NEW BUFFALO — There are no announced plans for what will rise in the future, but hopes are high for the development of North Whittaker Street now that downtown New Buffalo’s long-standing eyesore is coming down.
Cranes and bulldozers made quick work on Jan. 6 of the frame building that formerly housed Michigan Thyme shops and cafe at 107 N. Whittaker St.
Following nearly a week of debris removal, and filling the empty building site foundation to be used as a staging area, demolition of the adjoining partially built three-story brick Village Square building began in earnest on Thursday, Jan. 14. By Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 20, only a concrete-block tower at the center of the structure remained.
Plans are to have the entire area, almost a full block, fenced for safety and appearance reasons after demolition work is done.
“The owners are clearing the site to eliminate the blighted conditions while they explore their options, an indication that they are getting serious about redeveloping the site,” New Buffalo City Manager Rob Anderson said.
He added that no date has been set for approaching the New Buffalo City Council or Planning Commission with future plans for the site.
Original plans for the site approved in 2006 called for retail/condo multi-story buildings built over a 133-space underground parking garage. The partially built buildings and unpaved parking structure have stood abandoned during years of bankruptcy and disputed ownership issues.
A representative of the property’s ownership group, which goes by the moniker of “New Buffalo Development Partners,” reported on Jan 11 that they “have no comment at this time.”
The Michigan Thyme property was reportedly sold in September of 2014 to the same partnership that purchased the adjacent Village Square project property (formerly Fountain Square) in April of that year.
New Buffalo Mayor Pete Weber said at the time of the 2014 sales that the new owner was “very pro-New Buffalo and wants to build something beautiful and good for the city. He couldn’t be nicer or more cooperative.”
“I’d like to see them finish what they started out to do. We need retail in this town, big time,” said Bob Tibbles, owner of The Villager, a home décor and gift store across the road at 100 N. Whittaker St.
Tibbles has been a mainstay of the Whittaker Street retail scene since 1992 when he opened his first shop at 27 N. Whittaker St. before moving to his current location in one of the city’s original brick, two-storied buildings. He also owns Frisky Frog, a Christmas and garden shop, at 16 N. Smith St.
“I don’t have a clue about what to expect, though. No one has told me anything. I’m just glad they are tearing it down so I don’t have to answer so many questions,” Tibbles said.
“Something good will definitely happen. It’s just a matter of timing and economic realities. I think the original concepts of multi-use that have been floated for this property over the years probably makes the best sense,” said Katha Kissman, owner of the vintage building at 106 N. Whittaker St. She is a multi-use owner in her own right, maintaining her apartment upstairs, an office in the rear yard and renting the storefront space to a clothing and accessories shop.
“I would love to see it aesthetically fit in with a traditional brick or otherwise vintage look. I trust whomever creates the development will do something that is both economically feasible for them while fitting in with the ambiance and charm of our lovely lakeside city,” Kissman said, listing additional parking, benches and courtyard space, trees and flower planters and public restrooms as additional assets she would like to see.
Although he is in the dark as much as anyone else about plans for the site, Downtown Development Authority Chairman Robert Kemper is optimist about the development of the business district.
“No one has reached out to me about plans for the Village Square site, neither as my role with the city nor as an operator of restaurants and hotels in the city,” said Robert Kemper, head of Toast Hotel Group that includes Harbor Grand, Marina Grand, Bentwood Tavern and Terrace Café.
But Kemper said he is very confident about the development of Whittaker Street.
“This is the strongest group of property owners I have seen who are positive about growth,” Kemper said.
Among those he mentioned were the owners of Barney’s (Lakeshore Foods), the new owners of New Buffalo Pharmacy, the hardware store group developing the property at 420 S. Whittaker and the new board of directors at New Buffalo Savings Bank.
Kemper explained that the DDA has no authority over the city’s zoning, variances or master plan, but it is eager to work with developers on finding creative financing plans and programs for growth. He said he sees the DDA’s role as supporting the city staff and administrative bodies, such as the planning commission and harbor authority, in developing the vision and concepts for the city’s future.
Both Kemper and Anderson said they welcomed the timing of activity at the Village Square site since it coincides with the North Whittaker Street infrastructure project. Anderson said he hopes to present the plans for city council approval within a few weeks, with the hope that some preliminary work can begin in spring with a groundbreaking in fall, avoiding any disruptions during the summer season.
Last October, the city selected the team of Abonmarche Engineering and urban designers Houseal and Lavigne Associates to develop plans for the “substantial reconfiguration and redevelopment” of North Whittaker Street and segments of adjacent streets, including underground sewers and utilities to overhead street lights and sidewalks.
“This timing should let us collaborate and work together for the redevelopment of Whittaker,” Anderson said.
When first proposed in the early 2000s, the Fountain Square development as it was then called was one of the ambitious projects to change the face New Buffalo proposed by developer Jimmy Gierczyk under the umbrella of his Light Harbor Realty.