TUESDAY, Sept. 8 —If Mayor Andy Schor and a Detroit developer have their way, the vacant City Market building downtown will soon undergo an offbeat, multi-faceted “activation” nobody saw coming.
“It’s hard to keep a secret,” Schor said.
Schor announced plans today to lease the building to the 3-year-old Detroit Rising Development group and turn the cavernous pole barn into a multi-use community hub called the Lansing Shuffleboard & Social Club. The 12-year-old building has been largely empty since 2018, save for the Waterfront Bar & Grill, which fought eviction until last fall.
The $3.2 million private investment would pack in six or more food vendors, a bar, live entertainment and eight shuffleboard courts.
If the Lansing City Council approves the deal, DRD will likely sign a 10-year lease, with an option to renew, Schor said. The city spokeswoman, Valerie Marchand, said today that the lease agreement will be placed on file for the public later this week.
Parts of the project could be open to the public within a year, but full completion could take up to two years, according to DRD founder and partner Jon Hartzell.
Schor said the proposed project fulfills all of his requirements for the space. “It took a little longer than we hoped to find the right match, but I wanted a project that would activate the space, that it is sustainable and would not need a yearly subsidy from the city,” he said. “This project meets all those conditions.”
The announcement puts an end to months of underwhelming rumors that the city would give up on finding a creative “destination” use for the space and end up leasing it to a brewpub or another redundant tenant.
In 2018, DRD completed the Detroit Shipping Co., a city block packed with food truck-style eateries, bars, sand volleyball courts, an art gallery and private event space built from 23 shipping containers in the heart of the city’s Cass Corridor.
Schor and Hartzell said the Detroit project is an “inspiration” for the Lansing Shuffleboard & Social Club.
For DRD’s first project outside of the Detroit metro area, Hartzell said his team was looking for “urban centers that are emerging with walkability, and we wanted to be part of an active community.”
Earlier this year, Hartzell and other DRD staffers toured Lansing’s downtown, neighborhoods, Old Town and REO Town.
“It fit beautifully for us,” he said. “Finding out how much people cared about the space brought us to a point where we really wanted to do this.”
The City Market building is largely “shuffle ready,” but changes will be made to the shell and patio, Hartzell said. The wall facing the river will open up, with garage-style doors and more windows, to take advantage of sunset river views. A mezzanine will be added to the building. (The shell was designed to have a mezzanine, but it was never put in.)
Hartzell said he was impressed by the downtown activity he observed on his visit to Lansing, from the sandbox and promenades at Rotary Park to the dozens of kayakers and hundreds of River trail strollers.
The Bond Co., a consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, advised DRD that three cities that were “underserved” and ready for such a project: Milwaukee; Edmonton, Canada; and Lansing.
Hartzell said the new facility would follow Detroit Shipping Co.’s model of hiring a racially diverse staff and offering varied ethnic foods with “approachable prices.”
“It matters to represent, inside your building, everyone outside of you,” he said. “They’ll be actual kitchens, but approachable and accessible, like food trucks.”
Among the Detroit Shipping eateries are Bangkok 96 (“Thai street food”), COOP Caribbean (“chicken Caribbean fusion”) Brew Ho (“tacos and tapas”), a Nepalese dumpling shop, Windsor-based Motor Burger and Minus 320, a coffee and ice cream shop.
Hartzell said the eateries will be “chef driven and owner operated.” Some may be imported from Detroit, but DRD is already talking with local culinary enterprises, including the Allen Street Market’s incubator kitchens, Hartzell said.
The main event, shuffleboard, will be offered in both league and open formats. The 500-year-old sport has long been considered to be a pastime for geezers, owing to its popularity on cruise ships and in retirement homes, but since the 1980s, shuffleboard has spiked in popularity with younger people, especially in bars and pubs, in both full size and tabletop variants.
The shovels first used in shuffleboard (which began as “shovelboard”) are about the only connection between the building’s future and former uses. The “new” City Market opened in 2008, in hopes of saving the nearly century-old market from a long, slow death spiral. The idea was to put up condos where the old market stood, wrapping the new market in a built-in customer base that was expected to grow as downtown development accelerated.
But the timing was not propitious. The surrounding condos took years to complete, in part because of the Great Recession, while market vendors withered on the vine. The expected boom in pedestrian River Trail traffic and kayak rentals was still a decade away. Meanwhile, the new market was plagued by a myriad of self-inflicted problems, from the building’s invisibility to traffic on Cedar Street to weak promotion, inconsistent management and nuts-and-bolts problems with parking, loading, trash and recycling.
The outlook is different in 2020, despite a new recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Rotary Park, a twinkling urban hangout with riverside benches, tables and a sandbox “beach,” has drawn hundreds of strollers and cyclists to river’s edge, directly in front of the City Market building.
Add a stunning boom in kayaking activity, with a livery and launching site a few yards upstream from the City Market, and the timing for the new project looks perfect to Hartzell.
In a new era of social media-driven promotion, Hartzell added, the visibility problem will not be as much of a factor as it was during the City Market’s death spiral.
“When we have eight to nine vendors, all co-marketing, they send touch points all over,” he said. “And people are already actively seeking the River Walk. This location checks so many boxes for us.”