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Wednesday, January 12,2011

Colonial revival

Neighbors rally around resurrecting the Colonial Village Shopping Center. But is another supermarket in the cards?

by Andy Balaskovitz
When the L&L Food Center closed at the Colonial Village Shopping Center Nov. 27, Margaret Kingsbury wasted little time rounding up input from neighbors. She wanted to know how the neighborhood would recover from losing the staple of its old-fashioned shopping center.

“When I found out they closed, I thought, ‘We need to do something about this,” said Kingsbury, who lives at 3333 Brisbane Drive.


So she did.


With the help of Lansing City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar and Facebook, Kingsbury organized the first neighborhood forum on Dec. 2. About 40 people showed up, including Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp.


At the second meeting on Dec. 9, 110 people showed. They brainstormed ideas for potential businesses.


“I believe we have enough community support that we can do this,” Kingsbury said.


“This,” to Kingsbury and residents, means repopulating the Colonial Village Shopping Center, which is on Mount Hope Avenue between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Pleasant Grove Road in southwestern Lansing. It has been narrowed down to the China Garden restaurant, a PNC bank branch and a Rite Aid.


Ideally, residents want to see a grocer come back. This was emphasized at the latest forum on Thursday, where about 60 people attended.


To the surprise of some neighbors, the building owner also attended Thursday’s meeting.


Craig Singer, of Milford Singer and Co. in Bloomfield Hills, said he came because he has never seen this kind of community participation trying to lure business back. As the property owner, that’s much to his benefit.


“This is the first time I was called by the community asking, ‘How can we help?’” said Singer, who has owned the center for about 25 years.


As for their ideas, Singer said they are great “conceptually” but in reality it will “come down to businesses interested in opening in mid-Michigan. But it’s still worth it.”


As for another supermarket coming back?


“The idea of people shopping at the supermarket isn’t what it used to be,” Singer said. “Neither is old-fashioned retail.”


Singer said that’s what makes Colonial Village a tough sell to businesses that aren’t from around here.


“Traditional and old-fashioned is tough to sell over the phone,” he said. “And unfortunately, supermarkets this size aren’t looking to expand.”


Perhaps they are just victims of the big box store revolution, he said, where you can buy virtually everything you need from one 100,000-square-foot store.


“In a way, that’s what happened to this supermarket. Little nibbles chipping away at the market,” he said.


L&L leased 22,300 square feet from Singer, while the old video store next door was 6,700 square feet. Even if you combined the two, he added, it’d still be at “the low end of normal” for the size of modern supermarkets.


Indeed, it’s not easy being a relatively small grocery store owner these days.


Steve Scheffel, co-owner of Goodrich’s Shop-Rite in the Trowbridge Plaza in East Lansing, said you have to be really small, really big or have a “niche” market to make it in the grocery business.


“You can’t be in the middle — there’s no room,” Scheffel said. “It’s really an endangered species (small, independent grocers).”


Scheffel noted the impact the Levandowski family had on the greater Lansing area. The Levandowskis owned the L&L brand until it went into receivership Dec. 14 to Amherst Partners, a merger and acquisitions firm in Birmingham.


Sheldon Stone, a partner at Amherst, said the four remaining stores will likely be auctioned off on Feb. 2. First, he’ll need an Ingham County Circuit Court order to hold the auction, but he expects that to happen. Stone said there are 15 interested “grocers and strategic buyers” looking at the facilities in Lansing, Haslett, Okemos and East Lansing. Interested buyers can go for one or up to all of the properties if they choose.


However, the four closed locations, such as Colonial Village, will not be auctioned off. Amherst chose not to take over the leases from L&L at those properties.


“I’m sure the landlord will want to re lease the space,” Stone said.


Scheffel also spoke of the overall decline in local, independently owned retailers — victims of large, one-stop-shop corporations and online shopping. He remembers when there were grocery stores and cafes “every three or four blocks,” fine clothing, books and music stores.


“I think the community loses that vibrancy when that happens. It’s not a good or a bad thing, but it changes things,” he said.


But Willie Vinson, a 20-year Colonial Village resident, wants just that.


Vinson moved to a home four blocks away from the shopping center because at the time it had a gift shop, shoe store, video store, hairdresser and, “of course, the supermarket.”


“I’m looking for an updated, old-fashioned feel,” she said. “I just want the center to stay busy.”


One attractor could be tax incentives for businesses looking to move in, said Andrea Ragan, project manager at the Economic Development Corp.


Trezise assigned Ragan to lead the Colonial Village project. Ragan said the city is interested in the project because it was the only shuttered L&L “in Lansing proper.”


She said there are three options being explored: a “commercial rehabilitation tool,” Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act (OPRA) credits and brownfield incentives.


“There are a lot of factors at stake before that happens,” she said. First, Singer will have to legally nullify the lease with L&L. That doesn’t expire until 2018.


For now, Singer said one of the main things the community can do is support the three existing businesses there so they too aren’t forced to leave.


And he made a pact with the group of residents about who may occupy spots in the plaza: “No nuisance businesses or pornographic anything. And no medical marijuana shops.”


To which the 60-some people gave him a round of applause.

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