A Place In The City

November 4, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — Developers behind a major $20 million to $25 million development that would significantly alter the character of downtown Grand Haven say the project hinges on the formation of a private-public partnership.

Whether they’ll get the cooperation they need from city leaders is uncertain, although they intend to press their case and work to address concerns that have been raised about the project, which would re-create a two-block area of the central business district with a hotel and conference center, boutique retail stores, professional office space and upper-floor condominiums.

To pull off the ambitious plan, the backers of what’s been labeled Grand Haven City Place need to have a street vacated, trade existing acreage now used for public parking in exchange for underground parking beneath the development, and have the city embark on a streetscape improvement project for downtown.

After meeting with deep skepticism from some members of the Grand Haven City Council last week, including one member who is outwardly against the project, developers said they would seek to address some of the concerns they face.

They’ll work to meet some of the contingencies that some City Council members want to see before agreeing to proceed with consideration of the project. Getting the cooperation of the city is essential to the project proceeding, they say.

“If we can, we go forward. If we can’t, we don’t,” said Ross Pope of the Spring Lake-based Redstone Development Group. “I don’t see us going forward unless we can get on the same page with the city.”

Pope, Grand Haven businessman Steve Loftis and Ira Green, a real estate developer and broker from Petoskey who has undertaken similar ventures in Mackinaw City and Frankenmuth, are behind Grand Haven City Place. They presented their proposal to the Grand Haven City Council last week, hoping to receive an informal nod to work together on the project.

Their vision, Pope said, is to create a new element to the business district that can uplift all of downtown “for the greater good of the community.”

Pope and his partners say financing for the project has already been secured, as have several of the privately held parcels within the development site. One-third of the 47,000 square feet of retail space proposed has already been pre-leased and interest in the proposed 24 condominium units is high, according to the developers.

“We’ve had more people contact us than we could ever satisfy,” Green said.

But that interest, as well as the apparent support of the business community, is all for naught if developers can’t convince city leaders to work with them and back the project, which would encompass an area from Harbor Drive to Second Street, between Franklin Avenue and Washington Street.

The city’s involvement would include vacating a one-block portion of First Street, from Washington to Franklin, and two parking lots that now provide 142 public spaces. The area above First Street would remain a public area for pedestrians, Pope said.

A 242-space underground parking area would offset the loss of the existing parking lots and provide the parking required for the hotel and condominiums.

To help the development’s viability, the developers would like to see the city undertake landscaping and infrastructure improvements along Washington Street downtown. They proposed creation of a tax-increment financing district to pay for the improvements, saying their development alone would pay for a three-block streetscape project.

Without improvements to the broader downtown area, Grand Haven City Place would not work, Pope said.

“It doesn’t do us any good and it doesn’t do the city any good to do a development that is an oasis in an area that is to the contrary,” Pope said. “It has to be integrated.”

At least one member of the City Council, Daryl Tammen, voiced outright opposition to the project. Three others voiced serious concerns, including Mayor Ed Lystra, who said he would “seriously consider” the project but later likened the development plan to a “movie set.”

Worried that the city would lose public parking spaces and about the use of tax money through tax-increment financing, Lystra indicated that he as yet does not support the project.

“This, in my mind, is a speculative project,” Lystra said. “I’m a very cautious person. I want to make sure we do not make a mistake.”

Support for the concepts behind Grand Haven City Place came from The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg and several downtown business owners who attended last week’s meeting, as well as Roger Bergman, a City Council member who owns a retail business and property in downtown.

Bergman urged his council colleagues to “have the vision, courage and foresight” to work with the developers on a development agreement. He and others view the project as providing a major catalyst for improving a downtown business district that has begun to show its age and is in need of help.

“This is not about just the plan they’re showing us. It’s about the future of downtown,” Bergman said.           

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