By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE — While the future of a major retail center here is as yet unknown, officials, business owners and residents gathered Thursday to try to ensure that it has one.
If it does, it’s likely to include things like park space, boutique or specialty retailers, community events, movable seating and band concerts.
During a “visioning” session led by Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit organization, the group literally took a cold, hard look at the Southgate Shopping Center. Members then tried to come up with ideas about ways to attract shoppers and businesses, as well as restaurant and entertainment patrons.
“It’s not going to be about what it was in 1962,” Steve Davies, senior vice president of PPS, said at the four-hour session at the Old Country Buffet, 13753 Eureka Road, “but what is it going to look like in 2010?”
What the center looks like at the moment is much less of itself, as a two-story building once occupied by Montgomery Ward and store space that once housed a Farmer Jack grocery store now stand vacant, and the section of parking lot that once was the site of Service Merchandise and Federal’s department store remains empty.
Several storefronts east of the discussion site also are unoccupied, although officials touted the success of the recently opened Planet Fitness, 13591 Eureka Road, a youth-oriented workout facility inside the shopping center.
Much of the day’s discussion centered on how to make future development mesh with the MJR Southgate Digital Cinema 20 just to the south of the shopping center. Most attendees agreed that the movie house is one of Downriver’s prime entertainment destinations, and that consideration should be given to finding ways to make it more visible from Eureka Road.
But the theme of Thursday’s session was how to make what’s now a shopping center into a gathering place that attracts people, mostly into public spaces. As an example, Davies cited Detroit’s Campus Martius, the site of the former J.L. Hudson’s department store that now is home to an outdoor ice skating rink, a Christmas tree during the holiday season and a number of shops and restaurants. He also cited the project to attract more people to Detroit’s Eastern Market, where Southgate Mayor Joseph Kuspa operates a business and Shed 3 is now a major focal point.
While making the Southgate Shopping Center into a regional attraction isn’t going to happen overnight, Davies said, “placemaking” is a step-by-step process that starts with the short term. PPS advises thinking in terms of 10, he said, meaning that each metropolitan region should aim for 10 regional gathering places, and each gathering place should try to create at least 10 reasons for people to stay there once they arrive.
Attendees went outside with pens and paper in hand to inspect firsthand five sections of the center and rate them for things like appearance, potential and accessibility. They then reconvened inside to discuss their findings and make recommendations.
One of those included removing the wall south of the shopping center separating it from the MJR, which many attendees agreed needed addressing in some way. City officials pointed out, however, that it was built per a previous city ordinance in order to keep trash receptacles out of moviegoers’ sights, while also hiding the rear of retail outlets along the strip.
Davies said that in Los Angeles, “finger” shops were placed along the rear entrances of some retail outlets with a main street facade and large parking lots in the rear.
“Visioners” also discussed adding green space such as small “pop-up” parks to break up the massive field of concrete and asphalt; burying electrical and cable television lines along the boundary between the two developments; and creating a road or path through the southeast corner of the existing retail section. The road would allow easier access to a parking lot that goes mostly unused except for some of the bigger movie nights at the MJR.
The intent, officials said, was to try to make the movie house more of the centerpiece of the complex while first finding ways to lead patrons past other retail outlets or restaurants. Doing that requires removal of large portions of the former retail section — something center management is willing to do.
Michael Sisskind, managing partner of Southgate Shopping Center LLC, said plans call for the former Ward building to come down, along with several storefronts just west of that building.
PPS will gather up the day’s recommendations and present them in a report to city officials, who will review them with an eye toward taking first steps.
“This city can be an epicenter for development if it’s done correctly,” Kuspa said at the end of the session, calling it a “fantastic experience.” “But remember that it’s all going to have to make economic sense at the end of the day.”
Some group members expressed concern at the potential cost of redeveloping the center, especially in such a down economy.
Kuspa acknowledged the reality of the situation, but said, “If you don’t have a plan, you’ll never get the financing.”
Sisskind said he was “very pleased” with the turnout.
“The ideas were somewhat enlightening and somewhat falling into my own vision” for the site, he said. “I see this as the entertainment corridor of Downriver. The community involvement will increase that vision even more.”
“It’s very interesting that such a diverse group could come to such similar conclusions on what could and should be done,” said Neil Cameron, a member of the city’s Pension Board who is soon to join the building committee. “Any type of development is good, but no one had any cheap, pie-in-the-sky ideas.”