When you wish upon a store …

By Allan I. Ross

Land Bank launches unconventional tactic to fill empty Urbandale building

When an unconventional brainstorm was initiated with Lansing’s Urbandale neighborhood in September, Jeff Burdick said he expected some “off the wall” answers.

“Pardon the pun,” he said. Burdick is executive director of the Ingham County Land Bank, and the brainstorm took the form of a public chalkboard on the side of the abandoned Paro Party Store, 2221 E. Kalamazoo St., which has been vacant for over two years. A 40-foot-by-6-foot stretch of the building’s southern-facing wall was given a thick coat of blackboard paint and the statement “I wish this were a ______________” was stenciled on it 48 times. Chalk was left. The project became known as the Wishing Wall with the goal of solicting community input for what it wanted.

“The idea came from something (Ingham County Treasurer) Eric Schertzing had heard about in New Orleans,” Burdick said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Sensible requests (“counseling center,” “music venue”) were scrawled beside the whimsical (“Ferris wheel”), the esoteric (“magical place,” “heaven on earth”) and the heartbreaking (“to be honest, I just wish my Mom was here”). Burdick said a database was started collecting the suggestions. About 200 serious ideas were culled from over 1,000 contribtions.

In the project’s next step last weekend, the Land Bank partnered with the Urbandale Neighborhood Association to clean out the interior. A 30-yard Dumpster was filled with debris, and “a lot” of beer that had been left by the last owner was poured out; the cans were given to local youths.

“We found all kinds of stuff the last owner left behind,” Burdick said. “We even found a floor safe. Who knows what´s in there?” The 1,300-square-foot concrete building was constructed in 1938 as a butcher store. At some point a wooden addition was built on to the west side, but that was demolished before it fell into foreclosure in 2010.

Although the Land Bank doesn’t officially take over the building from In gham County until next month, it has already stepped in as the building’s steward. Burdick said the house just to the north of the property was also recently foreclosed upon and could be leveled to create parking space for whatever business moves in. Providing a business even moves in — another possibility is a full demolition, another frequent request on the wall.

“People can be myopic,” he said. “It’s still a good building, and we’d rather see it stay and become home to a new business. Some of the requests, like for a café, are unconventional for this area, but could work very well. It’s right near 127 and MSU. Downtown’s not far away. There are great bike lanes that are used by a lot of people. This could be a great location for someone looking to start a business.”

And what does Burdick wish would go there?

“A bike repair or rental place would fit in nicely,” he said. “There are also a lot of urban gardeners nearby, so maybe a place to buy or give away gardening supplies or support the local food hub. There’s so much possibility here.”

For more information about the project, go to iwtwa.org.