By IAN K. KULLGREN
Capital News Service
LANSING — As some Michigan newspapers downsize to smaller offices, they are leaving behind massive buildings that are outdated, but still critical to the communities they cover.
Some of these cavernous quarters, once anchors of downtown business districts, are being renovated, divided up and in some cases torn down to make way for prospective buyers in the education and health fields.
Others, meanwhile, face an uncertain future.
Officials in Grand Rapids have announced plans to demolish the 173,840-square-foot Grand Rapids Press building to make way for a new, six-story biomedical research center operated by Michigan State University. The old building, opened in 1966, is in the heart of the city’s downtown. The new building is slated to open by 2017.
The old Kalamazoo Gazette building, which occupies an entire block on the Kalamazoo Mall downtown, is still in flux. A developer of health care facilities purchased it in March, but hasn’t announced its plans for the space.
And in Detroit, the former Free Press a building was purchased by a Chinese development group planning to turn it into apartments and retail space. Dan Gilbert, chair of Quicken Loans Inc., bought the Detroit News building a few blocks away. Newspapers in Jackson, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City have made similar moves.
These buildings pose a challenge for city planners because they are old and can’t easily be retrofitted for mixed housing and retail.
In the case of the Grand Rapids Press, the land is worth more than the building itself, said Kristopher Larson, director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority.
“From a facility standpoint, it’s pretty much obsolete,” Larson said.
Finding a new use for that space was important, Larson said, because it separates downtown from an old gentrified industrial neighborhood.
“It’s a three-story building built in a different day and age,” he said. “It basically disconnects that neighborhood from downtown.”
Like many old newspaper buildings, the site of the old Grand Rapids Press building is polluted from decades of ink and other chemicals used during the printing process, Larson said.
The Lansing State Journal put its headquarters up for sale in 2013 but plans to keep its staff in the downtown Lansing building until the property sells.
Many of the newspapers, including the Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette and Saginaw News, have remained in downtown areas.
“I think that anybody that has made this move is still striving to be an integral part of the downtown environment,” said Mike MacLaren, executive director of the Michigan Press Association. “They certainly haven’t done anything but move away from older buildings that have legacy costs.”
At the root of it is a shift away from print newspapers as a primary delivery method for news, experts say. Many companies, including Advance Publications Inc. that owns the Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette and five other newspapers in the state,
have outsourced printing and cut back home delivery to three days a week. The publications, in turn, have moved into smaller existing office spaces.
“The nature of newspapering is changed to the extent that you don’t need these big buildings,” said Stephen Lacy, the acting dean of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences who specializes in media economics. “It’s happening all over the country.”
Earlier this year, the Boston Globe hired a consultant to sell its headquarters. The Washington Post is also planning to sell its main building and move to leased office spaces a few blocks away from its current location in downtown Washington.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 29, 2014, to correct the purchaser of the Detroit News building.
By IAN K. KULLGREN