Big NE Project To Get Public Hearing

December 29, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — One of the largest mixed-use developments to be proposed in the city in years, let alone in a downtown residential area, will get a public airing before city commissioners next week.

Commissioners set Jan. 6 as a public hearing date on a requested zoning change for a six-building development that has been offered for four blocks on the near northeast side of the city. The area, which contains older homes, is bound by I-196 to the north, Michigan Street to the south, College Avenue to the west and Union Avenue to the east.

The buildings range in size from two to four stories and 20,600 to 60,000 square feet. The overall development would be slightly more than 204,000 square feet if all six get built.

City Planning Director Bill Hoyt said five of the six buildings are set to go up. He noted recently that a smaller, two-story structure was “hypothetical,” and that all but one property owner has agreed to sell. S.J. Wisinski & Co., the area’s largest commercial real estate firm, has brokered the property purchases.

The development, which is being proposed by a partnership headed by David Levitt of East Grand Rapids, hopes to feature a variety of tenants including retail, office and medical. The project also proposes to have a minimum of two-dozen apartments and condominiums.

“What we have here is a design for a very successful mixed-use development,” said Hoyt.

Tom Nemitz and Cornerstone Architects designed the development.

“He has a good feeling for this area,” said Hoyt of Nemitz.

Cornerstone was called on to replace an architect from St. Louis after neighbors and city planners said the initial design was too suburban looking. Nemitz said he was originally hired to meet with neighbors and planners to help decide what type of architecture would fit.

Following those meetings, Nemitz came up with a new urbanism design for a walk-able community, along with a site plan, and Cornerstone was hired as the project’s architect. It’s likely that Cornerstone’s acclaimed reputation for renovating older buildings played a major role in the firm getting the contract for a project that is all new construction.

“The neighborhood association came to one of the meetings with a bunch of images of buildings they liked around town, and I think a good percentage of them were ones we had renovated. So the neighbors felt fairly comfortable with us,” said Nemitz.

Planning commissioners approved the zoning change from residential to a relatively new zone category — Planned Redevelopment District — last month. The PRD includes housing with commercial uses. Opponents of the project said they didn’t want the homes demolished and were concerned about more traffic and parking problems in the hill area of Michigan Street.

About 35 houses, not all of which are occupied, would have to be razed for the project and the infrastructure in the area would have to be upgraded, as much of it is a century old. Work could take from two to three years and would cost at least $27 million, although a final figure hasn’t been set. The project does meet the city’s new master plan, which targets the area for appropriate redevelopment.

“They saw it as a natural progression for what is happening along Michigan Street,” said Nemitz. “They also saw it would be a really good application for a mixed use of combining both residential with commercial so that the total residential feel of that area is not lost.”

Hoyt told commissioners that a traffic study for the area has been finished and that he would have the results of it for the hearing. Driesenga & Associates is the project’s engineer.           

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