City Tries To Help Downtown Living

July 28, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — First the city declared selected buildings on Monroe Center, the core of downtown, as part of the nearly tax-free Renaissance Zone — something the city was hesitant to do when it initially designed the zone in September 1996.

Now the city is working on another first for Monroe Center: Setting aside parking spaces in its newest and most expensive ramp in an effort to lure residents to a handful of housing projects there.

Consider both an all-out effort by the city to bring 24-hour life to downtown, especially to Monroe Center, the former pedestrian mall.

Parking commissioners recently supported a residential parking concept brought to them by City Business Advocate Susan Shannon and Assistant Planning Director and Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Jay Fowler. City commissioners are expected to iron out the details fairly soon.

The idea is to reserve 100 spaces in the new Monroe Center ramp, which opens next month at Louis and Ottawa, for residents who live in renovated buildings on and around Monroe Center. The thinking behind the effort is that developers can’t draw tenants to their buildings unless there is a place for residents to park their cars. And if developers can’t entice residents, then banks will be timid to finance their projects.

The concept provides tenants with 24-hour, reserved, long-term parking in the ramp. But to qualify, participants would have to take up residence in retail or office buildings that have been converted to housing and that don’t have on-site parking.

For example, residents of the People’s Building would qualify because that structure at 80 Monroe Ave. NW is a former office building being renovated into condominiums.

“It’s a deal breaker if we can’t do this,” said Mayor John Logie of the attempt by Jon Rooks to build 26 condos in the People’s Building. “He is on the doorstep of go or no go.”

Rooks told commissioners that a residential parking program would make his effort to renovate the People’s Building more feasible.

“What is important to me today is getting something that I can use,” he said.

Other structures that would qualify are the Peck Building at Division and Monroe Center and a stretch of eight smaller structures on the south side of Monroe Center north from Ionia Avenue to the Minnhaar Building at 49 Monroe Center.

Rockford Construction owns the Peck Building, which has housing on the top level. Bedford Development LLC has plans to put housing units in the upper stories of the eight structures at 41-61 Monroe Center.

A catch to the potential program is an Internal Revenue Service regulation that doesn’t allow the city to reserve residential spaces in ramps financed solely through tax-exempt bonds. The Monroe Center ramp is an exception because Parking Services dipped into its reserve fund to pick up some of the construction costs of the $12 million facility.

Also, Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said the spaces have to be allocated before the ramp opens for the program to go forward. Ritsema told the Business Journal that she expected the ramp would open the third week of August, around Aug. 20.

Shannon offered two payment options for the program. One is a 12-month lease costing $150 a month. That charge includes the $115 monthly fee at the new ramp, along with two premiums for reserving a space and allowing 24-hour access to the ramp that total $35. For a year, the cost comes to $1,800.

The other option is cheaper, but longer. It’s a 30-year prepaid lease for $21,778, or $726 a year, that would reimburse the city its cost to build a space in the ramp. The leaseholder could sell the space back to the city at the original cost minus depreciation.

Fowler told commissioners that 1,588 housing units have been completed or are under construction in and near downtown, and another 478 units are on the drawing board.           

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