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Downtown Grosse Pointe Recovers from Losing Jacobson’s Department Store
By Christina McKenna
Anyone looking for proof that the loss of a major downtown tenant is a survivable event, need only look as far as Grosse Pointe where public officials and planners were forced to confront head-on the loss of Jacobson’s Department Store that for generations anchored the retail district and helped shape the very identity of Grosse Pointe’s downtown.
The progressive strategy they followed in the wake of the closure not only put Grosse Pointe on course for a new era of success, put provides a model for other Michigan cities looking to not only survive, but thrive after the loss of a major downtown business.
The “problem” was the vacancy created almost overnight when in late 2000 Jacobson’s announced the closure of several Michigan stores, including the one that had for decades occupied 135,000 square feet on Kercheval Avenue in the heart of Grosse Pointe’s downtown core, known as the Village. The loss was enormous, both in terms of its physical space and symbolism.
“For many people, Jacobson’s epitomized downtown Grosse Pointe—it WAS the Village’s identity, and served for generations as the anchor for all of the Grosse Pointe community,” said Scrace. “To see it disappear almost overnight was frightening to a lot of people.”
INCENTIVE-BASED ZONING ORDINANCE
The city’s first step was to draft and pass incentive-based text amendments to the zoning ordinance to allow for the addition of up to two more floors atop the two-story building—a change likely to appeal to developers seeking to repurpose the space for a range of uses. The amendments also permitted residential use—a first for the Village.
“The benefit of residential is that it automatically populates the downtown district, bringing 24-hour activity and a constant sense of vibrancy,” said John R. Jackson, AICP who is vice president for McKenna Associates, Grosse Pointe’s planning consulting firm and a life-long Grosse Pointer. “By allowing residential use and permitting the addition of two more floors, we were off to a good start, but had a long way to go.”
KNOW THE MARKET–MARKET STUDY
In providing planning services, Jackson helped guide the city through the process of creating a new master plan, beginning with a market study to determine what actual uses of the former Jacobson’s space would be viable.
“The market study was key, giving us a realistic picture of where we stood,” said Jackson. “It made clear that at best the market would support perhaps half or a third as much retail as we had in Jacobson’s, and that the strategy should be mixed-use compact downtown development.”
MASTER PLAN BASED ON REALITY
With that in mind, Scrace, Jackson, the city council, and the planning commission led the city through the process of creating a new master plan for the entire Village that supported mixed-use and identified key development sites. The city reached out to the community through a series of workshops designed to draw public input. Wanting new development but not wanting to change the character of the Village, the team also crafted design guidelines to ensure that new projects adhered to the Village’s traditional look.
With the master plan, market study, and design guidelines in hand, city leaders were prepared to describe the sort of quality projects and investments they knew would enhance the Village. But they knew they would need to go further if they were to plug the hole left by Jacobson’s.
DEVELOPER RECRUITMENT AND PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS
“For the first time, we entered into public-private partnerships where the city was prepared to share in the risk to make investment in our community more appealing to developers,” said City Manager Pete Dame. “It was a chance we took, but it paid off.”
The biggest public-private partnership was in demolishing the obsolete Jacobson’s parking garage and replacing it with a modern, multi-story automatic structure, sized to accommodate the future uses detailed in the master plan. By upgrading the old garage, the city freed up two nearby surface lots for future development and provided a key amenity to help attract modern tenants to the Jacobson’s site.
The parking strategy quickly proved worthwhile. The modernized garage drew in Trader Joe’s, and soon the specialty grocery store was sharing the old Jacobson’s site with neighbors like Ann Taylor Loft, Joseph A. Bank, and Coldwater Creek.
DESIGN GUIDELINES AND FORM-BASED CODE
The revival of the old Jacobson’s site took on the name “Kercheval Place,” and soon created enough buzz to motivate other long-time Village businesses to reinvent themselves, too. The most significant of these upgrades has been the $12 million makeover of the Village Kroger store—the second largest storefront in the Village.
BUILDING ON THE MOMENTUM
Just a few blocks away, another major redevelopment project mirrors the Kroger upgrade. The Neighborhood Club, a longtime Grosse Pointe institution, has partnered with Beaumont Hospital to plan a new wellness center and fitness club. The project promises to draw even more people to the Village for activities, in addition to those already drawn by shopping, dining, and offices.
APPLYING LESSONS LEARNED
Grosse Pointe’s successful rebound from the potentially devastating loss of Jacobson’s is providing a model for redeveloping large vacated retail spaces—including in Grosse Pointe itself.
Earlier this year when Borders Books announced its 19,000 square foot Grosse Pointe store would be among those closed as the national chain restructures, Grosse Pointe’s decision makers saw the change less as a setback and more as an opportunity.
MCKENNA ASSOCIATES, INC.
McKenna Associates provides the highest quality comprehensive planning, zoning/land-use regulation, economic development, landscape architecture, master plans, and urban design services to municipalities throughout Michigan since 1978.
Christina McKenna is communications director for McKenna Associates. You may reach her at 248-596-0920 or