Front And Center Downtown Project

May 7, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Four are already in the front row. Eight more can join them.

That was part of the announcement from Belford Development LLC last week when the partnership officially said that they are building a dozen condominiums in seven buildings on Monroe Center, and that four of the units have been reserved even before the aluminum has been peeled from the facades.

“This is another piece of a giant puzzle that we’ve been trying to put together,” said Kurt Hassberger, COO of the Rockford Development Group, a division of Rockford Companies.

Rockford has partnered with Dave Lubbers, Lee Kitson and others to form Belford and undertake a multi-million dollar project called Front Row Condominiums, which will have the Yen Ching Restaurant and the Elegance Wig Shop on the ground floors. More retail is also planned for the other storefronts.

The condos will stretch across the second and third levels of the buildings at 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 61 and 63 Monroe Center, and will feature high ceilings, exposed brick walls, walk-in closets, fireplaces and a view of Monroe Center.

But perhaps the condos’ most attractive aspect is that the homes are in the Renaissance Zone, a designation the city granted the project last year, which means owners will be free from paying almost every state and city tax for much of the next 14 years.

“The project probably wouldn’t have happened without the city’s help,” said Hassberger.

Mayor George Heartwell, who was on hand for the development’s unveiling, called the project “significant” for downtown and one that resulted from a public-private partnership.

“This block has been underutilized, one might say, for decades. So to see it coming back with this kind of investment, a strong investment from Rockford, is just tremendous,” said Heartwell.

“Making downtown a residential neighborhood, I think, is real important,” he added.

Thirteen condos were initially planned for the development. But one of the owners asked for a condo larger than was originally designed into the project, so two smaller ones were combined into one, which dropped the overall number of homes to 12.

Belford is selling the condos as basic units, known as a “white box” condition in the industry, which lets buyers design the space as they wish. Prices range from $200,000 to $350,000. Parking is also available.

Hassberger said one buyer told him that the tax savings he will generate from living in the Ren Zone made purchasing one an easy decision.

There is an eighth building in the project, a former bank headquarters at 65 Monroe Center. The two-story structure has 6,500 square feet and the partners are looking for a commercial user for the building at Monroe Center and Ionia Avenue, which is also in the Ren Zone.

The name, Front Row, came from the scissors effect that Design Plus used to draw up the condos. To ensure that every buyer had a view of Monroe Center, the firm alternated the floors of the condos so each one would face the revitalized city street instead of having half of the homes face the alley behind the buildings.

The lower level of one condo will front Monroe Center, while the upper level of the next condo will do the same. The design also allows the developers to use a single entrance and elevator to the condos instead of having two of each.

“That was clearly the challenge for this project. The impetus for us was to try and get every condominium a view out the back and a view out the front. Obviously, we couldn’t stack them vertically, so we made the decision to have either living rooms on the backside and bedrooms on the front side or vice versa,” said Jack DeBruin, housing specialist with Design Plus.

“Anytime you can provide people with opportunities for views, I think it’s going to be a success,” he added.

Rockford Construction will build the condos, which are expected to be finished late this year. This project is the latest in a long line of developments that the Rockford Companies have done downtown, renovating more than 1.5 million square feet over the last 15 years.

The condos, along with the old bank building, will fill another 50,000 square feet on what Hassberger and Heartwell called “Main Street Grand Rapids.”

“This is the last really big piece of Monroe Center that needs help,” said Hassberger.

Rockford has two more buildings on its list to renovate. Both sit across the street from the Front Row project at 56 and 58 Monroe Center.

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