As new developments spring up throughout Grand Rapids’ west side neighborhood, the district is at the center of a concerted effort by a range of business interests looking to revitalize a long-neglected part of the city.
Companies ranging from new breweries and restaurants to upscale retail stores and residential developers have invested tens of millions in this first wave of the west side’s turnaround. Developers say they hope the investment will act as a catalyst for urban renewal in the key Grand Rapids neighborhood.
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed by the area’s existing business owners and neighborhood groups. While most believe the investments will ultimately tip the scales in favor of the area’s renewal, some feel like key community cohorts should have a better voice in which projects move forward.
Starting at the Grand River and stretching west past Stocking Avenue, the Bridge Street corridor is starting to resemble the neighborhood some long-time residents recall from their formative years in the area.
“Bridge Street doesn’t need to be redefined,” said Walt Gutowski, a Grand Rapids city commissioner, business owner and self-appointed “ambassador” of the west side. “It just needs to be restored.”
A native of the neighborhood, Gutowski owns Swift Printing Co. at 404 Bridge Street NW. The restoration of that building in 2000 helped accelerate redevelopment along the corridor, he said.
As more projects come online, Bridge Street is starting to follow a similar pattern to development in the Wealthy Street and Cherry Street corridors in the mid-2000s, sources said.
The west side developments promise to add new selections to the mix of neighborhood businesses, which had waned in recent decades. For example, Black Heron Kitchen and Bar plans to offer Michigan craft beer and wine and upscale sausages when it opens early next year at 428 Bridge Street in a building owned by Gutowski. Meanwhile, Denym LLC, a high-end jeans retailer, opened earlier this year at nearby 443 Bridge Street.
Having grown up in the area, Gutowski recalls how years ago, residents had options for shopping and dining all along the corridor. Bringing back that neighborhood feel has been a long-time goal, Gutowski said, noting his projects and other developers’ plans all play a part in the renewal.
County records show that Gutowski owns about 20 properties along the corridor.
“(The redevelopment) is a real passion for me, as both a city commissioner and business owner,” Gutowski said.
BANKING ON BEER
While Gutowski is predominantly focused on the main Bridge Street artery, other developers are launching projects all over the city’s west side.
In opening The Mitten Brewing Company LLC in November 2012, Max Trierweiler said he was drawn to the area by the amount of traffic that Leonard Street receives. Co-owner Trierweiler and business partner Chris Andrus thought a microbrewery could act as an anchor attraction to help make the stretch of Leonard Street a more walkable corridor where people would come down to eat, drink and shop for an afternoon.
Now Mitten Brewing is expanding its operations with on-site outdoor seating, upstairs dining and a separate production facility kitty-corner from its pub. Soon to join Mitten on the West Leonard corridor is Long Road Distillers LLC, located across the street at 537 Leonard NW. Meanwhile, construction is currently underway for Two Scotts LLC, a new barbecue restaurant at 536 Leonard NW.
“We saw the area needed a pick up,” Trierweiler said of their decision to open a business on the west side two years ago. “It helped that we would be the only brewery in the area.”
He won’t be able to say that for much longer, however, as two new breweries are planned a few blocks south in the Bridge Street corridor, with one already under construction.
In an announcement in early October, Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. said it would redevelop parcels along Bridge Street NW for a new development anchored by New Holland Brewing Company LLC. The project will include a New Holland taproom, restaurant and brewery, as well as ground-floor retail, office space and 35 apartments, as MiBiz reported last month.
The upscale development will take the place of a blighted building that once housed an adult novelty and lingerie store.
Just to the west of the New Holland development at the corner of Bridge Street and Stocking Avenue, work remains underway for Harmony Hall. The project is breathing new life into the building that formerly housed the Little Mexico restaurant, which closed in March 2013. The new business — a brewpub with a sausage-themed restaurant — is being led by the principals of property management firm Bear Manor Properties LLC, who also own Harmony Brewing Company in the city’s Eastown neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the Fulton Street corridor, another key east-west artery through the west side district, has also seen projects come online in recent years. Anchored in large part by Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus and the Seidman College of Business along the Grand River, the corridor has seen the recent addition of a Tim Hortons drive-thru restaurant and a satellite Rylee’s Ace Hardware Inc. store on the far west end of the stretch near John Ball Park.
ADDING NEW HOUSING STOCK
Development in the area isn’t only limited to retail or new service-related businesses, either. New housing projects are popping up to meet growing demand in the neighborhood.
For example, Rockford Construction Co. in July opened an 18-unit apartment complex at 600 Douglas NW.
The goal for 600 Douglas was to make 450-square-foot apartments feel more like 700- or 800-square-foot units, said Bruce Thompson, vice president at Rockford Ventures LLC, one of the contractor’s subsidiaries. To accomplish the project’s vision, Rockford worked with Urbaneer LLC to install its line of movable walls in the apartments, which allow tenants to easily change the layout of the space.
Urbaneer, a design firm, is a part of Rockford’s First Street Initiative, in which the contractor aims to partner with smaller firms around the concepts of “building, design and construction,” Thompson said. The partner companies that make up the First Street Initiative are independent businesses that work with Rockford on certain projects, Thompson added.
“Each of them brings something different to the mix,” Thompson said. “It is really starting to have the feel of a campus down here, and that’s a little of what we want with this First Street concept. We want to bring companies that are innovative … and firms that are complementary to us, but we are also able to leverage some of the infrastructure that we have.”
Altogether, there are seven companies involved in the First Street Initiative including Insignia Homes, enCO2, Signature Wall Solutions, Johnson Product Development, Brenda Thompson Interiors, Trovati Studio and Urbaneer.
Perhaps the most visible developer working on the west side after moving its corporate headquarters to the corner of First Street and Seward Avenue last year, Rockford has also been buying up large amounts of neighborhood property through its development arm for its so-called Gateway Project.
Property records show that Kurt Hassberger, Rockford’s president and chairman of the board, is listed on more than a dozen properties in the area that are owned under a variety of related business entities.
The company’s efforts in the neighborhood are no coincidence. Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel, much like Gutowski, is a west side native. Gutowski told MiBiz that the two are old friends and have been talking for more than a decade about how to go about redeveloping the area.
VanGessel was unavailable for comment for this story, according to a Rockford spokesperson.
CONCERNS REMAIN FOR SOME
While most reactions to the developments on the west side have remained positive, certain residential projects have raised concern from neighborhood associations, particularly over the issue of density.
Approved in July by the City Commission, Grand Rapids-based developer Cherry Street Capital LLC has plans to break ground next spring on a $12.9 million project with 63 apartments, commercial space and underground parking at the corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Seward Avenue.
Despite gaining city approval and receiving support by many in the neighborhood, the project was initially called into question by the South West Area Neighbors (SWAN), a west side neighborhood association.
“When (a development) doesn’t comply with our Area Specific Plan, then we have concern,” said Margo Johnson, president of SWAN. “We have a neighborhood that has been desirable and developers need to (understand) the desires of the current neighbors.”
Specifically, Johnson told MiBiz the organization’s concern with Cherry Street Capital’s plans stemmed from the project including too much density for the area it will eventually be built on, something that goes against the city’s plan for the neighborhood.
Despite those concerns, the project is moving forward, according to the developer.
“There was some resistance, but a lot of people spoke for the project, and I think that’s what got it across the line,” said Chad Barton, a partner at Cherry Street Capital.
Speaking broadly about the ongoing redevelopment of the west side, Johnson from SWAN said her organization also expresses concern when developers aren’t perceived as including the thoughts and opinions of existing residents.
In that regard, SWAN isn’t alone.
Bridge Street House of Prayer, a community ministry located at 1055 Bridge Street NW, works with much of the “marginalized” population in the neighborhood, said Andrew Sisson, the community development director at the organization. There is a perception from some of the existing residents in the neighborhood that developers aren’t interested in listening to the broader community, he said.
“Overall, there’s not too much of a negative perception of (new development),” Sisson said. “(For) people who are in this neighborhood currently, if their thoughts, ideas and culture are taken into consideration, if they see their opinions are being implemented, they’re OK with it and they’re excited about it.”
As more development takes shape in the neighborhood, property costs have already started becoming an issue for some business owners.
Fred Mackraz, the co-owner of the recently opened Blue Dog Tavern at 638 Stocking Avenue NW, the site of the former Kopper Top bar and restaurant, said he sees a lot of momentum in the area for positive, urban development. Indeed, the goal behind his new project was to help create a traditional bar and grill for the neighborhood.
But he’s concerned that as development ramps up, there are property owners in the area trying to hold on to their buildings in an attempt to drive up the values.
“Some people have property that is ripe for redevelopment and are hoping they will get prices that are not reasonable,” Mackraz said. “The old businesses that are here should view (new development) as a positive thing.”
Nick Manes, November 9, 2014