New proposal for Georgetown Mall property deserves a receptive but thorough review
From The Harbor Companies LLC
We would love to see the Georgetown Mall property in Ann Arbor redeveloped, and we don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.
So we’re glad both the city of Ann Arbor and state regulators are taking an open-minded approach to a $30 million mixed-use project being proposed for the vacant property. But given the recent history of this site, the property owner could help his own cause by including input from neighbors into the design and by doing more to demonstrate his own commitment to the project.
The fate of the Georgetown Mall property has been of great concern to the surrounding neighborhood since it was announced that the last remaining tenant, a Kroger grocery store, would close in the fall of 2009.
For the neighbors, it wasn’t just the loss of convenient, nearby retail options. When a 6.5-acre commercial space goes fallow and begins to decay, it can contribute to a decline of the area around it.
Realizing that, members of the Georgetown Neighborhood Association have been working closely with city and county officials and the property owner to combat the potential for blight and to encourage some new, productive use for the property. We highly commend them for their proactive, involved approach.
Neighbors are cautiously encouraged, as they should be, by the recent announcement that Bloomfield Hills-based developer Craig Schubiner wants to revitalize the former strip mall by tearing down the existing buildings and replacing them with a $30 million mixed-use development called Packard Square. It would include 230 apartment units and 21,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a covered garage, a central plaza and park space.
Schubiner is asking for millions of dollars in tax breaks to help finance the project, including tax-incremental financing and Michigan Business Tax brownfield credits and other state grants and loans.
The drawings for this project look enticing, but then again, schematic designs usually do. The real merit of this project will be judged by its worthiness for the tax breaks it is requesting, by its compatibility with the neighborhood and perhaps above all, by its commercial viability and ability to secure financing. The last thing that neighborhood needs is a heavily tax-subsidized project that suffers the same fate as its predecessor because there’s not a market for what it’s offering.
So far, city officials have expressed a willingness to work with Schubiner on this project, but they want to see more details. Right now, the project is before the city’s Brownfield Review Committee, and the developer is expected to submit a final proposal on Feb. 28. Concurrently, he’s submitted plans to the Planning Department.
At times, we have criticized the city for the tortuous and arbitrary process that it sometimes puts development projects through. But this project is not one that should be fast-tracked. We expect the city to give it a thorough, careful review, both because of the large amount of public funds that would be involved and because of the developer’s checkered background with this particular property and others.
In 2008, Schubiner proposed to revive the mall with a project called Georgetown Commons, a concept that would have included a 45,000-square-foot Kroger, a number of other retail shops and 150 apartments. Noting came of that plan. Meanwhile, his $2 billion Bloomfield Park project in Oakland County went belly-up in 2008 and is often pointed to as a poster child of failed real estate development in Michigan.
We recognize the severe hardships that many developers like Schubiner faced in the economic meltdown of 2008, and we would be glad to see him succeed with this new concept for the Georgetown Mall. Both the neighborhood and the city as a whole stand to benefit if he does.
While city and state officials consider his proposal, Schubiner can help his own cause by listening to the input of neighbors and incorporating their concerns into his final designs. Their primary concerns seems to be whether the number of apartment units being proposed is appropriate, or too dense for the property. Planning standards can help answer that question.
At the least, Schubiner has demonstrated a willingness to listen to homeowners’ concerns about deterioration of the former strip mall after the Kroger store closed. Blighting conditions have been addressed as neighbors have pointed them out.
Still, there also is the matter of $277,000 in back taxes owed on the property. New development of the land can’t begin until those taxes are paid. If the developer wants to demonstrate his good faith, as well as his financial ability to undertake a project of this scope, resolving the delinquent taxes would be an opportunity to do both.
For people living in the Georgetown neighborhood, the long, slow decline of the retail strip was a sad, distressing thing to watch. They are hoping for a better future for the site. Schubiner deserves the opportunity to demonstrate that Packard Square is the answer, and that he is capable of delivering it.
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board at AnnArbor.com.)