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Wednesday, June 12,2013

Office space

Massive downtown East Lansing storefront with retail past gets renovated into offices

by Sam Inglot
Sam Inglot/City Pulse
For 40 years, 333 E. Grand River Ave. has been prominent retail space in downtown East Lansing. It housed a Jacobson’s Department Store for 30 years and a Barnes & Noble bookstore for a decade. For the past year and a half, the massive storefront along East Lansing’s downtown corridor has sat vacant on the first and basement levels. The second floor is being used for offices. 

But now, renovations underway inside are converting it completely to office space. Is this the next best use for a building surrounded by restaurants and retail stores? What good does a 35,000-square-foot office complex on a prime piece of real estate do for a city that is flush with college students most of the year? 

Nearby business owners are mixed on the plan. While planning experts agree that retail use would be ideal, the space would be difficult to separate into multiple stores. And nearly everyone interviewed for this story say office space is better than vacant space.

City Pulse reported online on Friday that the building will be occupied by Jackson National Life Insurance Co., according to multiple sources. A construction worker at the site said that the tenants are expected to move in on Aug. 1. East Lansing and Jackson National officials declined to say whether the insurance company will be the next occupant. East Lansing Planning Director Tim Dempsey said an announcement could come as early as this week.

Heather Frarey, who owns The Record Lounge one block east of the building, said she would have rather seen the building divided up to accommodate multiple shops and restaurants. 

“I guess I’m a little disappointed,” Frarey said. “I thought for sure they would try to get a couple things to go in there. In Ann Arbor, they have Kerrytown, where there are at least 10 small shops that are all in one space. I was hoping they would make something like that out of it.”

Ray Walsh, who has owned and operated Curious Book Shop on the same block as the offices, said he too had hoped some sort of retail would take over the space, but he’s happy to know it will be occupied. 

“It’s much better than having it empty. Certainly, I would’ve liked to see it become a retail space, but Jackson National has a good reputation and it’ll hopefully bring in a couple hundred potential customers for downtown,” he said. “So, we have to try to be upbeat. I’m looking forward to them opening.”

Dempsey said his department worked with the landlord, City Center Partners II LLC, to market the space. He said they reached out to retail stores, restaurants and even a grocery store to fill the vacancy, but marketing the two-story, 35,000-square foot space was a “big challenge,” he said. 

Dempsey said the building “doesn’t lend itself to being divided up” — like Farery envisions — adding, “It’s more of a single-user space.”

Steven Rosznowski, resident agent of City Center Partners II, could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts since Friday. Roznowski is also CEO and chairman of Lansing-based Christman Co. 

Last month, Jackson National announced a $100 million expansion at its Lansing headquarters near Alaiedon Township. Jackson National spokesman Matt Gring said Tuesday afternoon that the company has nothing to announce for the East Lansing space.

Without having definitive knowledge of the building plans, Dan Bollman, who owns East Arbor architecture in East Lansing, agrees with Dempsey that the space would be hard to cut up. 

Bollman said the challenge with dividing up a space of that size is primarily a problem with the plumbing and the floor layout. 

The Barnes & Noble bathrooms were located in a far corner of the store, Bollman said, and reworking the pipe systems to accommodate multiple spaces would be “tricky and expensive.” He also said that because the space has entrances located in the center of the storefront, it wouldn’t allow for easy access to multiple shops without drastically reducing the floor space. 

Bollman said he’s pleased to hear the space will be occupied, but he added that the location is better served by a retail space.  

“Ideally, ground spaces like that would be occupied by retail, rather than office,” he said. “If it were retail, it would be better because of the access from the street, which creates the potential for impulse buys.”

However, national trends show that retail storefronts are becoming more difficult to maintain because of the surge of online shopping, according to one Michigan State University urban planning professor. 

Mark Wilson, whose office is across the street in the MSU Human Ecology building, said because of the advancement of online shopping, many brick and mortar retail stores are on their way out. 

“I think it is a challenging time. The economy is just beginning to grow again and you have the online competition for so many products and services that used to be sold in a physical place that are now being sold electronically,” he said. 

Wilson agrees with Bollman and Dempsey that the space would not be easily converted into multiple uses. He thinks that regardless of what’s going in the space, it’ll be good for downtown East Lansing. 

“You want something that economically brings value to the community. I think we have that with office space,” he said. “Normally, you want something that draws people into town, which would be different types of retail or different types of restaurants. But seeing as we can’t have that, we have the best possible outcome for current economic conditions.”

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