramon’s closed in 2002 after 23 years and was replaced by South Town Food & Spirits until it closed a few years later after a fatal street shooting and other problems.

Hooper said the structure was originally three separate storefronts, but was connected as one large restaurant and banquet hall during the Ramon’s and South Town years, which is how it stands today. Hooper plans to recreate the three-store approach to attract a variety of renters and make it more consistent with nearby properties. He said this particular building has been a “stumbling block” in REO Town because of its size and deterioration.

“This property really has a lot going for it,” Hooper said, referring to good foot traffic, easy access to Interstate 496, on-site parking and free street parking. “It’s a good opportunity to take the worst building on the block and put it to good use.”

Hooper is still working on final project costs — mostly what it will take to clean it up — but so far he is investing in it alone. He hopes potential business owners may also be interested in being property owners and share building costs with him. But first he has to attract them, he said.

“We want to be able to show concepts and share visions of a final product as we get others involved,” Hooper said. “It’s hard to get people to buy into the after-picture when there’s a leaking roof.”

Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer and Land Bank chairman, said he and Hooper had been in talks about the former Ramon’s restaurant before the Lansing Board of Water and Light announced plans this month to redevelop the old Grand Trunk train station and build a natural gas power plant just down the block at Washington and South Street.  That development will bring about 180 jobs to the neighborhood. BWL’s plans were like icing on the cake for anyone interested in redeveloping in REO Town, he said.

“Obviously, we were tickled pink when the BWL plans were unveiled,” Schertzing said.

The Land Bank is also overseeing the demolition shortly of the old DeLuxe Inn, an eyesore of major proportions at Washington and I-496, the gateway to REO Town.

Schertzing said there is a “herd mentality” of potential investors in Lansing and particularly REO Town. “There are a number of things that fortuitously came together,” he said.

Hooper expects to complete due diligence of final project costs and design features within the next two months and plans to secure tenants “realistically” within 18 months.

Hooper is “personally and professionally” interested in rehabilitating this Brownfield site, being a geologist and an environmental consultant. Some days, Hooper said he merely generates reports for other investors on these types of properties.

“It’ll be exciting to see this transform,” he said.

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