The cavernous commercial space next to the Liberty Lofts condo complex isn’t always empty – as recently as May, The Chronicle documented a temporary architectural exhibit there. Mostly, though, passers-by can look through the floor-to-ceiling windows and see roughly 18,000 square feet of emptiness at the corner of Liberty and First.
But on Wednesday, July 8, the former factory space will have another temporary occupant: Karen Myers and Archie Welch are holding an open house from 3:30-7 p.m., hoping to garner support for a European-style indoor farmers market.
Myers and Welch work with the local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit grounded in the philosophy that “nutrient-dense” whole foods are the key to health. The genesis for their current effort began in September 2008 with the Deidre Currie Festival, an event they organized at Washtenaw Community College dedicated to the memory of Welch’s wife, a nutritionist and food activist who died in early 2008.
The festival included a “gourmet” farmers market, featuring organic food from Michigan farmers and food artisans. Myers said they wanted to keep the momentum from the festival going – both of them had seen the vacant building next to Liberty Lofts, and thought it had great potential for a year-round indoor market.
The one-story commercial space has been vacant for several years. The building’s owner, Morningside LLC, renovated the former auto parts factory and opened 68 condo units in mid-2006. However, they’ve been unable to find a tenant for the commercial portion of the complex.
The availability of parking might be hindering their efforts. Earlier this year, the company tried – unsuccessfully – to get permission from the city’s Historic District Commission to demolish two houses it owns on the site, which would have given it the option to add to the existing 54 parking spaces. Speaking to the HDC at its March 12 meeting, Morningside president David Strosberg said that as they’d tried to market the building, the most serious of their potential tenants had wanted a contingency to make more parking space available.
Meanwhile, Myers said she and Welch decided to call and find out if the building’s owners would be receptive to their idea of an indoor market. When they first called the broker, Colliers International vice president Mike Giraud, Myers said Giraud told them that the owner felt a single tenant would be the best option – in other words, the firm didn’t want to lease to multiple small tenants. But he agreed to meet and show them the space. They also arranged a meeting in late May with Ron Mucha, Morningside’s senior vice president, who leads the firm’s Michigan office.
Myers described Mucha’s reaction as enthusiastic, but she also added that they’ve got a long way to go before making this project a reality. Reached by phone on Monday, Giraud also characterized the discussions as very preliminary but called the concept “phenomenal.”
The idea is to provide permanent booths to local farmers and food artisans year-round, Myers said – in this case, “local” would include food producers throughout Michigan. For products not grown locally – like coffee or seafood – they’d like to see the food sourced from producers who use fair trade practices. The food shouldn’t just taste good, Myers said. It should also be good for the earth and for our health. That means an emphasis on organic, biodynamic, naturally raised, wild-caught food, or items from producers committed to sustainable practices.
To sustain a market year-round, they’d need to rely less on seasonal farmers and more on artisanal food producers, like cheesemakers and bakers. Myers said they don’t want to compete with existing merchants like Sparrow Meats & Produce or Monahan’s Seafood Market, both located in Kerrytown, or with Zingerman’s. Rather, perhaps those businesses might want to have a satellite location at the indoor farmers market, she said. Other ideas include having a café or microbrewery in the space as well.
There are still a raft of issues to address before making the market a viable business. If the project were to move forward, the building would need some modifications, such as adding public bathrooms and making it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And there are no commitments from vendors or investors at this point.
That’s one of the purposes of the open house – to gauge interest in the project and to identify people who are actually willing to commit resources to it, versus those who are merely supportive. Myers and Welch also hope to get feedback on issues like how to finance the market, determining the ownership and management structure, and, of course, parking.
When asked about city council’s recent resolution to convert a nearby surface parking lot into open space, Myers said she supports the idea of having more green space, but that the change could definitely affect what goes into the building. (The lot is located directly across First Street from the Morningside building.) One option, she said, might be to use pedicabs – perhaps to shuttle people from the market to parking lots or garages, or even for delivering groceries to homes.