Can the Lansing Mall be saved? Here's what Delta Township can do to help

Rachel Greco
Lansing State Journal

DELTA TWP. – Ryan Marquardt remembers the Lansing Mall as a vibrant gathering place when he was a teenager at Waverly High School two decades ago.

The nearly 850,000-square-foot shopping center’s corridors, food court and stores were where he spent afternoons with friends and weekends with his family.

“Every single store was filled,” Marquardt, 37, said. “You’d see a lot of families come here and spend hours.”

Today, from a spot in the Lansing Mall’s nearly empty food court where Marquardt has run his Italian Village Pizza restaurant for five years, he has a front-row seat to the mall’s struggles with thinning crowds and fewer stores.

Marquardt was there when two anchor retailers, Macy’s and Younkers, closed. He watched Tequila Cowboy Bar & Grill close this spring. He's one of only two remaining food court vendors.

He hasn't given up hope. “I would like to see the mall completely reinvented,” Marquardt said.

He isn’t alone.

Ryan Marquardt, owner of Italian Village Pizza, works in the food court at the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township. Marquardt has seen first hand the struggles facing the mall while running his business over the last five years.

Township records show that Lansing Mall management staff met with Delta Township staff earlier this year “to obtain information as to what type of alternative development may be possible on the Mall’s property."

A decade ago, the owner of the Lansing Mall properties was the largest taxpayer in Delta Township. Today, current owner Brookfield Properties ranks fifth. Other companies, including Meijer and Auto-Owners Insurance, have expanded and surpassed the Lansing Mall, while tax revenue generated from the mall property has dropped by over a million dollars.

Brookfield Properties is largely mum about its plans for the Lansing Mall, but the company is redeveloping three retail centers it owns elsewhere into mixed-use venues that include retail, residential and entertainment — and township officials say they're willing to work with the company to ensure the mall property rebounds.

"The mall's heyday is over with," said Delta Township Supervisor Ken Fletcher. "It's all about just keeping the property a viable property."

How the mall has changed in 10 years

A pedestrian walks past the former location of the Younkers department story at the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

Although Lansing Mall management declined to share occupancy data, on a recent Thursday afternoon, 20 interior storefronts at the Lansing Mall were dark, their gates pulled down. 

The outline of a Younkers sign that hung on the exterior of one wing of the mall is still visible. The parking area outside the closed Macy's is empty. 

The mall's assessed value, $10.1 million, has fallen by more than 40% in the last decade, said Ted Droste, Delta Township's assessor. The sites where Regal Cinemas sits, and Younkers and Macy's once occupied are assessed separately at a combined value of $6 million, he said.

Brookfield Properties owns more than 90 acres off West Saginaw Highway, Droste said. Their property includes the land Best Buy occupies, and the site of the now-vacant Babies "R" Us.

A view of the former Macy's location at the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

The company is in the process of selling some of its 92 acres to the companies that occupy space there, including the owners of Applebee's and LongHorn Steakhouse, Delta Township Planning Director Gary Bozek said. Records don't indicate Brookfield has sold any of its acreage, Droste said.

In the last decade, tax revenue from Brookfield's property off West Saginaw Highway has dropped by approximately $1.3 million, Droste said. 

Bozek said when mall management staff came to township staff in the spring, they indicated plans to share ideas for the mall's redevelopment with Brookfield Properties' officials.

Lansing Mall General Manager Paige Moreau declined to comment on those conversations with township officials, and wouldn't discuss whether the information they gathered was shared with Brookfield Properties.

Moreau also declined to address questions about vacancies or current mall tenants, though Lansing Mall's website lists over 50 vendors housed inside the building.

The spot where Tequila Cowboy Bar & Grill used to be located at the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township. A new bar, Overdrive, is expected to open in the space next month.

The retail center is poised to gain one more in October. Overdrive, a new bar, and Hit and Run Karaoke Bar & Grill, which will be located within that bar, are slated to open in the space Tequila Cowboy Bar & Grill vacated earlier this year.

Leaving the mall:Chipotle may leave Lansing Mall, build new restaurant in Delta Twp.

Closing locations: Tequila Cowboy's Lansing Mall location is closing

Chipotle Mexican Grill is expected to leave the mall for a new 2,460-square-feet restaurant, with a drive-through window, that is proposed on land inside the Delta Center shopping plaza, just under a mile down West Saginaw Highway.

“Certainly it seems like, unfortunately, the Lansing Mall’s on a downward spiral," Delta Township Trustee Dennis Fedewa said.

That was apparent more than three years ago when Mark McGee closed the restaurant he and wife Krysta McGee operated from a Lansing Mall food court space, Mark's Gourmet Dogs.

The couple occupied the space for a year rent-free, thanks to a win on Food Network's "Food Court Wars," that aired in May of 2014.

After their first year in business there, McGee said mall management wanted $4,000 a month to continue renting the space. The couple was offered another six months in the space rent-free after they notified them of plans to leave.

"It still wasn't worth it," he said. 

They left at the end of 2015 to open Mark's Place, an eatery in their hometown of Eaton Rapids, McGee said, in part because doing business in the mall was a struggle. Not even the opening of Regal Cinemas, in the summer of 2014, helped boost business, he said.

"I don't know how you save that place. I think they needed to look at that 10 years ago. I feel like they didn't see it then."

Owners mum about the mall's future

One of the busier entrances at Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

If Delta Township had to identify a downtown, the mall property would be it, Bozek said.

Its footprint is centrally located in the township, which has a population of over 33,000, and not far from popular public amenities, including the Delta Township Library and Sharp Park.

And residents care about what happens to the Lansing Mall.

"People who have grown up in the township do consider that one of the main attractions of the area, so yeah, I think it is important that we maintain viability," Bozek said. "What that’s going to look like, we don’t know, but I think it’s important to the residents that we maintain the site as something viable that people want to go to."

Township officials aren’t helpless, Fedewa said.

“It comes down to this: What can the township board proactively do? What can we do proactively to steer this thing for some better outcome in the long run, rather than sit by the sidelines and watch it decay?”

One of the busier entrances at Lansing Mall, on Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

That's made more challenging, township officials say, because they haven't been able to meet with officials from Brookfield Properties directly about the mall's future.

The company owns more than 570 properties around the world, more than 150 of which are retail centers, according to Brookfield's website.

Brookfield acquired the Lansing Mall in 2016, when it bought Rouse Properties, according to Delta Township Economic Development Coordinator Ed Reed.

Last year when township officials learned that Impact Church was planning to move into a space in the Lansing Mall they attempted to talk with company officials about the direction the mall was headed, Fedewa said, but got no real answers about its future.

Future plans:Will a new tenant invigorate the Lansing Mall?

“We really pressed the owner then,” he said. “What are your plans? What is your vision? And we really didn’t get a straight answer. We’ve been sort of frustrated. I think that frustration is really across the entire board.”

“We would like to sit down with the mall and talk with them in detail about what they have planned, but we haven’t been able to do that," Bozek said, although he said local mall management does communicate with them when new tenants come in.

Fletcher said right now it isn't clear that Brookfield Properties has developed a clear vision for the mall.

"It just seems they are filling empty spaces with whatever they find to fill them with," he said.

Paving the way for a re-imagined mall

A rendering of what the redevelopment of Northbrook Court Mall in Northbrook, Illinois will look like after its owner, Brookfield Properties, completes the $250 million project. The Canadian-based company also owns the Lansing Mall.

In an email to the State Journal, Claudia Ilagan, a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, said "...we are always pursuing ways to evolve the customer experience at Lansing Mall and are in constant communication with different retailers.

"While in progress, we are not yet ready to talk publicly about our plans," she said.

In 2007, when township officials wanted to know what it would take to create a downtown amid the hustle and bustle of growing development that surrounded Saginaw Highway they commissioned the "Delta Township Town Center Feasibility Study" to seek answers.

The study, by McKenna Associates, Inc., cost just under $30,000.

Initially, consultants didn't look at the Lansing Mall property as a potential site for a  downtown Delta. Three other locations — Mall Drive East/Saginaw Highway, Saginaw Highway at the Interstate-96/I-69 interchange, and the south side of Saginaw Highway at Creyts Road — were considered first.

When none of them panned out, the study concluded that the mall "is the most appropriate site for future development." Property renovation could include housing and entertainment, the study concluded.

"This is the ideal location for the Delta Township Center District," it said. "Instead of being characterized by asphalt parking lots, redevelopment of this district can include significant civic and park space, improved pedestrian accessibility, non-motorized transportation connections, stormwater best practices – all without sacrificing the demands of a large retail center – namely accessible, convenient and clearly visible parking and site design that promotes visibility and access."

Township officials could help make it happen, the study outlined, by offering the mall's owners tax incentives and flexible mixed-use zoning for the property. The property is currently zoned for commercial use, Droste said.

The study outlined how the municipality could help “to create a Township Center on the Lansing Mall property that includes residential, retail, office and entertainment uses.” 

That isn't far-fetched, when you consider redevelopment efforts of least three other large-scale retail centers owned by Brookfield Properties that are similar to what was outlined for the Lansing Mall in the study 12 years ago.

In the Village of Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago, the company plans to transform Northbrook Court Mall into a mixed use development.

When the $250 million project is finished, the shopping center, which is only slightly larger than the Lansing Mall at just over a 1 million square feet, will become a town center.

An old Macy's advertisement on the door of the empty location at the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

Plans include demolishing a vacant Macy's at one end of the mall to build a luxury apartments building. Approximately 75,000-square-foot of additional retail will be added, the current mall will be refurbished and a large lawn area will be developed and surrounded by restaurants.

Village of Northbrook President Sandy Frum said before Brookfield Properties approached officials with their plans the property's zoning didn't allow for anything beyond retail. The township changed it to allow for mixed uses, and created a tax increment financing district that froze tax rates at the property and helped pave the way for the project. 

"They couldn’t just come in and do whatever they wanted," Frum said. "They had to come to us."

But ensuring that Northbrook Court, which already suffered from concerning vacancies, would remain a viable property was worth working with the company, she said.

"It was an easy decision for me," she said. "My attitude was, this is too important to the Village of Northbrook to turn down. There wasn’t another development that was going to come in and suddenly buy the mall and come in with a different proposal."

Several Delta Township officials say updating the 12-year-old feasibility study could be a first step to proactively ensuring the Lansing Mall property is viable in the future.

Township staff have already asked McKenna Associates, Inc. what it would cost to update the study.

Both Fedewa and Fletcher said they believe officials would be willing to consider working with Brookfield Properties to redevelop the property.

"The township wants to see the area redeveloped," Fletcher said. "If they came to us with a proposal that would possibly make this a strong property we would be very open to working with them."

Subdivision may be part of the answer

It’s important for township officials to understand what Brookfield's intention for the Lansing Mall is, Bozek said.

“If there’s some way we can facilitate something they want to do, we can decide what they have to do to get it done,” he said. “Basically, what do you want to do? How can we help?”

Fedewa said it's clear that more retail alone won't save the mall.

Lettering from an Old Navy store that closed 10 years ago is still visible outside the Lansing Mall on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Delta Township.

Sub-dividing the property could be part of the answer, he said.

“It doesn’t have to be a single property,” Fedewa said. “Maybe it could be subdivided certain ways.”

Incorporating mixed uses could help too, say officials.

When Overdrive, a new bar, opens in the mall in October its co-owner Don Johnson said it can only help the rest of the mall's current vendors. It's also proof, he said, that mall management is moving things in the right direction.

"I can stand alone," Johnson said. "I don't need the mall's other stores, but this business will help the mall. It will bring in a ton of traffic.They may shop the stores here."

People don't want to frequent enclosed shopping centers to access one store anymore, Marquardt said.

What's coming?:New bar to fill void left by Tequila Cowboy closure in Lansing Mall

"People are so busy," he said, so an open-air shopping experience might help the Lansing Mall.

Marquardt's hopeful for the mall's future, and hasn't decided what he'll do when his lease ends there in two years. 

"A lot of people love this mall. It just needs to stick around and be redeveloped. I think it would help this area so much if it was revitalized back to the way it used to be."

Contact Rachel Greco at rgreco@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

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