Traverse City News and Events

New Rules Could Pave Way For Mall Transformations

By Beth Milligan | July 12, 2018

Grand Traverse Mall and Cherryland Center could undergo major transformations after Garfield Township trustees Tuesday approved sweeping changes to zoning rules for the properties, allowing mixed-used developments and hotels to be built on the sites and opening the door for tenants including Wahlburgers, Starbucks, and Firehouse Subs to open new locations on mall land.

Garfield Township trustees unanimously approved a recommendation from the township planning commission to rewrite the rules for the C-P (planned shopping center) district, a category that includes both malls as well as the Traverse City Meijer store. The zoning changes follow several months of debate and public hearings by planning commissioners, who aimed to “give the township’s malls the flexibility that they need to be successful in a changing retail atmosphere,” according to Township Planner Rob Larrea. He told planning commissioners that unless Garfield Township updated its zoning rules for the malls, “those properties will certainly go down.” Several major national retail tenants have closed their doors at the malls in recent years, particularly at the Cherryland Center, which lost anchor tenants Kmart, Sears, and Younkers in the last 12 months.

Larrea said the new zoning rules will help the malls attract new types of businesses and spur redevelopment on both properties. Chief among the approved changes is allowing drive-thrus at the malls – which were previously banned – and reducing setback requirements from 100 feet to 10-30 feet, depending on the location. Those changes will allow for the construction of new “outlot” or standalone buildings that could house restaurants and retail stores in unused areas of mall parking lots.

“The development of outlots in particular is one way by which malls are adapting, and this amendment should make the development of them more likely,” Larrea noted. “It is not uncommon at all to see numerous outlots in successful malls elsewhere in the state. Under the ordinance as it reads now, these more modern approaches to shopping centers are very difficult for a developer to accomplish.”

Larrea said his office has fielded calls from multiple national retailers interested in opening outlot buildings at the Grand Traverse Mall after learning of the proposed zoning changes.

“Wahlburgers, Starbucks, Firehouse Subs are all waiting for this amendment to come through so that they can go in this district,” Larrea said. “They can’t go in this district right now. Why? Because we don’t allow drive-thrus. That’s how antiquated this section is in our ordinance. And that’s why we looked at it, we reviewed it, (and) we talked for months on this (proposal).”

Other zoning changes approved Tuesday include raising the allowable building height on mall properties to 50 feet/four stories – the tallest height allowed in Garfield Township – and allowing a lengthy list of new uses on mall properties. Those uses are also now allowed by right, meaning mall owners can build them automatically without having to obtain a special use permit from the township. Allowed uses by right now include indoor entertainment centers, coffee shops, bakeries, bars and night clubs, multi-family housing developments, hotels, financial institutions, grocery stores, live-work units, recreation facilities, restaurants, offices, and retail and department stores, among others.

“We’re trying to (encourage) a mixed-use project, allowing businesses to come in there, allowing apartments, allowing hotels,” explained Larrea. “We want to make it a place where people are going to say, ‘Let’s go hang out there.’ By (approving the zoning changes), you’re allowing the owners the ability to sell some of their parking areas.”

Trustee Steve Duell, who also sits on the planning commission, added the township was trying to encourage the redevelopment of mall properties to become more like “plazas, downtown-type areas. It’s not the old malls where you pull in, you park in the parking lot, and walk to the building…I compare it to the Buffalo Ridge (Center), because it’s going to have a lot of corridors, it’s going to have trees, it’s going to have walkpaths. It’s a community area.”

While both township planning commissioners and trustees unanimously supported the zoning changes, a handful of concerns emerged during board discussion and public comment Tuesday. Trustee Dan Walters voiced concern that Grand Traverse Mall would focus on constructing new outlot buildings and neglect revitalizing its main mall building, leading to a “dead heart” in the center of the property. Attorney Ken Petterson, representing Schostak Brothers & Company – which owns nearly a dozen acres of property on the east side of the Cherryland Center, including the former Kmart building – said the zoning changes would primarily benefit Grand Traverse Mall and were “woefully inadequate” in addressing the needs of the Cherryland Center.

“(The Cherryland Center) is not a prime retail space anymore, unfortunately – the development is all on the 31 corridor,” Petterson said. He later noted that “none of (the potential new national tenants) are going into the Cherryland Center…they’re all going into the mall.” The attorney suggested planning commissioners “slow down” and consider different zoning rules for Cherryland Center that would allow that property to be redeveloped in a different way than Grand Traverse Mall. Schostak Brothers & Company wants to bring a $10 million U-Haul development into its former Kmart space and is pursuing a separate text amendment to the zoning code to allow for that usage. However, Petterson pointed out the new mall zoning rules (as with the old) do not allow uses such as warehousing or outdoor storage/display of inventory, blocking U-Haul’s ability to open on the property.

“We’re kind of at a crossroads here, where you have an opportunity to redevelop a stagnate site with somebody willing to come in and put millions of dollars in,” Petterson told planning commissioners.

But Larrea said that Schostak Brothers & Company was one of three owners of Cherryland Center property, and that other owners were interested in pursuing different plans under the zoning changes. One owner wants to build a hotel on the property that would partially encompass the Kmart site, but was unsuccessful in getting Schostak Brothers & Company to return his calls, Larrea said. Duell suggested the three owners meet “to form an alliance…and figure out what they’re going to do with that monster parcel there.” Larrea added that in the case of both the Cherryland Center and Grand Traverse Mall, it will now be up to property owners to make the most of the new opportunities allowed by the zoning changes.

“We’re providing the tools for them to be successful,” he said. “Whether they take (advantage of) them, it’s up to them."

Pictured: Grand Traverse Mall

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