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WARREN, MI-Universal Mall Properties, which purchased the 760,000-sf Universal Mall at 12 Mile and Dequindre roads in Warren four years ago, is seeking to have the mall declared a “brownfield” site. Such a designation would allow for a tax break on the property, which the owners say would help offset the cost of renovations.

The brownfield statute is more commonly associated with contaminated industrial sites. Universal Mall representatives say there’s no pollution there, but the facility, which was built in the early 1960s, is obsolete because of age and mechanical condition. The state says it has granted brownfield status to shopping centers in the past, though they have been relatively rare.

According to a private engineering study, the mall is deficient and cannot meet the technological demands of retailers. After several years of neglect and financially troubled tenants, Universal Mall three years ago undertook a $4-million makeover for new landscaping, fresh paint and new retailers. The company also hired a new security firm.

“When we came in, we had our work cut out for us. The first order of business was to make improvements,” says Marilyn Zeigler, the mall’s general manager. “We repaired, we cleaned, we painted.” By the time the current owners took over in 1999, the mall’s largest tenants–Crowley’s, Montgomery Ward and Woolworth–had left, some due to bankruptcies that shuttered stores around southeastern Michigan.

Management cleared the first of two hurdles for the tax break when the city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority approved the plan. The second stop is the city council, which will hold a public hearing Jan. 13.

Warren Economic Development coordinator Tom Zemsta feels the mall is obsolete and the owners’ request deserves a thumbs-up. “I think anything we can do to help Universal Mall revitalize” is worthwhile, he says. “They’ve done a good job in bringing that mall back, but they still can’t do anything with that Ward’s space. That’s turned out to be a real detriment to them.” Universal Mall pays $385,000 in property taxes annually, Zeigler says.

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