Oct. 31 2018 09:51 AM

Owner cites misunderstanding, promises to collaborate

    City Council last week took steps that could eventually launch a full-scale investigation into this shopping plaza near the intersection of Pleasant Grove and Holmes roads. Amarjit Singh and his family said they’re doing everything they can to improve conditions at the property to curb a lengthy history of concerns.


    WEDNESDAY, Oct. 31 — Amarjit Singh is scared. Lansing’s City Council is coming after him. The Lansing businessman and his family purchased a shopping plaza near the intersection of Pleasant Grove and Holmes roads this summer. They’ve since installed security cameras, repaved portions of the parking lot and sold a swathe of the property to make room for a neighborhood pocket park. But city officials said problems persist.


    The City Council — in an evening of legislative expediency — unanimously passed a resolution through two committees and the full Council that could eventually enable a full-fledged investigation into the “nuisance” property, President Carol Wood said. She noted that the Singhs have ignored requests to collaborate for weeks.


    But Balbir Singh and Mandeep Singh, after the City Council gave them one last chance to meet and address the concerns last week, appeared at a special public safety committee meeting on Tuesday with hopes of settling their differences. And they agreed to a laundry list of various, city-requested property improvements.


    “You’re going to have parents, coaches and people in that plaza,” Wood said. “If there aren’t improvements made there — and there are some of those same issues — it’s not just going to be those neighbors around that are frustrated. It’s going to be the entire city. Those eyes will be watching what’s going on over there.”


    Council members previously outlined a lengthy list of concerns. Accusations of loitering, drug dealing on the premises, trespassing, loud music, underage liquor sales and a lack of cooperation with the Lansing Police Department were voiced by multiple members of the City Council. The Singhs, too, acknowledged problems.


    Some businesses have moved out because of the ongoing concerns, said Councilman Adam Hussain. Others refuse to move in. A few residents have left the neighborhood specifically because of the problematic shopping plaza. Hussain said its infamous reputation has garnered the corner an uncomfortable nickname: “The Trap.”


    “We’re not here to tell you how to run your business,” Hussain said. “We’re trying to obviously problem-solve this together. What we’re telling you is that it’s a problem. Some of my buddies — who really are not all too happy with me to be quite frank — they call it ‘The Trap.’ That’s a problem.”


    Amarjit Singh signed an informal document on city letterhead in August to promise improvements. It indicates he would close on the sale of the property and sell a portion to the South West Action Group. He also agreed to upgrade lighting, install cameras and signage and work alongside the local police department to curb problems.


    Paving equipment is parked near the plaza and portions of the lot appear freshly restriped. Mandeep Singh said his family is just waiting for the South West Action Group, a neighborhood improvement orgsnization, to build their park before the job is finished. Cameras surround every tenant space.


    Nobody was lingering around outside. Officials at the Lansing Police Department also said Singh has been in contact with police officers since he signed the city’s non-legally binding agreement.


    The community gathered for a celebration last week to announce a Town Square near the site, complete with a sculpture funded by a $75,000 grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. The property, for the most part, appears to be on the upswing as the Singhs continue to make their own improvements to the shopping plaza.


    “Maybe there’s a misunderstanding somewhere,” Amarjit Singh said. “Anytime I can help, I will. If I can do something for the community, I don’t have any problems with that. I can’t always leave the building. I work alone in here. That’s the scary part. I’m scared. I have three kids and a family. I don’t want to get shot out here.”


    The family, however, hasn’t yet connected their security cameras into police systems through LPD’s camera surveillance program. Wood suggested the Singhs could also do a better job keeping in touch with the local community police officer. A large amount of time was also spent discussing the ongoing sale of pre-iced styrofoam cups.


    Council members suggested customers routinely purchase the cups along with jiggers of booze to whip up their own streetside cocktails and lounge around the parking lot. Hussain said some local troublemakers — in what essentially creates an illegal open-air bar — have been known to linger outside for several hours a day.


    Selling cups of ice is obviously legal. Hussain said the city ultimately can’t force the Singhs to stop selling them. It was only mentioned because he knows the ease of access will only exacerbate existing problems, he said later.


    Still, Mandeep Singh provided an assurance that his family would work to solve the issue. They’ll register cameras within the next two weeks, reach out to the police department and establish a plan for the parking lot.


    Business at the increasingly vacant plaza has been slow and the parking lot is quiet. Problematic loitering that once plagued the storefront has only decreased. Amarjit Singh stopped selling loose cigarettes a few weeks ago and routinely leaves his liquor store to nudge the riffraff off of his property. He said he can only do so much.


    “Maybe there’s a misunderstanding somewhere,” Singh said. “Anytime I can help, I will. If I can do something for the community, I don’t have any problems with that. I can’t always leave the building. I work alone in here. That’s the scary part. I’m scared. I have three kids and a family. I don’t want to get shot out here.”


    The Singhs also flatly denied any accusations of underage liquor sales and contended they’ve never missed any messages from City Attorney Jim Smiertka’s office. A City Pulse reporter was able to contact Amarjit Singh immediately by phone. He was also willing to chat while he worked the counter at Von’s Food Market.


    “We’re still working on it,” Amarjit Singh emphasized. “Hopefully everything will be finished in the next couple weeks. What else? Just let me know. I can take care of this. I don’t want any more headaches from the city. … The main problem is the black barbershop. I could let him go also but how are we going to pay the property taxes?”


    Sonny Pea — the owner of True Styles and Fades — said any issues with loitering have disappeared since police ramped up their patrols. The only people in front of his business are waiting for an appointment, he said. Besides, the other businesses in the plaza are vacant. “Ain’t nothing a problem out here,” Pea added.


    Council members have looked for months to address their perceived concerns at the Singhs’ plaza. A man was shot there in June, suffering non-life-threatening injuries. The Lansing Police Department subsequently increased patrols on that block — and racked up more than 500 hours of overtime in the process.


    Within a quarter-mile radius of that intersection, only 22 actual reports were fielded by officers between January and September, which is “pretty low,” according to LPD spokesman Robert Merritt. The bottom line, he said, is that police have been effective with improving the “quality of life” issues expressed from the community.


    So why the fuss from the City Council? Because Wood has fielded neighborhood complaints about that property for years. She said the Singhs could put up more signs or hire a security guard. Their presence on that block is “only creating problems” in an otherwise quiet neighborhood focused on improvement, she said.


    “We have one property owner that doesn’t seem to be cooperating and continues to bring down the other positive activities happening near that intersection,” Wood added. “We have people loitering and urinating in public. There are a number of things happening there that are dragging that neighborhood down.”


    The City Council, under city charter, is authorized to conduct investigations into the affairs of the city. Wood likened the process to a grand jury investigation that would eventually determine if there’s enough evidence to formally declare the plaza a public nuisance. And a perceived lack of cooperation has only heightened concerns.


    “We just want to work through the situation,” Wood said. “It’s our hope to bring people to the table to have a discussion and come up with solutions that work for everybody. But having said that, you get to a point where enough is enough. We have to move forward somehow and this is how we’re going to go about doing that.”


    The Singhs have a limited amount of time to make improvements before City Council could continue forward with their previously authorized, investigatory plans. The family, in the meantime, claimed to only want to help.


    “City Council wants to clean this up,” Amarjit Singh said. “Tell me what I need to do. I need to go outside and mess with these people? You can tell me to take care of these things and I can take care of them. It’s no problem.”