April 5 2018 11:55 AM

Shush: Downtown Lansing might get a grocery store


Another mixed use development is in the works for Michigan Avenue — but this one has a potential star tenant: a name-brand grocery store for downtown Lansing.

The city is in process of rezoning the 600 block of East Michigan, across the street and a block east of Lugnuts Stadium, at the request of developer Pat Gillespie. But all the players, from Mayor Andy Schor on down, are being tight-lipped about the identity of the supermarket. They fear the grocer might bolt if the deal is announced prematurely. The best anyone would say was, as one source put it, “The grocery store is a big deal and people will be very excited.”

Those who confirmed the negotiations did so on the condition they not be identified for fear of scuttling the deal.

The new mixed-use development would dramatically change the look of the 600 block of East Michigan. Gillespie is seeking a rezoning of the block from its current designation of light industrial to a business zone. Gillespie developed the nearby Stadium District and Outfield projects. He was not immediately available for comment.

The city has long sought a grocery store for the downtown area, whose residents’ closest options are in Frandor. But major chains compatible with the market, such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, haven’t found the demographics appealing enough — until possibly now. Meanwhile, Whole Foods has opened in East Lansing and Trader Joe’s has locations in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Another trendy chain, Aldi, which is owned by Trader Joe’s, has three stores in Greater Lansing, all distant from downtown.

Paul Rathbun, a partner in Rathbun Insurance Agency, had pitched the idea of turning the first floor of the former Rum Runners building, across the street at the corner of Michigan and Larch Street, into a 2,200-squarefoot grocery last summer.

But Rathbun, who owns the building and lives on the second floor, said Tuesday he put those plans on hold after meeting resistance to the idea because of parking and other logistical issues. He said he’d also heard that Gillespie was working on a redevelopment of the 600 block of Michigan and was waiting to see what came of that before pursuing any more action on his property.

“It’s a game changer for downtown,” Rathbun said. “It’s really great.”

The shift in zoning would allow Gillespie to remove the buildings housing the Salus Center, an LGBTQ resurce and community center, and Brogan’s Tire and Auto Service. He would then combine the lots on which those buildings stand with an alley, a parking lot, a plot that housed a Mobil gas station on the southeast corner of Michigan and Larch, and multiple lots on Barnard Street to the south. In all, he’s seeking to develop 3.65 acres of prime downtown space.

The development will include a mix of residential and commercial spaces similar to the Stadium District, according to a memo from the planning department.

“The existing uses on the subject property are out of character with the general land use pattern along E. Michigan Avenue which consists of commercial/residential uses and entertainment venues,” wrote Bill Riske, assistant planning manager, and Sue Stachowiak, zoning administrator, in the memo.

“These types of uses support each other, draw people to the area, many of whom utilize the bus system for transportation, create activity outside of normal business hours, and generally contribute to the vibrancy of an area in close proximity to the core downtown.”

The move falls in line with what Schor administration officials said were priorities for the new leadership after the election in November. At that time, Brian McGrain, whom Schor named director of the Economic Development and Planning Department, said adding a grocery store in downtown Lansing was an important move for the city.

In fact, as Schor was preparing to move across the street from the state legislature, lawmakers and the governor approved his measure to use economic revitalization dollars to bring grocery stores to downtowns and commercial corridors throughout the state.

“Grocery stores are key to a vibrant community because people want to be close to a store to buy bread, milk and whatever they need for dinner that day,” said Schor in a press release at the time. “Easy access to grocery stores will help residents while making our downtowns and neighborhoods more attractive to new people and businesses.”

The planning department memo indicates the new development would sit up close to the sidewalk, as the Stadium District does, and have parking behind it.