June 7, 2020

Crain's Detroit

Erin Strang, the president and CEO of the Central Michigan University Research Corp., hopes to break ground later this year on a major 300-acre expansion of the state's Mt. Pleasant SmartZone, on the south side of CMU's campus.

The CMURC manages the SmartZone and has a 30,000-square-foot headquarters building, which is also an incubator and co-working space. The CMURC also has smaller coworking and incubator spaces in Bay City, Saginaw and Midland that are part of the SmartZone.

The Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham did the master-plan overview and renderings of the expansion project. It is university-owned land with city infrastructure.

Plans include 630,000 square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet of assembly or manufacturing space, 5,000 square feet of retail, 915 new residences in either apartments or townhouses, 16 acres of parks and squares, 40 acres of preserved open space and 15 acres of cropland for agricultural businesses and agricultural researchers at the university.

The CMURC is a 501(C)3 affiliated with CMU. Its chairman is university president Robert Davies. The SmartZone is a partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Strang said she had hoped to already have a contract signed for the first stage of what will be a multi-stage, multi-year development, but everything has been on hold since COVID-19 hit the state hard in March and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced strict lockdown rules for the state.

CMU has announced it plans to hold in-person classes this fall and that could jump-start negotiations on a first project, though longer-term effects of the current recession on the project are unpredictable, at the least.

Strang said she was close to having an office building announced that would serve as headquarters for a growing company that was graduating from the incubator and shared work space she operates on campus, but those talks stalled when the developer wanted a 20-year lease — impractical for a young company just leaving an incubator.

She is in talks with another developer that she hopes will lead to a groundbreaking in the fall on a two-acre site.

Originally, going back to the 1980s when the topic was first broached, the plan was to eventually convert all of the land to a tech park.

"I talked to other research parks around the world to see how they had developed their parks, and the trend now is to go to mixed-use projects. People like having a residential component," she said.

"Right now, any developer, business, or individual can call me to discuss their project to see if it would make sense in the SmartZone," said Strang. "I would then contact President Davies for discussion, he would talk to the Board of Trustees, and if it made sense we would move forward with due diligence, site plans, legal description for the parcel and then to execute the lease, etc."

One advantage for existing companies either moving their headquarters into the development or putting satellite offices there is since they would be in the SmartZone, they would have access to CMURC services, including reduced rates from the CMURC's private-sector partners, such as accountants and attorneys. They would also have access to CMU faculty.

The 300-acre parcel lies directly south of the Kelly Shorts football stadium and some of the ground there serves as overflow parking on football Saturdays. It is also directly north of existing student housing.

The most visible portion of the project, dubbed Neighborhood A at the southern end of the project, has 65-acres of mixed-use buildings. The most prominent feature will be a one-acre square along Campus Drive modeled after Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois, with the square lined with two- and three-story mixed-use buildings, including office, academic, residential, retail, restaurants and community event space.

A small cluster of office and commercial buildings is proposed at the intersection of Campus and Denison drives that will serve as the gateway to the other two neighborhoods and as a boarding point if rail service is implemented between the SmartZone and downtown. There will also be town houses and cottage-like residences targeted at graduate students and faculty. What are called live-work townhouses, with commercial operations on the ground floor and a residence upstairs, are also planned.

The existing CMURC building will anchor this 105 acres. The northern part of the neighborhood will feature cottages, town houses, live-work townhouses and apartments close to parks and preserves.

The center of the neighborhood will be reserved for large-employment and manufacturing users, with adjacent cropland for agricultural companies and researchers.

A small square to the north of the existing CMURC building, with its incubator and co-working space, will provide space for start-up businesses as they grow and prepare for bigger space elsewhere in the SmartZone or in Mt. Pleasant.

There will be another small square along Deerfield Road, to be lined by small mixed-use buildings.

Neighborhood C will contain tenants who are already within the boundaries of the 300 acres — American Mitsuba Corp., McLaren Healthcare and Isabella Bank. Space will be reserved for a major manufacturing facility west of Mitsuba, with office buildings and some convenience commercial between the two manufacturers.

A small park, athletic fields, town houses, live-work townhouses and cottages are planned there.