Circling the carts
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
neighborhood grapples with changes that threaten goodrich´s shop-riteOn the day before Thanksgiving, Brian Jeffries prowled the aisles at Goodrich’s Shop-Rite, gathering stuff for the 17 pies he planned to bake on Thanksgiving Day. The longtime Lansing City Councilman is a relative newcomer to Shop-Rite. He has only been shopping at this 76-year-old locally owned grocery for 25 years.
“I would really hate to see this go,” Jeffries said, looking around at the holiday bustle. “It’s a tremendous anchor for this side of East Lansing and Lansing.”
As multiple development pressures bear down on the nexus of MSU’s southwest gateway at South Harrison and Trowbridge roads, Goodrich’s finds itself in the eye of a slow-motion cyclone of change.
The news that Shop-Rite may close its doors when its lease expires in August, pushed out by a proposed mixeduse development that calls for higher rent and six months of downtime for remodeling, had Jeffries and other shoppers worried.
Would this be the last Thanksgiving turkey, the last Christmas to load up on lumpy links of Dr. Beef’s potato sausage, the last holiday haul of wine from Shop-Rite coowner Steve Scheffel?
Developer Kevin McGraw’s $24 million proposal for the corner of Harrison and Trowbridge calls for two new buildings dedicated to student housing, offices and retail and complete renovation of Goodrich’s space, making it ready for a “cutting-edge organic grocer,” in McGraw’s words. McGraw said he’s offering the same terms to Goodrich’s.
“Quite frankly, that store needs to be gutted, and we have an opportunity to get a new store in there that’s going to help us gut it,” McGraw said. He was referring to an organic food natural chain that he says is waiting in the wings if Goodrich’s pulls out.
The lease negotiations are shielded by a confidentiality agreement, but Scheffel said the higher rent and the requirement to close for months amount to an “eviction notice.”
Goodrich’s, like any local grocer, is skating on thin ice to begin with. Former East Lansing Councilman Don Power is familiar with the economics of retail from his 40 years as a labor mediator. Kroger is among his past clients.
Power said the profit margin for most groceries is razorthin, half a percent to 1 and a half percent. There’s no break for grocers who circulate money locally, know their customers by name, give free expert wine advice or help seniors load up in the parking lot, as they do at Goodrich’s.
“Many markets sell food at a loss,” Power said. Even big stores like Meijer or Wal-Mart often make up the difference on merchandise.
With a margin that thin, Power said, Shop-Rite probably squeaks through by virtue of specialties like high-end meats, liquor and densely packed wine shelves he deemed “the best selection in town.” Also, its prices generally are higher than other large grocery stores. In Power´s analysis, closing Shop-Rite for six months or more to modernize the store, as McGraw proposes, would be a lethal blow. The higher rent would simply sharpen the guillotine. Even Kroger, he said, would have to close its doors in two weeks if sales were frozen.
“You have to flow or you die,” Power said. The Trowbridge business corridor is not downtown East Lansing, with its high-rise housing and new brew pubs, but it’s a zone in flux. A slow funnel cloud of change began to encircle Goodrich’s in 2001, when Trowbridge Road was extended into MSU as part of a high-visibility southwest gateway to campus. Hundreds of older student apartments, including all of Cherry Lane along Harrison Road and much of nearby Spartan Village, were razed by 2011, shrinking foot traffic and the customer base for Goodrich’s and its international foods. By 2015, a new $10.5 million regional transport hub will go up across Trowbridge Road from Shop-Rite, making dowdy Trowbridge Plaza look all the more ripe for a makeover.
It was inevitable that a developer would declare that the plaza, with its vacant Oodles of Noodles hulk and long-empty drive-through bank, “underperforming.”
“Now that MSU opened it up, folks are looking at it more,” Trowbridge Road-based attorney Susan Chalgian, chairwoman of the Trowbridge Business Association, observed.
Before McGraw’s proposal came along, some big ideas about the Trowbridge corridor were gently floated in neighborhood and MSU circles. The idea of housing for seniors, especially alumni who want to partake of university life without living in undergraduate housing blocks, was one.
Another was to open up the nearby residential Red Cedar neighborhood to small high-tech companies that would find the area congenial, much like Neogen Corp.’s scattered offices in former residences in Lansing’s Oak Park neighborhood.
Eliot Singer is a resident, community activist and member of East Lansing Citizens Concerned, a watchdog group about 100 strong. “This isn’t just about Shop-Rite. It’s about (the) Trowbridge (business corridor), Red Cedar neighborhood, the Ivanhoe neighborhood.” Both are located just north of the shopping center.
MSU Professor Mark Sullivan, who lives in the area, has worked with the city of East Lansing, the Red Cedar Neighborhood Association and the Trowbridge Business Association on some of those ideas. “We’ve had discussions going back 18 months on ways to revitalize the whole Trowbridge corridor,” Sullivan said.
Under one plan, nearby Red Cedar School would develop an eco-curriculum tying into nearby green space and neighboring Trowbridge Plaza. The plan included an extension of the Lansing River Trail to the plaza, an outdoor cafe with solar heating and state-of-the-art green technology.
Sullivan said MSU’s Jazz Studies has been looking for “a first-class space, preferably a jazz club,” as a venue for jazz students and professors, poetry and other musicians, run by MSU’s hotel and management school. The former Pretzel Bell/Oodles of Noodles, he said, might have suited the purpose.
“We were having discussions once or twice a month when this new development came along,” Sullivan said.
McGraw told the group he had a twoyear construction window to make the project profitable, so planning and development time was limited.
“That put our more visionary concepts on hold,” Sullivan said.
McGraw said the expiration of Shop- Rite’s lease is an overdue chance for the corner plaza to perform “at market rate.”
He asked for credit for trying to keep a grocer on the corner at all.
As usual, banks are in the driver’s seat.
When McGraw applies for loans to build his student-housing-office-retail village, banks will look for low-risk, high-credit tenants. Deep-pocketed chains always win that game. Goodwill and 76 years of successful business history are difficult to factor into a balance sheet.
“People should be thanking us for the willingness to invest millions to attract a grocery,” McGraw said.
But “a grocery” is not what interests Goodrich’s customers, who are legion. Chalgian summed up the conflict in the form of two questions to herself.
“Do I want Goodrich’s to survive and thrive? Absolutely. Do I want a developer to be able to come in and feel like that corner is a good investment, and things will improve in value? Of course.”
Chalgian is “conflicted” about the fate of Goodrich’s. She has lived in East Lansing since 1987. “What a wonderful business it is,” she said. “My husband and I spend so much money there, both for business and our family.”
She hopes “the community could rally to support this local business that has given so much flavor and good quality to our East Lansing community.”
What form could that support take?
Singer has joined many development frays in the past, but he said he doesn’t want to “tilt at windmills.”
“There’s strong sentiment in the community that we want Goodrich saved,” Singer said. “If there is a way to save it, and the owners want it to be saved, there will likely be some sort of political organization to try and make that happen.”
The Goodrich’s lease deal is a private transaction, but there are toeholds for public input. McGraw’s site plan has to be approved by the city of East Lansing. If the developer asks for brownfield funds or tax increment financing, the city, county and state of Michigan will have a say.
“There are conditions you could place in the brownfield incentives to encourage them to keep [Goodrich’s] here,” Jeffries said.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture offers 10-year tax breaks to “certain retail food establishments” that “expand, improve or open” in “underserved areas.” The incentive may apply to a Goodrich’s makeover. Jeffries said Lansing took advantage of the program when the city was looking at putting a new grocery in Colonial Village (the former L&L Food Center, renovated into a Valu Land in July).
Some Goodrich supporters suggest that as a developer, McGraw simply think twice about where his own interests lie. And they say the same of property owner Chris “Sparty” Baryames. (Baryames did not return calls from City Pulse Monday and Tuesday.)
They question whether their actions may simply stir up a hornet’s nest of ill will.
“If I was the developer looking at this,” Jeffries said, “Goodrich is the draw to this area and this whole plaza. I’d be thinking two or three times if you’re going to do something that would push these folks out of here. It would have an impact on the economic viability of the project.”
While not giving up on Goodrich’s, Power said future East Lansing Planning Commission hearings should focus on other problematic aspects of McGraw’s plan. He said lack of green space and the height of the housing units (four or five stories, depending on the variant) are among the biggest bones of contention in the neighborhood.
“Those are the issues I plan to home in on,” Power said. “Goodrich’s will seek its own level. My gut tells me, based on my experience, that there will be something else there, and that’s unfortunate. Just because I like something doesn’t mean it lives.”
Sullivan thinks a solution might still be worked out. He said he’s talking with East Lansing Citizens Concerned, McGraw, Goodrich’s Scheffel, city officials and MSU planners to set up a meeting in early January.
“There are decent chains in terms of the quality they provide, the product and the management,” Sullivan said. “Nobody’s blind to that fact. But there is a human factor here that isn’t trivial and just can’t be ignored.”