Vacant buildings turning into an anomaly for Old Town

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Paul Emery's property at 304 E. Grand River Ave.  Photo by Zachary Barnes

Paul Emery’s property at 304 E Grand River Ave.
Photo by Zachary Barnes

Zachary Barnes
Old Town Lansing Times Staff Reporter

The vacant commercial buildings in Old Town aren’t set to be empty for much longer.

One may notice when walking down the few streets that make up the Old Town neighborhood that there are a noticeable number of vacant buildings for such a small area. For the part of Lansing that prides itself so much on growth, it can be seen as a sad sight. But by no means are vacancies or trying to fill these buildings a problem for Old Town.

“We are pretty much at capacity in terms of our commercial spaces at this point,” said Austin Ashley, Executive Director of the Old Town Commercial Association. “When you’re in the core of Old Town there is really only one or two businesses that I can think of in terms of it having a vacancy and there’s nothing coming into it.”

Ashley said there are people looking into the buildings that are up to code and ready to be leased.

Paul Emery, the owner of the vacant building at 304 E. Grand River Ave. said buildings in Old Town don’t stay vacant for long. The only reason his property is empty is because the former renter had internal issues, not because of lack of business.

“Old Town is a hot market. I never have vacancies. I haven’t had vacancies for more than a couple months, ever,” said Emery. “Im always able to find another renter without doing any advertising. I just put a sign up in the window and a notice on the Old Town website. Its been six weeks since I’ve had the sign up in the window, and I’ve probably gotten eight different calls from people (potential renters).”

If there’s a problem with vacancies, it’s the actual battle to obtain one of the current vacant spaces many shop owners like Sarah Christiansen of Katalyst Gallery, had to face.

“My business is about five and a half years old and I had the same problem that people have now. There isn’t enough space here,” said Christiansen. “All of the businesses that don’t currently have something in them are being worked on so something can go in them. We have a list of people waiting to get in them.”

A property on Grand River owned by Musselman Realty up for lease. Photo By Zachary Barnes

A property on Grand River Avenue up for lease.
Photo By Zachary Barnes

Troy Arient a store manager at Bradly’s Home and Garden also said vacant buildings aren’t really seen as an “eye sore” because they aren’t that common.

“A lot of times, they’re not vacant for long,” said Arient. “Celeste, that’s with Retail Therapy over on Turner Street, she had a pop-up-shop in here (Bradly’s Home and Garden) while she was looking for a space in Old Town and actually couldn’t even find anything that was vacant.”

Looking at the recent trend in growth in Old Town, professor John E. Mogk, an expert in neighborhood rehabilitation at Wayne State University, said vacant buildings surrounded by new, creative shops is a sign of good things to come, not an area under stress.

“It sounds like there is sufficient interest and activity in the area that growth is occurring. That withstanding the fact that there are still some vacant buildings standing. Vacant buildings have a chilling effect on the market in that they can drop an area into decline by virtue of being blight,” said Mogk. “But then at some point the area will turn around and the market then begins to come back to the area. Eventually the market continues to gravitate to that area and buildings are rehabbed and rented. The direction of the future of that neighborhood has reversed. It’s now heading towards revitalization.”

Emery says the main reason some buildings stay vacant is because the owners don’t understand all that goes into making a building up to code. So the buildings are too unsafe to have a commercial shop lease it for business. Not that it’s hard to find a tenant.

“In general what happens is people may find out if they buy a building that has been vacant for five or 10 years or even longer, they may underestimate the amount of money it cost to bring it up to code,” said Emery. “And that’s really the only thing that would keep those places from being renovated and rented out.”

The building at 204 Grand River that is waiting to be approved by the Office of Building Safety Photo by Zachary Barnes

The building at 204 Grand River that is waiting to be approved by the Office of Building Safety
Photo by Zachary Barnes

The property on 204 E. Grand River Ave. is one of the buildings that has been deemed by the Lansing Office of Building Safety as not up to code. The former owner of the building, Lyle Laylin, was the type of landlord Emery referred to, where he bit off more than he could chew.

“I never had a store in it while I owned it. I had plans, but I never got the building rehabbed. That’s why I wound up selling it,” said Laylin. “I wasn’t getting it done, it needed to get done, so I sold it to somebody who would get it done. It was a bigger job than I could handle.”

The building at 204 has been vacant since the ’80s, and is now in the hands of Tom Arnold, a local developer that has dealt with renovating properties in the Lansing area before.

“The rehab process started over a year ago. We had a handshake deal in place and I’ve known him (Laylin) a long time, so I just started working on it. I’m hoping it will be done by the fall or early winter of this year,” said Arnold “They (the city of Lansing) are really trying to get people to fix up their buildings.”

Vacant buildings are more of a sign of opportunity rather than a city breaking apart. Other shop owners see that commercial businesses are opening up in that area and doing well, so they take a chance themselves.

“It builds on itself as shops open up and stay open and attract customers,” said Mogk. “That’s seen by other investors as a very good sign that there’s a market for various goods and services that could be tapped for profit.”

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