“The Village Marketplace + Lofts is certain to become the area’s most desirable and prestigious community. Truly the best of what urban living has to offer, with that small town charm.”

–Marketing brochure

We can see it from our house–a large L-shaped pit where Steeb Dodge and a Clark gas station used to stand. The pit is half filled with muddy water, the rest a mess of weeds, litter, chunks of old sidewalk, and stacks of plastic and concrete pipe. It’s all surrounded by a bright chain-link fence.

I’ve seen ducks at the corner of Michigan Avenue and South Lewis Street where the digging for The Village Marketplace + Lofts development was deepest. This May a small canyon opened and much of the deep pond drained, possibly into the partially installed underground water retention system. On the southern edge of the site, formerly part of Saline’s Historic District, heavy rain sometimes causes muddy water to overflow across Henry Street.

Advertising for Michael Concannon’s development once boasted that 30,000 cars pass the site every day, entering the city. Now people coming into town see the wasteland next to a sign proclaiming Saline as one of CNN/Money Magazine’s 100 Best Places to Live, 2005 & 2007. How did this embarrassing blemish occur on the face of our city?

Demolition began in November 2006. The process ran into difficulties from the start: there were months of relentless pounding in the winter of 2007-08 as pile drivers hammered in a wall of steel to prevent cave-ins along Lewis and Michigan and to control water drainage during the brownfield cleanup. There was grappling with neighbors and the Historic District Commission over the intrusion of the development onto West Henry Street.

The project combined retail, a coffee shop and restaurant on the first level, and thirty-two “luxurious and modern” loft units on the upper two floors, with a rooftop terrace overlooking my backyard.

Ron Koenig, head of the Historic District Commission at the time, felt the project would dwarf the houses in the Historic District as well as the older buildings flanking it on Michigan. The plan also required the Henry Street exit to be large enough for parking spaces and for fire trucks to get through–breaking the continuity of the historic district. Many objected to this intrusion, but the city approved Concannon’s plans.

Development was slated to go up to the sidewalk on South Lewis, a plan requiring a zoning variance because of obstructed vision for cars turning onto Michigan. City attorney Allan Grossman publicly apologized to Concannon for requiring a zoning appeal and then ruled that the appeal was not necessary. Some neighbors saw that as caving in. “Concannon slipped through loopholes,” says Henry Street resident Sharon Wolford. “The city greased them.”

If the city was cooperative, though, the county was not. In a February 2010 memorandum to city superintendent Gary Roubal, Concannon summarized the difficulties that halted work on The Village Marketplace + Lofts. Though he had commitments for all of the retail space and eventually got financing himself, the developer wrote, none of the businesses planning to move in could obtain loans for tenant improvements, inventory, or working capital. This, Concannon said, mirrored his own experience since the third quarter of 2008 when banks pulled or denied loans on several of his projects. “Everyone seems to have forgotten,” the memo concluded, “I was ready to erect steel and had the retail tenant space at the Village 100 percent leased in 2008 at the time my loan was pulled, and that this was the reason the Project stopped.”

And stop it did. Soon the early-morning bulldozers were gone. The chain-link fence appeared, and eventually a temporary sidewalk.

What’s next?

Washtenaw County Treasurer Catherine McClary says the delinquent property taxes total $55,770–for 2008 and 2009. Unpaid taxes for two years may lead to tax foreclosure, a lengthy process with an uncertain outcome.

Concannon’s memo stated that “site remediation” would cost $500,000, for “finishing and capping the underground systems to a point that makes sense, leveling and grading the site, stabilizing retaining requirements and generally finishing the Project to the status of a ‘City Park.'” While several residents say the city should simply make the site a park, the city doesn’t own the land, and there are no funds to buy it back. A more likely outcome is remarketing the property to another developer, but that’s unlikely given the very tight commercial lending market.

Concannon told me that, with several million dollars invested in the project, he is reluctant to abandon it. Encouraged by signs that banks may again be willing to lend to his tenants, he plans to resubmit his site plan this month. Under the revised plan, several houses would be either demolished or moved, including one historic home that would be moved fifty yards west to Henry Street.

“I’ve been in this business for thirty years,” Concannon says, “and I’ve never started a project I haven’t finished–until now, when five of them are stalled.”

But Concannon cautions that if the city gives him too hard a time, he will simply grade the site and walk away. Bankruptcy and foreclosure remain a remote possibility in his mind–he says he’s pushing forward to make the development a success.

Some see the current condition of The Village Marketplace + Lofts as a visible scar–though it is more like an open wound–of the economic downturn. Many cities have their own version of this failure. Others see it as the fruit of Concannon’s overreaching ambition joined with the city’s compromises in attempting to revitalize downtown Saline. It remains to be seen whether Concannon and Saline can turn things around. Many are skeptical.

Mayor Gretchen Driskell says she has no idea what will happen on the property, but she has faith in the long-term potential of Saline and knows that somebody will develop that site some day. She adds that the city has little control over what Concannon does with his private property beyond health and safety issues, and she noted that he owes Saline money for putting in the sidewalk.

Whatever the causes and the future of the development, the sight of the ugly gash creates anger and frustration. A customer at our garage sale simply said, “It makes me sad.”