Meridian Township looks to breath new life into downtown Okemos

It’s called Downtown Okemos, or the Four Corners, but it’s overshadowed by long vacant buildings, empty lots overgrown with weeds and a few small businesses. It’s an intersection on the way to the Meridian Mall and surrounding shopping venues along Grand River; blink and you’ll miss it, unless you’re caught at the traffic light that funnels traffic off Hamilton Road.

And with a Facebook announcement that the retail desert’s remaining anchor store, Ace Hardware, will be shutdown for good on Christmas Day, the Corners, with limited parking, heavy traffic and turning restrictions, faces what can charitably be called a challenging future.

To counter what’s been a bleak trajectory, township officials are crafting policies to revitalize the area and attract developers.

Four Corners is being prepped for a longterm transformation into an urbanized living and shopping center. Economic development officials want to reinvent the grid’s identity.

“Downtown is not up to our standards,” Economic Development Director Chris Buck told a Nov. 1 community meeting. “We want to create wide streets with cafés and storefronts that are bikeable, walkable and modern.”

Buck is not alone in that assessment. “I’ve raised my family here and I’m here to stay. I agree with the assessment that the Four Corners could be much more attractive, and I’d love to see it happen,” said Tim Potter, vice chairman of Meridian Township’s Transportation Commission. Potter has lived in Okemos for more than 40 years.

This is not the first time a complete over haul has been considered. The area has been plagued by false starts, such as a botched $10 million deal with Douglas J in 2016 to replace the Traveler’s Club Restaurant and Tuba Museum with a hair salon.

Douglas J has yet to do anything with the old restaurant since acquiring it from Comerica Bank. The previous owner, Will White, lost the property to foreclosure in 2010 and made a last ditch effort in 2012 to reacquire it through a proposed redevelopment project called Hamilton Square.

White’s vision was not far off from what Buck and other city officials now have in mind. When Douglas J purchased the space from the bank before White could get the funds for the project, his Hamilton Square proposal was put to rest.

The township wants to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Mock-up images presented as part of the township’s new master plan, which is expected to be ratified in late November, invoke a vision of an urbanized center akin to the Venue at East Town, the new Scott Gillespie multiuse project in the 2000 block of Michigan Avenue, which is due to open this month. The township aims to attract developers that will transform downtown Okemos’ vacant lots into multi-use buildings with bustling businesses with first floor and living spaces above.

But there’s more to it than just attracting the developers. Potter said if the township wants to truly create a town center environment, the township must manage traffic in downtown Okemos so it’s safe for pedestrians.

A process aimed to address such issues sponsored by East Lansing, Lansing and Meridian Township in conjunction with Capital Area Transportation Authority called Shaping the Avenue could guide the evolution of development in Okemos.

“Shaping the Avenue “could help bring to light design issues among developers so they can help the corridors feel more connected,” said Rachel Elsinga, a Tri-County Regional Planning Commission senior planner. “It is not an implementation process.

Communities would vote to use the designs that come out of Shaping the Avenue.”

Shaping the Avenue’s goal is to put in place new building regulations throughout the three municipalities. Current regulations dictate a building’s design based on what’s permitted by that plot of land. The regulations proposed by this project would see buildings designed instead with ease of public transit in mind.

The previous limitations kept structures categorized as mixed use developments out of downtown Okemos. Construction of mixed use buildings is the new norm in the area. SkyVue Apartments in Frandor and 1855 Place across the street from the Breslin Center both cut their ribbons in the last several months. Planners hope downtown Okemos will join this trend.

Once the Ace Hardware is liquidated in 2018, nearly an entire block of downtown Okemos will become vacant. Bottoms Up Dancewear will be the sole remaining store. Adjacent to those two spaces is an empty bank building owned by Kris Elliott of Evergreen Companies, whose plans to develop a restaurant fell through. Buck hopes the block can be the site of a unified development project.

“I am not aware of any plans between the independent property owners, but I am hopeful that whole block can be redeveloped in one fell swoop,” Buck said.

Buck’s hiring by the township in October and the optimistic language used by the new master plan signifies a stronger public effort to revitalize downtown Okemos.

“My job now is to go out and tell developers,” said Buck. “‘Have you seen this? This is what the township wants. We’ve never said we’ve wanted this before, so if you’ve ever had this kind of vision but knew we didn’t allow it, I’m here to tell you that now we do. Let’s make a deal.’”