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March 27, 2014

Picking up the pieces at Tech Plaza

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

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Developer Tom Petzold plans to transform Tech Plaza into a thriving retail center with 20 to 26 new businesses by this time next year. Plans for the development are set to go before the Warren Planning Commission April 7.

WARREN — Developer Tom Petzold has big plans for Tech Plaza at Van Dyke and 12 Mile Road.

His company, Tech Plaza, LLC, an affiliate of Petzold Enterprises, bought the space not used by Wal-Mart in January. By this time next year, Petzold said new stores could be ready to open at a transformed shopping center that will keep its familiar name.

“Wal-Mart bought the whole complex and they sold the vacant building to me,” Petzold said March 26, after Mayor Jim Fouts announced the project during his 2014 State of the City speech.

Petzold declined to reveal the terms of the real estate transaction, and at least for now withheld the anticipated cost of his capital investment. But he did say Wal-Mart’s return to a plaza they previously vacated in 2008, when the company opened a new store up the street, was a “huge” factor in getting the deal done.

Ironically, so was the fact that the plaza sat mostly empty when Wal-Mart returned.

“It’s nice to have a clean slate. The building is not encumbered by leases. That would have been a deterrent to us,” Petzold said. “The fact that Wal-Mart chose not to extend those leases or any other leases, and they weren’t marketing it, I know it was a problem for the city to have it un-leased, but for us, it really gave us the freedom to design what we wanted and build it the way we wanted.”

Petzold, the manager of Tech Plaza, LLC and president of Petzold Enterprises, is a third-generation developer whose family now owns six shopping centers, including Tech Plaza. They also own the Belmont Shopping Center on Eight Mile in Detroit, Westborn Mall in Dearborn, and shopping centers in West Palm Beach, Fla., Portsmouth, N.H. and Danvers, Mass.

The strategy he intends to deploy at Tech Plaza begins with architecture, design, location and flexibility. With those concepts driving the development, Petzold said the project could move quickly from the purchase in January to site plan hearings in April, groundbreaking by June 1 and grand openings, realistically, by this time next year.

“We’ve got to go through the site plan approval on April 7, but once we gain approval from the city we’ll go to architectural plans, construction plans,” Petzold said. “We’ve got a builder selected. We want to break ground in May.

“We’re replacing every aspect of the site; all the asphalt, all the lighting, all the sidewalks, all the store fronts. When we’re done with it you’ll think it’s a brand new shopping center, because every aspect on all four sides of it will be new.”

One thing that won’t be new is the name. The Tech Plaza brand is staying in place and plans call for it to be featured prominently in design elements that face the parking areas.

“We started (Belmont) at Eight and Dequindre in 1958. My grandfather started it,” Petzold said. “It means something to the neighborhood. When we saw this property (Tech Plaza) was available and it went back to 1960…we knew that the location, the prime intersection, the proximity to the neighborhoods and the name itself were really important.”

Petzold said the new design of the plaza would feature high-quality construction and a layout that’s friendlier to foot traffic.

“We think there’s a synergy that can get creative when people can go to one location and be able to shop from store to store in a pedestrian connection,” Petzold said. “What we’ve been amazed by is how lacking this concept is in all of Warren. It’s hardly to be found, and to put it right here at the heart of Warren, at 12 and Van Dyke, makes so much sense to us.”

With the last outstanding leases at Old Country Buffet and H&R Block expiring at the end of April, Petzold said the entire site east of Wal-Mart would be fenced in ahead of construction. When the dust clears, 20 to 26 new businesses will open in spaces ranging from 1,600 to 23,000 square feet.  The entire shopping center will envelope 142,000 square feet of retail space, including an additional 22,000 square feet of future construction.

He revealed no names of the new stores but said the plaza would feature a “healthy balance” of national brands and local businesses that serve the city’s neighborhoods.

“Locally-owned family business is important to us. That’s what we are,” Petzold said. “We know if we can get some local, family-owned enterprises in here our connectivity with the neighborhoods can grow much better than it does when you are a completely national, corporate-owned strip center. And our strip centers are not. We have mixes. We think there’s a healthy balance, and we’re going to try to achieve that here.  We want to encourage entrepreneurism that’s local.”

Petzold even planned to meet with representatives of General Motors Co. to get a feel for the kind of retail the thousands of employees at the GM Tech Center might want.

“I don’t have the history of being in this neighborhood when it was the old Tech Plaza, but my sense is that it didn’t really service the General Motors employees as well as it could have,” Petzold said.

Heading into the site plan approval process in April, Petzold was completely upbeat about the future of the property.

“Even after I committed to buy it, the more I’ve gotten to know Warren over this last period of time, the more I’m convinced that we have the right path, that this is something that there’s a demand for,” Petzold said. “We’re so confident in the demand for it that we’re not letting pre-leasing dictate whether or not we build it. We’re able to build it and then lease it and it gives us that advantage.”

Warren’s mayor shared Petzold’s enthusiasm when he delivered his State of the City remarks.

“I’m bullish about Tom Petzold and I think we’re going to have a first-class shopping center,” Fouts said. “This is not going to be like the old plaza. This is going to be an upscale plaza.”

In 2011, Fouts used the podium at his State of the City speech to lambaste Wal-Mart for the lack of tenants at the Tech Plaza property. Wal-Mart had occupied rented space at Tech Plaza through J.J. Gumburg Co. but shuttered its store there in 2008 when it opened a new location on Van Dyke in Sterling Heights. The property at the time was owned by Pittsburgh-based West Penn Realty and managed by J.J. Gumburg Co.

Fouts said the departure of Wal-Mart left their still-leased space an empty eyesore targeted by vandals. The rest of the plaza had already struggled for years to keep tenants after once boasting big-name retailers like Kmart, JCPenney, Sears Hardware and Office Depot.

The mayor even discussed initiating nuisance abatement hearings if the property remained vacant and threatened to call for a national Wal-Mart boycott if the company failed to forego its lease, if not rebuild.

But Wal-Mart later announced plans to return to Tech Plaza and did so March 5 with a $20 million investment when the company opened a new 185,000-square-foot store in space it now still owns.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.