Ask Planning Director Mike Franzak what’s going on in Muskegon right now, and he can rattle off a long list of projects either under construction or well into the planning stages. There’s so much activity, in fact, that the lakeshore city has started to think about issues like parking facilities after the many vacant former Muskegon Mall parcels downtown have been developed.
People around the region are really starting to point to what’s going on in Muskegon as a positive growth story. Given the struggle with the Muskegon Mall over the last few decades, what’s it like to have the wind at your back finally?
People are really eating up the momentum and we’re starting to see some outside investors look here more often than we used to. It’s still full steam ahead, and it feels good to be on the radar.
As these blank spaces downtown get filled in, what’s next?
Obviously, the mall property left a pretty big vacancy in our downtown and slowly but surely we’ve been selling them off. But eventually these larger lots are not going to be available downtown, so we’ve got to make sure that we develop these last few properties appropriately and to the appropriate scale so we can build that critical mass that we need to. That’s one of the reasons why we got rid of the parking minimums. We don’t want all these parking lots downtown. We want productive pieces of taxable land that are creating entertainment and housing options.
What are your expectations for development in the city for 2019?
There is still demand for more market-rate apartments, which is great. … We’re still working with more developers around new projects for market-rate housing. We’re just trying to keep that momentum going and do whatever we can do by offering tax incentives. We’re very good about that and getting creative with ways of layering incentives for mixed-use development, whether that’s a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone for the residential portion and commercial tax abatements for commercial space. We’ve been willing to layer those incentives on which is a requirement through the state for CRP funding as well.
Is the city directly involved with any housing?
We’re working on about 30 units of house-type condos at Hartshorn Marina, which would be a public-private partnership. That could extend out into several phases, going up to 50, 75 units of waterfront development. We’re seeing a lot more demand for not just apartments downtown, but also waterfront living, which we have no shortage of opportunity here.
By jumping in itself, Muskegon seems to be taking a different approach to housing.
It is. It’s nothing like Grand Rapids. As far as the housing market, no one’s knocking down any doors to build off of the waterfront here. We’re doing these projects where we’re either building homes and selling them, or we’ve been buying up some of the homes in the downtown area and converting them back to single family and putting money into them and selling them. But a lot of that’s driven by the city. We’re trying to come up with a program where maybe we can incentivize infill development.
Does Muskegon look at this as a long-term investment in vitality?
We’re kind of losing money in some of these projects, but in the long run, we’re getting the tax base and all the infrastructure laid. It’s just infill development, so we feel it’s probably good to invest a little bit of money into incentives to get those things on the tax roll.
Outside of housing, what are some of the areas of focus coming up next year for the city?
The next thing that we need to really focus on, which we’re starting to, is more of the retail and the things to do downtown. Our chalets … have just been great. We’ve been winning awards for it. That’s really super small-scale commercial space, but what we need is for them to have a place to graduate to. We’ve seen a couple that have made their businesses succeed and then they go find a smaller building in the downtown to graduate to. But we’re running out of storefronts for them to go to that are appropriate size. The city’s actually been looking into possible public-private partnerships to do some almost incubator-type storefronts somewhere right downtown. With the new buildings, a lot of them are priced right out of it. Some of the older buildings, they either need too much work or there’s nothing ready to go and move into.
What does the new downtown convention center do to help encourage more people to come downtown?
It’s the critical mass and it’s the foot traffic and I think that’s really going to help attract more retail, just as special events brought eyes onto us and it took a few years to finally get people to start moving down here. Some of the things we talked about with developers is maybe a lack of foot traffic, so I think this is really going to help fill in some of those slower weekends or weekdays, if there’s stuff just to bring that critical mass down here.
What happens if and when that critical mass comes downtown?
That may force us to start thinking about parking and parking ramps. Parking ramps are things we’re talking about now. We still have so much surface parking but we’ve changed our zoning to have parking maximums instead of minimums downtown. We actually are getting rid of some of this excess dead land that’s not even on the tax rolls or being used. As more and more of that happens, we’re going to have to start thinking about some parking ramps … in the next couple of years.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.