Filling a Gap on Michigan Ave.
The "factory of the future" never happened. Now a developer is thinking groceries and farm-to-table.
by Sheila Bilby
Published in November, 2018
Saline is on the verge of selling the last city-owned parcel of land along Michigan Ave. The choice came down to more restaurant and family- oriented entertainment or a medical facility with twenty-four-hour urgent care. As the Community Observer went to press, the Saline City Council was due to vote on an $817,500 purchase agreement with Farmington Hills-based GBA Development.
The 6.54-acre parcel has 221 feet of frontage on E. Michigan Ave. just west of Industrial. "One of the advantages to the GBA proposal was they indicated they were going to purchase and develop the entire parcel," says Saline mayor Brian Marl. "They were providing the asking price per acre, and they were not requesting or seeking additional incentives."
Marl says the city has been aggressively marketing the property since 2013, early in his tenure as mayor, and late this summer finally had two formal offers in hand-one from GBA; the other from IHA, an Ann Arbor-based subsidiary of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System.
In September, the council decided to pursue the GBA deal, in part because while the developer wanted the entire parcel, IHA wanted only the front portion. The GBA project will also put property tax revenue into city coffers, while IHA, as a nonprofit, would not pay property taxes.
With final details yet to be worked out, Matthew Attard, a managing member of GBA, says the developer envisions some type of mid-level healthy-option grocer, a farm-to-table restaurant, and family- oriented entertainment for the site.
"We have a few different ideas of what would work," says Attard, who declined to be more specific. "Saline needs a grocery. Saline needs more options."
He says high traffic-31,000 vehicles daily-along that stretch of Michigan Ave., combined with the area's high population density and the large number of higher-income families, all contributed to GBA's interest in the property. "Saline is underserved," says Attard.
The site is zoned for commercial use. If the city council approves the purchase agreement, the project will go through site
plan approval by the city planning commission and council; GBA hopes to begin work early next year. Based on preliminary discussions with GBA, Marl anticipates that it will be built out in two phases.
The city has owned the land for more than twenty years. Marl says that it's part of a larger parcel assembled by Philips Electronics in the late 1980s to build "a factory of the future." Ultimately, the company decided not to make that investment. So in the late 1990s, Marl says, the city bought the parcel as well as two adjacent lots from Philips.
A new Zippy Auto Wash, which opened in September, is west of the parcel, and a new Best Western Premier Hotel is being built on the adjacent lot to the east.
Thinking about how the last site owned by the city is developed, "I make an important distinction between cannibalizing existing businesses and competing with existing businesses," Marl says. "I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with healthy competition in the marketplace, and, as it relates to this particular corridor of our community, it's already populated with a number of chain establishments, so it wouldn't be inappropriate for additional chain enterprises to set up shop along our eastern border."
Marl, two council colleagues, city staff, and legal counsel sat down with GBA representatives in October to develop a framework for the sales agreement and the types of businesses the developer envisions.
"A lot of the brands and franchises that were discussed I think would be very well received in the Saline community," Marl says. "It would certainly enhance the quality of life and amenities that are offered in our area."
Meanwhile, Marl says the city intends to continue to court IHA, which had proposed a medical facility on the site that would have housed physicians' offices, an urgent-care center, and laboratories. Saline has been without round-the-clock emergency care since 2014, when the former Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital-Saline was converted to an urgent-care facility. That facility closed two years later, when St. Joe's sold the onetime Saline Hospital to Evangelical Homes of Michigan.
Now Marl hopes IHA will bring it back. "My office remains committed to working with them to find a suitable site within the city limits," he says.
For its part, IHA still likes the idea of a Saline facility.
"IHA remains interested in establishing a presence in the Saline area and is currently evaluating all options," Jason Harris, IHA vice president for planning and development, said in a statement.
"This is a quality-of-life issue," says Marl. "My constituents need and deserve ideally a twenty-four-hour emergency room or urgent-care facility, and certainly my residents would benefit from more primary-care physicians and specialty medical services."
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