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Wednesday, October 13,2010

Reinventing Reo Town

Pat Gillespie unveils a new plan for the old Dalmatians; the latest in a string of new developments in the historic neighborhood

by Andy Balaskovitz

What do you get when a prominent developer with deep pockets takes interest in a tiny, shuttered café in a part of town once bustling with autoworkers, now trying to establish itself with artists, students and entrepreneurs?


In REO Town’s case, you get Pat Gillespie buying the old Dalmatians Firehouse Grille, only to leave its development vision up to anyone who wants a say in how it looks and operates.


Gillespie has a purchase agreement that will be finalized in the next week or so for the diner once frequented by local police and firefighters. From there, a 90-day social media blitz will seek input from anyone who has a vision for Dalmatians, 1107 S. Washington Ave. A rendering by Studio Intrigue Architects previews the new exterior, which will include a false second story, outdoor seating and potentially a walk-up food window. The façade art will be interchangeable.


However, there are no plans in place for what will be served or when it will operate — it doesn’t even have a name yet.


Josh Hovey, a spokesman for Gillespie, said the diner is functional, complete with tables, chairs, cookware and stoves for cooking. But he said Gillespie wanted to go a different route.


“What should we serve? What should it be called?


Basically we want to open that up to social media,” Hovey said.


He could find no case studies that show a diner — from concept to end product — created only on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.


The project is housed on www.REOeatsproject.com, where a question of the week is posted, along with a general feedback section. This week’s question is ‘What should the theme of The REO Eats Project diner be?’ and gives a list of five suggestions and an ‘other’ category.


“A lot of restaurants and diners open and the owners have a vision for it,” Hovey said. “But that doesn’t mean the community will support it.”


Hovey said a realistic goal is to receive 100 to 200 ideas for the diner, though input will be welcome from “Japan, California and Lansing — as long as a conversation is generated.”


It helps that the diner is already furnished, Hovey said. The hardest part will be sifting through the ideas to pick ones that gel, as well as lining up an operator and chef for the diner, he added.


For Gillespie, who is in the middle of contentious redevelopments downtown and in the eastside neighborhood over potential tax incentives and labor agreements, REO Town is in his sights, Hovey said.


“Pat sees a lot of opportunity there. He sees the timing is right — REO Town is poised for some growth,” Hovey said.


And that seems to be the consensus in REO Town right now from developers, business owners, Realtors and residents. Everyone agrees the new Lansing Board of Water and Light cogeneration plant and headquarters at the old train depot was the real game-changer to get this ball rolling. But it’s still early, traffic along Washington Avenue is hardly bustling, and prostitution and violence are in the not-so-distant past, when the ambitious development of a former bowling alley in the heart of it was converted into the Cadillac Club, whose failure resulted in a multi-million-dollar loss.


REO Town is in a visioning stage, and one that local planners hope involves a diverse set of opinions.


It was about 4 p.m. Friday when Dan Medrano and Roxanne Nye were sharing Bud Lights at a booth in their latest business venture, the REO Town Grille at 1147 S. Washington Ave. It was the end of the workday and the two were in good spirits.


Maybe it was because the weekend was here, but it also could have been excitement over their new business venture. It also may have been the buzz gaining steam throughout their neighborhood.


It was a beautiful late afternoon and the front windows let in a tolerable amount of sunlight. Through the letters on the glass you could see construction crews across the street digging a large hole in preparation for a mixed-use commercial and residential development on the 1100 block of Washington Avenue.


Nye, who was the previous owner of Dalmatians until April, moved up the block to expand. After starting out the REO Town Grille as a pizzeria, she adapted her business in preparation for BWL clientele. Now she serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a joint operating license with the REO Town Bar next door, so she can serve alcohol too.


Referred to sometimes as “REO Town Rox,” Nye has lived in REO Town for seven years and knows its ups and downs.


“Years ago I was telling prostitutes to move along (outside Dalmatians),” Nye said. “Then the community started coming together.”


Citing neighborhood festivals that started about five years ago, she said REO Town became a victim of the economy “the same as everyone else.” But with the demolition of the decrepit Deluxe Inn, the formation of a business incubator and Art Alley, Nye said she is as excited as ever to be in REO Town.


Across the street from Nye on Washington Avenue is the former Ramon’s Mexican restaurant that local environmental consultant Alan Hooper purchased from the Ingham County Land Bank in July. Hooper bought the property for $160,000 with plans for mixed residential and commercial use. He said construction won’t start until at least the end of the year.


Priscilla Holmes, a REO Town resident for nearly 40 years and landlord of 12 properties clustered south of the railroad tracks, sees the waves of change building.


“I moved here in 1972 and discovered I had moved into the ghetto. I was not amused,” Holmes said. “But the developers are coming — they must think we have a future.”


Holmes, a former director of the REO Town Commercial Association, recently started volunteering her time at neighborhood “visioning” sessions, which are moderated by Lansing City Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar.


Holmes recalls the same time as Nye about five or six years ago when the city invested in the physical appearance of REO Town, purchasing historic-looking street lights and repaving Washington Avenue.


But it was still missing the people. That would require a sense of place, which she said is more identifiable in a place like Old Town, but is growing in REO Town.


“With the (Deluxe Inn) graffiti project” — when artists were invited to do their things on the walls of the soon-to-be-demolished motel — “all of a sudden REO Town is on the map, and we like it,” she said.


Kristen Brown, a Realtor for Choice Realty who has a house on the market at 117 South St., agrees.


“There’s tons of activity. People are excited about what’s going to happen in REO Town,” she said. “Everyone I have spoken to is very excited.”


Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, who also chairs the Ingham Co. Land Bank, is waiting to say REO Town has bounced back until “the paint colors change” and he sees properties redone and open.


But the occupancy rate is promising, he said, pointing to the two large apartment buildings just south of the old Deluxe Inn that are nearly full.


“If you stand on the northern end of REO Town throughout the day, just about
constantly there are students walking back and forth from home to
class,” Schertzing said. Furthermore: “One of the things that has been
noticeable since the (BWL) plant (announcement) is essentially all of
the for sale signs have come down.”


Two
Cooley Law School students backed up Schertzing’s claims. Rita Jackman,
25, and Sammy Said, 28, moved in together at the REO Town Place
apartments above Studio Intrigue about four months ago. They like REO
Town’s quietness and close proximity to school. They do, however, share
concerns about crime.


“We have seen prostitution at night and cops running people down here,” Jackman said pointing across the apartment parking lot.


Holmes agrees that REO Town has had its ups — and certainly its downs — over the years. But for her, perhaps the time is right for a new vision.


“We had concerns 20, 10 years ago,” Holmes said. “Now it seems like the world is our oyster.”

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