MUSKEGON — A consultant’s report that cites urban housing as potentially the best future use of the Muskegon Mall property downtown is an attempt to generate discussion on what could occur with the site if and when it becomes available, says the head of the foundation that commissioned the study.
The general feeling among many in the community is that the mall will eventually close and the downtown property will go up for sale, said Charles Johnson, president of the Paul C. Johnson Foundation. The foundation, working with business and city leaders, commissioned the study in order to have an analysis on hand that offers insights into potential redevelopment options and provides some guidance for the future, Johnson said.
“As sure as I’m sitting here, it’s going to be closed down and boarded up,” he said. “We just thought we’d take a proactive stance and try to provide some assistance to the community and get some exposure on what could happen.”
Opened in 1976 in the heart of downtown with more than 60 tenants, the Muskegon Mall has fallen on hard times of late. The decline accelerated this summer with the opening of the new Lakes Mall on Sternberg Road, just east of U.S. 31, and the relocation of some anchor stores and retail outlets.
In analyzing the property’s future, The Chesapeake Group Inc. of Baltimore, Md., concluded that replacing lost anchor stores is a “difficult and highly unlikely” prospect, and that any combination of retail functions are “improbable uses” in the foreseeable future because the property is somewhat isolated and not surrounded by significant residential pockets.
The most viable option is to tear down all or part of the mall buildings and seek to have the site redeveloped into an urban housing development that would create a cohesive neighborhood complementing the cultural and business activities in the surrounding downtown area, according to The Chesapeake Group. The planning and economic development consulting firm indicated that whoever ultimately ends up with the property could successfully recruit a developer to take on such a project.
“In downtowns throughout the country, there is a growing recognition of the importance of housing to create a ‘24-7’ environment. Furthermore, all national figures indicate a growth in in-town and downtown housing demand during the past decade,” The Chesapeake Group’s report stated.
The “downtown neighborhood housing” option, featuring townhouses and other amenities such as a fitness club or corporate retreat center, “would seem to have the greatest short-term impact with a significant long-term impact and could be built reasonably quickly. Market dynamics for the option appear to be better than those associated with most of the others as housing efforts in and near downtown Muskegon have generally met with success,” the consulting firm concluded.
But while the report offers ideas for the future, the reality is that nobody in Muskegon is in a position to do anything right now.
Chicago businessman Rick Perlman owns the Muskegon Mall and has not indicated his intentions for the property to city and business leaders, Johnson said. The anchor buildings, once listed by a Grand Rapids commercial real estate firm, were recently taken off the market.
Redevelopments occurring or planned in and around downtown Muskegon, as well as the planned SmartZone project to redevelop the former Teledyne site along Muskegon Lake into a high-tech business park, gives a heightened sense of importance to community efforts to gauge potential future uses for the mall site, Johnson said.
“We just don’t want it to sit there in the middle of our community all boarded up. That acts like a cancer to the surrounding community, so that’s why we want to do something,” Johnson said.
He worries the property may ultimately fall into foreclosure and believes it could end up in the city’s hands.
“At that point in time, the community should be in a position to take a leadership role in deciding what should be done,” Johnson said.