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Over the past five years, downtown Grand Rapids has become home to a new art museum, a world class high-rise hotel, an expanded center for dance, a renovated Civic Theatre, a refurbished symphony hall, a site for a new opera house, a new convention center, an explosion of health-care-related development, hundreds of new condominium owners and dozens of new restaurants and bars. So what will downtown Grand Rapids look like five years from now? For six major projects, that’s …

The $146.5 Million Question

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

Imagine walking down the street in downtown Grand Rapids and stumbling upon $146.5 million.
Bet you’re feeling pretty lucky …

Well, your lucky day may be only a few short years away. A handful of intriguing development projects currently on the table promise to inject millions of dollars of investment into the heart of the city — and an immeasurable amount of energy into city life.

“If you look at the tremendous change that’s happened downtown over the last five years, I expect to see similar progress over the next five years,” predicted Jay Fowler, executive director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “There are significant projects that are under way now that will be finished up — and new projects to begin.”

A new contemporary arts center.

A new riverfront hotel.

One mixed-use development could set a new standard for urban parking, and another mixes so many uses under one roof that it could only be pulled off by the guy who introduced The BOB 12 years ago.

Just outside the center city, a 12,000-seat outdoor amphitheater could anchor Millennium Park, while a new “flagship” store for the D&W Fresh Market banner could finally answer the grocery question that downtown residents have been asking for years.

Putting any piece of this puzzle in place improves the big picture. If city leaders and developers manage to fit it all together, downtown Grand Rapids not only will continue to be the center of entertainment and cultural activity in West Michigan, but also the envy of cities across the state.

“I was recently in Lansing for the Michigan Municipal League legislative conference,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “And as I talk to my peers — mayors of cities all across the state — I find that there’s almost a jaw-dropping sense of awe about what’s going on in Grand Rapids.

“Grand Rapids is known across the state as the city to watch, the city where things are happening. Grand Rapids has a dynamism that’s uncommon in Michigan today. We’re seen as a bright spot in the state.”

A lot of stars will pitch in their sparkle to make this spot even brighter in the coming years. Some of the brightest are illuminated below.

Gallery On Fulton
Developer: Two West Fulton LLC, a partnership between Second Story Properties and RSC Associates

What exactly is being proposed?
A LEED-certified, mixed-use facility on the southwest corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue. The building will be anchored by the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, which plans to relocate from its current home at 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE.


Among other amenities, the UICA component will feature a film theater; a new media/video gallery; rooftop access for outdoor exhibits or receptions; and a flexible “black box” theater for performance, lectures or film. The art center will mask a 265-space parking ramp with access from Commerce Avenue. Above the UICA along Commerce, developers are proposing a residential tower featuring 66 apartments. Between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet of retail space will be created along Division Avenue.

How much is it going to cost?
Estimates range between $34 million and $40.5 million.

What is the project’s current status?
In April, the city of Grand Rapids granted Two West Fulton a 60-day extension to close on the property, the partnership’s fourth after being selected in the RFP competition held in 2005. In late April, groundbreaking was planned for September 2008, with an estimated 18- to 24-month build-out.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
For the UICA, the stakes are especially high. The new facility would add nearly 10,000 square feet to the institute, which is currently housed in a 28,000-square-foot facility on Sheldon Boulevard. As one benchmark of what this expansion means, a new UICA could greatly enhance its youth programming, which currently serves between 3,000 and 4,000 young people annually. The goal for the new facility is to serve 10,000 students each year.

What will it mean to the city?
“This is very much a project that impacts the community in so many ways,” said Jeff Meeuwsen, UICA executive director. “UICA and the contemporary arts reflect who we are as a people: What’s happening in society? What’s happening in our community? And we build projects around those needs through our expressive arts program and our art therapy program and the work that the professional artists are showing, which can be a platform for absolutely anything.”

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
“ We need to negotiate a favorable financing package, which I have very little doubt we will do,” said Sam Cummings, president of Second Story Properties.

Problems in the banking sector prompted the project’s initial lender to pull out.

“We hitched our wagon to one horse, and that horse had some out-of-market difficulty, and they just stopped lending,” Cummings said. “We are in somewhat uncharted territory, but I am not too concerned about it. We have several interested parties.”

The Bob Expansion
Developer: The Gilmore Collection

What exactly is being proposed?
The mixed-use project proposed for the parking lots adjacent to The BOB is anchored by an underground, flex-space theater that could accommodate up to 1,500 people for concerts, food festivals, corporate retreats, etc. Above that would be an open-air piazza with 20 to 30 small shops and restaurants. Inside the building, plans include four small theaters where first-run movies could be shown in a “view and brew” style.

The project also includes a parking ramp of roughly 250 spaces, a boutique hotel with 200 rooms, and approximately 40 condominiums topping it off. Depending on whether the program is stretched vertically or horizontally, the building could be as few as 14 floors or as many as 20.

How much is it going to cost?
“I have some numbers that I can’t share as of right now,” said Greg Gilmore, CEO of the Gilmore Collection, which owns and operates more than a dozen restaurants around West Michigan and in Redstone, Colo. “But the city has put together an agreement with me that I need to invest $5 million and build over 20,000 square feet. It will be substantially more than that in every respect.”

What is the project’s current status?
Architects — plural because Gilmore has hired four — are working on a July 1 deadline for designing the building. He plans to begin marketing and selling the condos next year and break ground in 2010. The timeline for project completion is four years.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
“Right now? The next three years of my life!” Gilmore quipped. “No, actually, it means a lot because we’ve always been interested in creating jobs and doing something good for the city. We currently have 200 staff members who work with us at The BOB, and we anticipate that we’d have at least 200 additional with the facility next door. And I just think that it takes the city to the next level.”

What will it mean to the city?
Downtown Development Authority executive director Jay Fowler agrees with Gilmore.

“We’re very excited about the proposal from Greg Gilmore to expand The BOB, which, for the entertainment sector, brings in a whole new echelon of shows that are not big enough to play the arena but yet will draw a substantial number of people to the downtown area.

“One of our projects from a couple of years ago was to create an arts and entertainment strategy, which was to reinforce that downtown is the primary destination for arts and entertainment. This kind of project helps to carry that out.”

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
“We need to have the design come in at the budgeted numbers, and we need to have a hotel operator commit — because we don’t want to run that component ourselves — and then I need to sell a few condos,” Gilmore said.

“So we have six to 10 different components that need to fall into place to make it happen, but I have reorganized our company so that I can focus almost 100 percent of my time on this over the next few years, so I’m working to make it happen.”

Monroe North Hotel
Developer: Hotel Holdings Monroe LLC (DBA Suburban Inns)

What exactly is being proposed?
A hotel, possibly co-branded under two flags from the same hotel franchise, to serve the mid-level market conventioneers. The location in the Monroe North Business District is an easy walk to DeVos Place. In addition to 250 to 290 hotel rooms, the project will feature meeting space for as many as 300 people, and a roof-top sports bar and grill.


How much is it going to cost?
Upward of $37 million.

What is the project’s current status?
Preliminary drawings are in, and blueprints were 70 percent complete as of mid-April. The developer, Suburban Inns, is also building a new Holiday Inn in Midland. Momentum is expected to pick up on the Grand Rapids project once the Midland project is up and running.

“Our deadline with the city of Grand Rapids is that we need to start in July 2009,” said Peter D. Beukema, COO. “We’re probably shooting for the first half of 2009, but construction never happens exactly as fast as you’d like it to.”

Suburban Inns is estimating 18 months from construction start to finish.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
“This is really kind of something that my dad’s wanted to do for a long time,” said Beukema of his father, Peter R. Beukema, Suburban Inns president and CEO.

“For him it’s kind of a legacy project.”
As the name suggests, most of Suburban Inns projects have been built outside the city, even though both generations of the company’s leadership team, which also includes Brian Beukema, Peter R.’s other son, are from the city.

“We were all born and raised in Grand Rapids — both of my parents were — and Dad’s been through the good times and the bad times here. Along with my brother and I, he really feels this project will help promote the medical community and the convention center to allow both of those elements of the city to be utilized to their full potential.”

What will it mean to the city?
“What this project does is provide us with another option in a moderately priced range for hotel rooms,” said Mayor Heartwell. “We’ve got our upper range JW and Amway Grand Plaza, and we’ve got the Days Hotel, which is a moderately priced room, but then you’ve got to go all the way up to Anne Street to the Radisson before you get (more) moderately priced units. That means shuttling people from the hotel to the convention center.

“The project on North Monroe is certainly close enough to walk and certainly provides a beautiful setting right there across from the park along the river. It’s an architecturally attractive building that fits in very well in that neighborhood. And they’re going to come in with hotel rooms for convention and tourism that will meet the needs of a more moderate income convention-goer.”

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
“I don’t really think there’s a lynchpin unless the whole city and state came crumbling down around us and said, ‘We’re not behind it anymore,’” Peter D. Beukema said. “The city’s support has been great for us, and so, too, has the state’s. They’ve welcomed the project, so it makes it a lot easier to do the project. It’s a lot more reassuring when everybody’s in support of it.”

38 Commerce Ave. SW — The ‘Liner’ Buildings
Developers: Kelwin Properties and Elevation Group

What exactly is being proposed?
A public/private partnership between the developers and the city of Grand Rapids, in which the city will build a 360-space public parking ramp on an interior portion of the lot, and the developers will build two mixed-use “liner” buildings along Weston Street and Commerce Avenue between the ramp and the sidewalk.

On Weston Street, the liner building will have ground floor retail topped with five levels of office space. On Commerce Avenue, ground floor retail will be topped with five floors of apartments and two of condominiums. The heights of the buildings will come out to be the same.

How much is it going to cost?
Roughly $15 million to $16 million for the private component and roughly $10 million for the parking ramp.

What is the project’s current status?
Developers are working through design integration with the city.
“We’re finding out how we can best and most efficiently build this, keeping the two entities separate, but at the same time being able to get as much benefit for both parties out of sharing some of this facility,” said Andy Winkel, president of Kelwin Properties.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
“Our goal downtown — and really what this project means — is helping to establish critical mass downtown,” Winkel said. “The more people we see living downtown, spending more time downtown, the quicker the city’s going to grow and the quicker everybody’s going to realize what’s going on downtown, how much activity there is, the things there are to do — and more and more people will want to be here. We’ll see that as a snowball effect. So really, we see this as just one piece of the puzzle trying to increase the vibrancy of downtown and make it even more of a place that people want to be.”

What will it mean to the city?
More parking in Heartside would make the development of several other underused buildings more viable, but beyond that, this particular approach to parking also could change the way parking ramps are developed in Grand Rapids.

“Although we’ve done a good job of putting parking in structures as opposed to surface lots, and we build very attractive parking structures — at the end of the day, a parking structure is still a parking structure,” said Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

“This is a much more urban approach to development, because as you go down the street, you will see the building, not the parking structure. So the parking structure becomes more of a utility that’s hidden, and the architecture of the use is what’s presented at the street. It’s the next logical step in good urban design here in Grand Rapids,” added Fowler.

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
“It won’t be possible for this to be a success if we’re not all on the same page and we’re not all working to really create a great project at the end of the day,” Winkel said. “And we’ve been very impressed with the city so far in their commitment to doing that.

“We have city leadership that’s willing to say, ‘You know what? It’s a new concept to downtown, but let’s look at it. Let’s see what the advantages of it are.’ They have done that thus far and we really expect them to do that going forward. That’s what will make this project work — that partnership.”

D&W Fresh Market At Michigan And Fuller
Developer: Spartan Stores

What exactly is being proposed?
A new D&W Fresh Market on the northwest corner of Michigan Street and Fuller Avenue. The two-level, 40,000-square-foot grocery store has been touted as an eastern anchor for downtown’s “Medical Mile.”

How much is it going to cost?
Spartan plans to invest $8 million in the project.

What is the project’s current status?
Design development is well under way. Spartan executives have spent considerable time researching store design and product offerings in cities throughout the U.S. The store’s concept was developed to serve the local neighborhood as well as West Michigan “foodies” seeking a new shopping experience.
According to Jeanne Norcross, Spartan Stores’ vice president for corporate affairs, construction will begin as soon as it is deemed feasible.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
“Development of this new D&W Fresh Market provides Spartan Stores an opportunity to further develop this banner and take it to the next level, offering even more fresh products than in our other stores,” Norcross said. “We believe that the D&W Fresh Market brand has great potential, and we are excited about this opportunity to grow the banner beyond the original stores purchased in 2006.”

What will it mean to the city?
Birgit Klohs is president of The Right Place Inc., a regional economic development organization that worked with Spartan Stores on developing the project.

“Clearly, a grocery store to serve the central business district has been talked about a lot,” Klohs said. “And while it is not in the immediate core, I do believe for all the people who are living downtown and working downtown, it’s going to be an important piece of the ‘infrastructure.’ And to me, it’s not a stretch to go as far as Fuller when you’re talking about a vital urban center.”

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
At this stage, site preparation and approval of design are critical elements. Spartan Stores is working with the city’s planning department to determine the best way to accommodate construction of a store this size on a relatively small lot.

Millennium Park Amphitheater
Developer: Grand Action (for the Convention & Arena Authority)

What exactly is being proposed?
A 12,000- to 14,000-seat, partially covered amphitheater off Butterworth Drive set within the boundaries of Kent County’s Millennium Park.

How much is it going to cost?
Ballpark estimates range from $20 million to $30 million.

What is the project’s current status?
According to Grand Action co-chair David Frey, the committee is “revving up its machinery” to issue Request For Proposals and put together an architectural selection committee and a building committee.

“Just as we have done with all of our major projects, while this will be largely privately funded, the processes themselves — be they architectural selection or building committee or whatever — will be in the spirit of a public process,” Frey said.

What will it mean to the stakeholders?
“We became convinced that if we didn’t do it ourselves,” Frey said, “it was very likely that a company — a publicly or privately held company — would come in and build an amphitheater to compete with the arena.

“We felt that if we were going to have one, let’s design it ourselves, place it ourselves, raise funds as we have in the past using the public/private partnership, and have a facility that can, in theory, be managed by the same folks who manage the arena, so that they can have complementary booking practices.”

What will it mean to the city?
Regionally, the project would further strengthen Grand Rapids’ place as the entertainment center of West Michigan. However, according to Mayor Heartwell, some effort will be needed to create synergy between an amphitheater at Millennium Park and established downtown entertainment venues.

“I think that by putting it in Millennium Park, it’s just a bit too distant from our downtown restaurants, clubs and bars,” Heartwell said. “But that having been said, when people finish listening to an outdoor concert and they want to go someplace, downtown is still the closest place. … Whether it’s a private trolley bus that’s sponsored by the downtown restaurants to run people back and forth or whether we actually have a Rapid route that runs people back and forth on a shuttle basis, it only makes sense to do something so people can park downtown, have dinner, and not have to worry about getting into traffic with 5,000 other cars.”

What needs to happen to make sure the project gets off the ground?
Securing a $10 million outlay from the Michigan legislature is crucial if the project is going to move forward. “Lacking this grant, the project is not going to happen,” Frey said. GR

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