Dec. 9 2015 12:16 AM

Michigan Avenue's 2000 block goes through 100-year growing pains

By the time Jimmy Johnson pulled his bologna out of the smoker every Thursday at 1 p.m., people were waiting in the parking lot. That smell, if anyone bothered to bottle it, would pull you right back to the 1970s, behind Lindemann's East Town Market and the other small businesses on the south side of Michigan Avenue's 2000 block, in the heart of the city's east side.

One day, the smokehouse, which adjoined the wall of Emil's Restaurant next door, caught fire. Diners at Emil's were treated to billows of smoke with their wine and chicken diablo.

That was the end of the little smokehouse and Jimmy Johnson's bologna.

Countless cuts of meat and slices of life, from pharmacies to grocers to barber shops, have come and gone without fanfare on the humble, chocka-block stretch of Michigan Avenue from Clemens to Fairview streets since the 1910s.

The next big thing isn't coming — or going — quietly.

The 2000 block is where Scott Gillespie, owner of the Gillespie Co, plans to put up a $5 million, four-story building with 11,5000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and 39 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments renting from $750 to $1,250. Gillespie paid an additional $1 million for the property. The City Council would need to approve the development. Its last meeting of the year is scheduled for Monday, but the agenda has not yet been set.

Gillespie says the buildings on the Clemens Avenue side of the block, to the west, are too run down to renovate. Three buildings on the east end, in better condition than the rest, will be saved. Gillespie plans to take down the others.

Long neglected and taken for granted, the 2000 block is suddenly at the center of a tug of war between the city's past and future, where regional development plans collide with local eastside culture.

City and county planners are salivating at the chance to build up population density on the area's busiest corridor and shore up a spinal column of transportation "nodes" reaching from the state Capitol past MSU to Williamston. But at a Nov. 17 community meeting, Gillespie got an earful from over 100 east side residents, many of whom were not happy with the proposed grey monolith looming over the old 2000 block and its embodied history. Gillespie said he's gone "back to the drawing board" and will come back with a better design in the coming weeks.

Bread and butter

The south side of Michigan Avenue's 2000 block spent most of its first 100 years as a modest row of drugstores, groceries, barber shops, hardware stores and other bread-and-butter businesses, with apartments above.

Several grocery and meat stores came and went, most notably Schmidt Bros., from 1936 to 1953, and East Town Market, later Lindemann's Market, from 1962 to 1987. Bollert's Hardware, later Loo mis Hardware, lasted from 1945 to 1964. Moore's Pharmacy stood from 1938 to 1964, succeeding J. C. Johnson & Son Drugs, which started in 1920. Many of the proprietors lived upstairs from their shops in the block's early years. Stores dealing in jewelry, toys, auto supplies and radios enjoyed shorter stints.

The block's longevity champion is Emil's Italian Restaurant, which started in 1921 as a fruit stand, then became a spot for "confectionery, cigars and light lunches," a spaghetti house and, finally, the city's oldest restaurant until its demise earlier this year.

The 2000 block got funkier in the 1980s and beyond, as shoppers sought the staples of life at malls and megamarkets. The block began to traffic in odds and ends such as antiques, comic books, scuba gear and a nonprofit selling flags and other United Nations-sanctioned gifts. In its later years, it housed bohemian tenants like Magdalena's Tea House, with its kale smoothies and floor cushions, and a marijuana-dispensary-cum-unlicensed-performance venue, Zeppelin's Music Hall.

Whether the businesses smacked of Main Street or Greenwich Village, they mixed well. From the early 1980s until this year, white-shirted Garry Grimm of the Eastside Barber Shop anchored the block's west end, shouting "greetings and salutations" to arriving customers.

Through the decades, eastsiders rolled with the changes, so long as the sun kept on rolling past the block's familiar one-to-two-story outline.

Life on the block

Pat Lindemann, now Ingham County drain commissioner, ran a grocery and meat market, owned an art gallery, and lived in the 2000 block for a decade.

"I spent 40 years of my life on that block," Lindemann said. "At one time, I had my name on four of those buildings."

The block was a hub of eastside life through the 1970s, when the Michigan Avenue Merchants threw block parties with merchant tables, a beer tent and sidewalk cafes.

"They were all great people," Lindemann said. "We used to watch out for each other, check each other's buildings. Emil used to buy all of their meat at our market. If they ran out of something, they'd just run next door and get it."

Lindemann bought 2006-08 from Dental Art Laboratories, grinders of false teeth.

"We called them the Tooth Fairies," Lindemann said. "He had about 30 people in there, making teeth, bridges and things for dentists."

The space was covered with fine porcelain dust. The furnace vents were clogged and vacuums couldn't handle it. It took Lindemann and his brother Dan a month and a half to clean it all up.

It could be argued that the 2000 block made its first pivot from bread-and-butter to bohemian when meat man Lindemann started his gallery, The Gentle Side of Life, in the late 1970s.

The block had already seen its best days by the time Lindemann bought the 2010 building, with four efficiency apartments upstairs, in the early 1980s. Even then, the roof leaked. "It was a mess," Lindemann said. "You couldn't put enough tar up there. They were constantly needing repair, over and over again."

In the 1980s, Rick Kibbey, an eastsider and urban planning expert, had an office at a nonprofit tucked upstairs at 2010 Michigan Ave.

"It was a wreck," he said. "Pieces of the ceiling falling into your computer, electric and plumbing from the 1920s."

Kibbey smiled at the memory of Lindemann as landlord.

"He wasn't really interested in the building," Kibbey said. "He wanted to be an artist."

"I did everything I could to maintain it," Lindemann protested about the 2010 building. "It's just wooden and it's really old."

In the early 1970s, an elderly renter died upstairs and wasn't discovered for a week.

"Once that happened, we moved the tenants out of the upstairs," Lindemann said. "It kind of put the kibosh on putting people up there."

Over time, Lindemann said, the 6-inch spaces between the buildings became cluttered with collapsed wooden siding and debris.

"You couldn't get into that space to repair it," Lindemann said. "Birds were flying in the top, it was nuts. The only way to fix it was to knock it down and rebuild it, and I didn't have the resources."

By 2013, Lindemann sold all his 2000 block buildings.

"To open a new business, it needed to be renovated," Lindemann said. "You couldn't put enough capital costs in it to keep it up to code."

Water clock

Last week, Scott Gillespie took me through a few of the storefronts on the 2000 block. Conditions don't seem to have changed much since Lindemann's day.

The back end of the block is a warren of wooden staircases, extensions, additions, buildouts and balconies.

Pools of standing water on the roof are surrounded by impressive grass and shrub gardens. On the roof, two or three layers of temporary asphalt fixes going back to the 1960s have curled free, trapping more moisture.

"Water is the most destructive force we've seen in this building," Gillespie said.

On the facades, the bottom courses of brick are bowing out from water intrusion. There are holes in the roof and standing water in the upstairs apartments above Emil's and the 2010 building. Thick support beams are rotted, broken and falling down. Newlooking plywood ceiling panels in the apartments above Emil's are already densely spotted with mold.

The only space with a hint of its old panache is 2008, spiffy home to Becker Barber Shop from 1921 to 1967 (the building is named after the longtime proprietor, Abram Becker) and a series of successor salons.

The shop still has its original black-andwhite checkered tile floor. Huge mirrors and marble slabs an inch thick lined the walls. Gillespie's crew found newspapers from 1926 stuffed into the walls.

Gillespie is saving the marble panels and mirrors, should a bar or restaurant move into the first floor of the new building.

Poking into the gap between the drop ceilings and the original tin ceilings, the crew found old balloons of visqueen plastic sheeting used to catch water.

"You look at Knapp's, or what my brother did at the Armory, it takes a lot of money to turn them around," Gillespie said, referring to developer Pat Gillespie. "But they are truly historic structures, and they're worth salvaging. This is so far gone, it's very difficult to put it into any reasonably effective use."

Gillespie's contention that the west end of the 2000 block is beyond repair is only half of his case. Other projects he's done, he said, prove that he's mindful of preserving old buildings.

In 2007, Gillespie bought a downtown complex of four storefronts dating from 1896 to ‘98 on the northeast corner of Washington Square and Kalamazoo Street. The complex now houses Gillespie's offices, Crafty Palate and Studio 109. "It was in tough shape, but it didn't have the water damage and the decades of neglect," Gillespie said.

Design problem

If the 2000 block is beyond restoration, that leaves the question of what should go up in its place.

It's easier to find a consensus on the block's next use than on its design.

"I've always thought that would be a perfect place for four- or five-story buildings with living units," Lindemann said. "It's right on the bus line to MSU."

The real lesson of the 2008 recession, in Kibbey's analysis, is that the city needs more rental housing.

"Not everybody wants to buy a house," Kibbey said. "If you're not getting married until you're 28, and that's what is happening, why would you buy a house?"

Gillespie's mixed-use proposal rides a wave of new urbanism desiderata laid out in recent years by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, Design Lansing 2012 Comprehensive Plan and a study by MSU's Planning, Design and Construction.

"It's exhaustive work, to lay out what MSU is calling a world-class community," Gillespie said.

Kibbey, who has worked on four Lansing master plans over the years, is an avid fan of the concept, if not of Gillespie's execution as it looks now.

He said the proposal is be a "classic" example of Transit Oriented Development, a prime tenet of the new urbanism.

"If you go any place in the real world where you have a real city, transit spots have denser development than the surrounding neighborhoods," Kibbey said. "Transit is an asset, and the only way you can afford it is if you get the density up."

Kibbey thinks that the call for more low-income housing from some critics of Gillespie's plan is misplaced, especially on the east side. He pointed to nearby employers like Neogen, Sparrow and Accident Fund as an expanding source of demand for middle-income housing.

"Maybe in Bloomfield Hills, broader housing opportunity means building lower income housing," Kibbey said. "We have a shitload of low income housing on the east side. If you want integrated housing, you need some housing for people who can afford to live someplace else."

Working on a recent East Side housing study for the Allen Neighborhood Center, Kibbey got a surprise. In addition to finding that "the usual" singles and young people were moving into the area, the study found that downsizing seniors are also looking for rentals on the east side.

"It's a full-cycle neighborhood," Kibbey said. "It's not age specific. We've got a cohort of seniors who associate with the neighborhood center. They don't want to take care of a house, a lawn."

In sum, Gillespie has what Kibbey described as "a design problem, not a building problem."

Facadism

Gillespie was surprised at the community blowback he received over the proposed design at the Nov. 17 meeting.

"The city pushed us to make sure we had balconies – 42 balconies — and we had masonry, which is quite expensive, and outdoor seating to make it pedestrian friendly and have a nice streetscape," he said.

Nevertheless, many eastsiders at the meeting weren't impressed with the gray and brown monolith, which resembles a giant, 14-cylinder engine block.

"They said it doesn't look like it belongs here, and it doesn't," Kibbey said. "They said there's no appeal to the front of the building, and that was true, too."

He said the design needs visual interest such as "cornices, columns, old-style Chicago stuff."

"And that color — they must have gotten some kid that was having a Goth day," Kibbey cracked.

Some speakers at the November meeting asked Gillespie to build something that looks like it's been there for years, but that's a tricky proposition.

Architect Dan Bollman, author of City Pulse's "Eyesore/Eye Candy of the Week," cautioned against "Disneyland" designs that try to make new buildings look old.

"The 2000 block has a nice, human scale," he said, "but it's hard to do that starting with a clean slate and make it look like it's built up over time. It's going to look phony, like a stage set."

Bollman cited the Eastwood Towne Center, with its pre-fab checkerboard of varied storefronts built up over weeks instead of decades, as a perfect example.

"You know that's not authentic," Bollman said. "Accept the fact that it's new, give it good pedestrian scale, but don't try to fake it, give it false history."

Since the early 1980s, larger cities such as Toronto, New York and Memphis have finessed the problem of harmonizing old and new via "façadism," an architectural buzzword for saving the facade of a historic structure while building completely new innards and "uppards."

The result is a row of masonry storefronts, complete with limestone ornaments and "built in 1915" inscriptions, adhering to modern, glassy new structures stretching four or more stories high behind them.

Facadism has taken hold in highprofile places like New York's Fifth Avenue or Memphis' Beale Street — see the Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C., for a wild example — but humble rows like Lansing's 2000 block are scarce, owing mainly to the cost of dismantling and resetting facades, brick by brick.

Joe Vitale, a Realtor and president of Preservation Lansing, said Gillespie is welcome to build his four-story apartment building, with all its new urbanism benefits, but he should keep the block's historic street-level look.

"Other cities can do those repairs and keep those facades, but it's unfortunate that developers in Lansing don't do that," Vitale said.

"Granted, the space may not be functional for a business today, but even if you wanted to add up and add out, it seems like you could somehow work the facade into the design so it would look like it was always there."

Since the Nov. 25 meeting, Gillespie hasn't committed to any particular solution. He's been through this process before, with his other eastside project, The Avenue Flats at 1629 E. Michigan Ave.

"It's a lot of angst and anguish," Gillespie said. "We gave up some space, it cost us a fair amount of money, but it's a better street scape and a better building."

For now, Gillespie and his architectural firm, The Peabody Group, have gone back to the drawing board. Peabody has worked on several successful Lansing projects, including the renovation of the downtown Arbaugh department store into offices and apartments and the conversion of the massive Motor Wheel factory into over 100 lofts.

Just before we met and toured the 2000 block, Gillespie met with architects and went over some new drawings.

"When they come out, it will be obvious that we listened," he said. "We are making dramatic changes to the appearance of the building that are a direct result of the comments we received."

With a thick slice of his life invested in the 2000 block, Lindemann looked at the bill of sale from his parents for the old meat market at 2010 Michigan Ave., framed on his wall.

Lindemann, the future drain commissioner who lost the war with leaks, waxed sentimental over his time on the block, even though he is one of the landlords who presided over its downward spiral.

He expects Gillespie's wrecking crew to find advertisements, receipts and other scraps of history when the walls go down.

"A penny a pound for chicken wings," he mused.

These days, Lindemann plays on a bigger chessboard. He is pleased at the prospect that his old block will play a new role in the regional push to reverse urban sprawl and encourage the city to "grow inward."

"It's not like we build monuments with these places," he said. "It's healthy for Lansing to go through these growing pains. People have a problem with change. But cities change."


Subscribe to Our Newsletter