May 20 2015 12:00 AM

Historic Lansing car dealership to be demolished to make way for housing

Leo Jerome wants to be there the day the wrecking crew levels Story Oldsmobile. Last week, Jerome announced he’d sold the eastside Lansing property to a market rate housing developers. There’s no demolition date yet, but with construction planned to start in November, Story Olds will probably come down sometime this summer.

“I think my mother-in-law will want to be there, so I’ll bring her, too,” Jerome said. “It’ll be a sad day, but it just feels right to be there. That business was good to our family and a lot of other families. It put a lot of kids through college, made a lot of careers.”

Jerome, 73, took over the dealership, on michigan Avenue between Ranney Skate Park and Sears just south of Frandor, from his fatherin-law, Karl Story, in 1996; Story died the following year. Then Jerome watched as Oldsmobile folded in 2004. It was an ignominious end for a business that had once been a crown jewel of local industry.

“We sponsored base ball teams, the MSU cheerleaders rode in our cars for homecoming, we had our own Christmas parade that went up and down Michigan Avenue in front of the store,” Jerome says. “And we were selling a product that was made right here in town. It was almost sacrilegious not to buy an Oldsmobile.” When it closed six years ago, the building first served as a makeshift auto museum after Jerome parked a few classic Olds in the showroom window. When those were removed, it simply became a warehouse for old office furniture. It also became a target for vandals. But whatever you do, don’t call it abandoned.

“That would be unfair,” Jerome says. “I didn’t abandon it — I lost my franchise. I kept the grass cut and paid my taxes on it, but I couldn’t keep people from breaking the windows. I was there for 50 years, but Michigan Avenue is no longer a logical place for a dealership. It’s an ideal spot for (housing and retail). That’s progress.”

The property was bought by Ambling University Development Group, which intends to build a nine-story, $77 million mixed-use facility called SkyVue on Michigan. It will have retail space on the ground floor, athletic facilities and over 350 apartments. For over 20 years, Ambling has specialized in student housing development; recently, however, it started catering more to young professionals.

“We’re morphing into a market rate developer (targeting) areas that have a higher education and health care infrastructure,” said Ambling vice president Matt Marshall. “Areas with both of those elements in place result in a professional need for housing. Lansing interested us in particular because of all the development going on.”

Indeed, SkyVue arrives on time to benefit from a flurry of new jobs in the area: MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams will create hundreds jobs when it opens, the new Chevy Camaro will add 145 jobs to the Grand River Assembly plant, Jackson National Life is undergoing a major expansion and Sparrow Hospital will soon begin work on a new five-story cancer center. Those are all new jobs, possibly bringing new people to town who are going to need places to live.

And then there’s the Red Cedar Renaissance project, the “high-end village” planned across the street from SkyVue. That project is being shepherded by local developer Joel Ferguson and Ohio developer Frank Kass. Jerome and his son, Chris Jerome, were once attached to the Red Cedar Renaissance with Ferguson, but a falling out between the two camps resulted in a dissolution of any type of partnership and the launch of a lawsuit. (None of the three men would comment on the split or on the case, but Ferguson said, “We’re going to make the city better, and we hope they do the same thing.”)

When Story Olds is bulldozed to make way for SkyVue, it will be an ironic confluence of Ghosts of Michigan Avenue Architecture Past and Future. It may not look like much now, but Jerome said the dealership, which was built in 1954, was fashioned by design studios inside the GM Tech Center with an award-winning showroom.

“It was actually very futuristic, years ahead of its time,” Jerome said. “GM used to send graduates from (Kettering University in Flint) here to tour the dealership as part of their graduation. There were all kinds of innovations built in. We had one of the first drive-up service centers in the country.”

Jerome still has to get all that furniture out of the showroom for an upcoming auction, so he has a few trips left yet to make to the old building. He said he’ll miss the view (“That golf course was so peaceful in the summer first thing in the morning”), but carries with him something his father-in-law told him years ago — a prescient blessing.

“He called me Jeromey, and he told me once, ‘Jeromey, there may come a time when you feel you need to bulldoze this dealership to the ground,’” Jerome says. “’And when you do, don’t think old Karl is going to feel bad.’ I know that Karl would approve of this. And if (SkyVue) is something that convinces these young people to stay in Lansing instead of moving to Texas or Chicago, even better. A place where they can live and work and buy the Cadillacs that are made here in Lansing.”