August 5, 2014 at 9:51 am

Laura Berman

Ex-State Fair site plans get makeover

Festival goers enjoy the rides during the last day of the Michigan State Fair in Detroit on September 7, 2009. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

The State Fair and its pig races are over. At the fairgrounds, it’s time for the controversy to begin.

Last October, Magic Plus LLC signed a purchase agreement for the 157-acre site, signing on Redico as the developer. Critics were able to pressure the state, forestalling any transfer of cash and land before the developer met a series of requirements.

It was a vision thing: Critics hated the vast open-air parking lots, scant green space and “strip mall” feel of the early plans. Jim Casha, an engineer and advocate for better use of the land, independently created a “MetaExpo” plan that created buzz behind the scenes, raising the level of expectations for design and transit planning, and slowing down the state’s plans to finalize the deal.

Sometimes making noise works.

Redico, the Southfield-based developer, has unveiled preliminary new plans and has hired SmithGroup, an architectural firm, and another global firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff, as a mass transit consultant — signaling that the firm is aiming higher aesthetically and conceptually as it prepares to meet a state requirement for a transit plan.

SmithGroup CEO Carl Roehling says the intention is “to do something special” that honors people’s memories of the fair and other events held on the site in the past, and to make the site walkable and exciting. He’s so enthusiastic about the project’s potential that he drove to Lansing last week to pore over the archival records.

With the success of the Meijer’s Gateway Project and the M-1 rail startup, “we do see this as a great opportunity for a transportation hub,” Redico CEO Dale Watchowski told me during an interview at the firm’s 16th floor office in Southfield.

Redico has developed much of Southfield’s high-rise landscape and downtown Detroit buildings that include Orchestra Place in Midtown, and One Kennedy Square and the Broderick Tower downtown.

“It’s not going to be a ‘big power center,’ said Kenneth Till, Redico senior vice president, responding to a phrase used by critics. “It’s going to be a very high quality development.”

The firm’s latest plan includes an American House senior center, 650 rent apartment units “that won’t be typical suburban apartments” and the intent to use three or four historic buildings on the site, including the Coliseum and the poultry building. “We would like to repurpose everything,” Watchowski said, but given the project budget — between $160 million and $200 million — and the high cost of re-inventing huge, old buildings, that prospect seems unlikely.

There is talk of creating an artisanal food hall out of old state fair exhibition space. The developers are pursuing colleges that might want to use the site as a campus. Buildings are being designed to wrap around parking areas, so the lots aren’t visible from the street.

The site, located just south of the successful Meijer store (another Redico project), will include traditional retail stores, eateries and a movie multiplex — but “it’s not going to be a strip mall,” Watchowski said.

For now, though, the site still belongs to the state, and Redico has to fulfill brownfield requirements and file preliminary development plans with the city by January. A development plan signed in June created a May 2015 deadline that Watchowski says is realistic.

“We live by a project schedule,” he said. “We intend to meet it.”
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