Sept. 7 2016 09:57 AM

Vacant storefronts tarnish Lansing's ‘Main Street’

On a map it's Washington Square, but for Lansing it's really Main Street. Look at old photos and its clear that this was where shopping and entertainment happened: Walgreen Drugs, Woolworth’s, Richman's Clothes, Uncle Sam's Steak House, the Michigan Theatre.

All gone and never coming back. Washington Square has always transitioned, and lately it seems to be struggling. Not like downtown Flint, fortunately, but not as healthy as it was a few years ago.

Washington Square mostly serves a narrow niche market, lunch for some of the 34,000 people working downtown. But stretching much beyond that is a challenge, and a walk through this business district finds a worrisome number of vacant storefronts.

That's always the thing with the Washington Square corridor, promise and potential. But when and does it happen?

Three or four years ago, you could make the case that Washington Square was hitting its stride. The bar scene — for better or worse — was hopping and together with a stretch of Michigan Avenue opposite the Lansing Center, downtown was trending cool. Now, on Washington Square, it's simply cooling, even though some of the vacancies could be filled in coming weeks and months.

The abandoned Lansing State Journal building on Lenawee Street and the largely emptied Lake Trust building one block to the west has hollowed out the south end of Washington Square.

The nearby Palace of Jamaica has closed. Heading north, the spacious first floor of the spiffy Knapp's Center is mostly vacant (a 2,300 square-foot JB's Sarnie Shoppe — breakfast and sandwiches — opened on Tuesday). The Eyde Co., which has leased most of the office space in the historically renovated Streamline Moderne building, is waiting for the right major tenant for the big room: a high-quality restaurant.

It's the smart strategy and good for the long term. But for now it's just open space, as is the shuttered Hallmark store and the adjacent Secrets Nightclub. Also on the prime 200 block, the first floor that housed Lenny's Subs is vacant, as are Brannigan Brothers and the Black Rose, another bar. Just across the street is another big vacancy, Eden Rock. That's at least six empty store fronts right in the heart of “Main Street.”

Head north and the Corner Market and Michael G's Hair are gone. Head south and Tom and Chee has closed, though a new business is expected to open there soon.

Some of the decline has coincided with the troubles of Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, whose Lansing footprint has shriveled. In 2011, it reported enrollment of 3,628 full-time (737) and part-time (2,891) students. For 2015, enrollment it reported was just 1,342: 174 full time and 1,168 part time. This is spread out on campuses in Michigan and Florida, but Lansing is the big school and the students, older and often living downtown, helped prime the Washington Square economy.

There's also been a decline in state workers downtown, which hurts as well.

Downtown Lansing Inc., one of the entities engaged in promoting and developing the city's business district, contends that overall, things are going well downtown.

Mindy Biladeau, the group's executive director, said the vacancy rate for downtown business — only some of which operates on Washington Street — is just under 10 percent. The district covers an area roughly bounded by Capitol Avenue on the west side, Larch Street on the east, I-496 on the south and Shiawassee Street on the north, with about 300 very-large-to-very-small businesses, Biladeau said.

Downtown Lansing Inc. President Terry Carella, Cooley's director of communications, illustrated the health of downtown business with a four-year snapshot: $69.9 million in private investment, 46 new businesses, 200 new residential units. She added that between 2015/2016, Downtown Lansing Inc. helped produce 33 events.

Among them are Common Ground, the Capital City River Run, Trick-or Treat on the Square and Jazz on the Grand, all very nice for the big “downtown” district but not much focus on Washington Square. Events like car shows and after-work bands, once staged along the street, no longer happen. And they should.

In towns with more vibrant main streets, events are designed to attract shoppers, diners and partiers. For Holland, the city pivots on its 8th Street, five blocks of restaurants, bars, boutiques, specialty shops and offices.

“We have something in the summer every Thursday, street performers in different locations with different musicians, jugglers or clowns,” said Jill Raywood, of the city's Downtown Development Authority. The vacancy rate in Holland's business district is less than a half percent, reflecting a private partnership that started in earnest in the mid-1980s just as a new mall was opening in the area, she said.

Officials with Downtown Lansing Inc. bristle at comparisons with cities like Holland and Kalamazoo, also supporting a vibrant downtown. Lansing is a different kind of city, where 34,000 workers arrive weekday mornings and race back home at the close of business.

But Washington Square is too important for Lansing to neglect. That some of downtown's sizzle has shifted to Michigan Avenue doesn't excuse the lack of focus on the city's 'Main Street.” Certainly the city can support both if it wants to.