City Has Fueled Downtown Growth

May 21, 2004
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Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four stories about who owns downtown property.)

GRAND RAPIDS — Last week, the Business Express ran the first installment of a series updating downtown property ownership that appeared in the March 11, 1991, issue of the Business Journal.

The Business Journal’s first list of downtown ownership in 1991 included only a small square of what today is regarded as downtown.

Today, with the Waterworks and Brassworks buildings on Monroe north of the Ford Freeway, Bridgewater Place and the American Seating being cornerstones of what once was the edge of the west side, the Heartside District transforming into an entertainment district, and Grand Valley State University’s Pew campus across the river, the boundaries of downtown have stretched immensely. The first list covered only a fourth of a much bigger downtown.

At the time of the first story, there was still a Butterworth Hospital overlooking downtown, Gerald Helmholdt was mayor, and the Plaza Towers controversy was just beginning.

Front-page stories of that issue included a piece on the recession following the first Gulf War and another on the debate over whether the Peck Building should be renovated or razed to provide surface parking for the City Centre. Since then, there has been another Gulf War, and the City Centre’s parking debate was able to sort itself out.

Soon after, the City, led by then-new Mayor John Logie, developed its Downtown Master Plan, commonly called Visions and Voices, and despite two recessions and the fleeing of the retail industry to the suburbs, downtown has experienced a decade of massive growth.

“We set out a fairly detailed list of goals for downtown and we’ve accomplished quite a bit of that,” said Jay Fowler, Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority. “We’ve worked hard at promoting the whole idea of mixed-use downtown, supporting private development but also residential development. We’ve got 1,800 new housing units in the last eight years, and the (DeVos Place) and (VanAndel Arena) are supporting entertainment aspects downtown.”

The center and arena have helped attract 50-plus bars and restaurants downtown.

“From a city standpoint, we’ve worked and are working to encourage visitors to come downtown,” City Planner Eric Pratt added. “The DeVos Place and government buildings draw in people every day. Those two services are vital for the community both internally and externally.”

Last week’s map indicates the largest portion of traditional downtown is represented by public interests.

“We think downtown is the heart of the city,” Fowler said. “And for that reason it is the heart of West Michigan. Public interest plays a significant role. We’re the government center. City Hall is here. This is the county seat, and the state and federal government play a significant role.

“Then you can go beyond that to the public services that are offered like the arena and convention center, definite assets to downtown, but they are really designed to serve the whole of West Michigan. They are regional attractions as well.”

DeVos Place and VanAndel Museum are both recent additions to the downtown landscape, as are the Grand Rapids Public Musuem’s Van Andel Exhibition Center, and new incarnations of the 61st District Courthouse and Grand Rapids Police Department.

In 1991, plans for the Grand Valley State University Seidman School of Business were just in the developmental stage, still awaiting state approval. The Eberhard Center, though only five years old, already was at full capacity.

Now, GVSU’s downtown campus rivals the cluster of government offices in size and drawing power, and soon will be joined by the nation’s largest inner city YMCA.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on improving downtown, making it easier to get around,” Fowler said. “We’ve worked hard on pedestrian and streetscape improvements, and in the last 10 years there has been tremendous improvement.”

In 1996, the City established its Building Reuse Incentive Program, designed to encourage the use of vacant buildings downtown. Since then, 15 buildings have been renovated and reused.

“There isn’t one specific thing that is strong downtown,” said Michael Cagen, vice president of S.J. Wisinski & Company. “Housing is strong, offices are strong, new entertainment venues have opened up or are opening up downtown. Downtown is exciting, it’s clean and safe, there’s a variety of places to go. It’s an exciting place to be.”

Cagen was responsible for the sale of the McKay Tower to a group of Chicago investors.

“At that time they had not entered into this market,” he said. “Now they are finding real good success with adding value to that holding. Renovating it, being able to increase rents, being able to increase occupancy.

“I have also seen housing continue to look stronger and stronger,” he added. “I understand that Plaza Towers is now 100 percent leased on the rental side of it, and there is new condominium development on Monroe Center.”

Of the 66 commercial properties listed in 1991 that were not a part of the Amway Grand Hotel complex or the then brand new Plaza Towers complex, 45 have changed hands. Interests owned by private individuals, representing a large portion of the retail industry, gave way to commercial and government ownership, as seven privately-owned properties converted to corporate hands, and two were purchased for public use.

Four corporate-owned properties are now in public use, with the City Centre now home to the Grand Rapids Police Department, and Ferris State University and the new Grand Rapids Art Museums filling other spots.

There were two properties that fell into the hands of individuals, with Deborah Shurlow of Grubb & Ellis now developing the Fox Jewelry building and William Shurlow the deedholder of another property.

Two properties became Ellis Parking lots and one became a residential property.

The Amway Grand Hotel represented 20 parcels in 1991, but it’s worth noting that not all deeds bore the name of Amway Hotel Corp. as they do today. Jay VanAndel and Richard DeVos were the deedholders of four parcels apiece, and one, a portion of the parking ramp on the southside of Pearl Street, was still the legal property of the Pantlind Hotel Co.

Pratt has put together a total of four maps detailing property interest within the downtown region, a resource that was not available prior to this project.    

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