Hill Area Tightens Amid Growth

June 4, 2004
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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories about who owns downtown.

GRAND

 RAPIDS — Home to the region’s most significant life sciences development, including new institutions such as Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, Grand Rapids Community College’s Calkins Science Center, The Van Andel Research Institute and Spectrum Health’s Heart Center, the area sometimes called “Health Care Hill” represents some of the most exciting development within the region.

The cornerstone of the Grand Rapids SmartZone, this section of downtown is one of 11 areas pinpointed by the state to stimulate the growth of technology-based companies through creation of recognized clusters of new and emerging businesses. California medical device maker Menlo has already relocated to the GVSU Cook-DeVos Center, drawn by the proximity to other biomedical research groups and a favorable Grand Rapids business climate. If Michigan State University moves its College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids, it will likely be near this area.

The headquarters of Spectrum Health and its downtown campus also are located on Michigan Hill, and Spectrum is planning a new cancer center on Michigan Street where the Burger King now stands.

“The area is really dominated by a powerhouse cluster of medical activity,” Grand Rapids city planner Eric Pratt said. “There is an awareness of potential of that area. With the location of medical groups taking advantage of the cluster, there is a lot of interest for the private sector in terms of reassessing what uses the area has, and its value.”

With little doubt that Michigan Street’s hill and the narrow area around it between the Ford Freeway to the north and Grand Rapids Community College and Heritage Hill to the south will soon become the region’s medical hub, the race for the limited amount of commercial land in close proximity to it has begun.

“Obviously it’s a very limited area,” said Brad Rosely, vice president of S.J. Wisinski & Co. “It’s where the majority of doctors would like to go as long as their use of the hospital is pertinent. … But a lot of the property has been developed there. Spectrum has quite a lot that they are currently using for parking lots and down the road in their dark back office master plan they might use for something else.

“It’s quite a diverse area. You can have anything from Bob’s Bar to a brand new heart center,” he said. “It’s a neat, eclectic area.”

S.J. Wisinski is in the process of developing 42 properties just outside of the BusinessJournal map shown here. Mid Towne Village, a mixed-use development that covers a six-acre parcel bounded by Michigan Street, I-196, Paris Avenue and Union Street, will feature 182,000 square feet of retail, office, medical office, and residential space across five buildings.

The first stage of development is set to begin in July and will involve the demolition of about 35 homes. Construction of new buildings will begin as early as August.

“We’re the ones instigating a majority of (the property development),” Rosely said. “Until we finish what we’re going to do, somebody will be hard pressed to jump on the other side of us, and you’re not going to go south of Michigan because it’s all zoned residential.”

Other developers are squeezing in where they can. The Christman Co. is developing the site of the Towers Medical Building across the street from Spectrum Health. Plans on how to best redevelop the property are still underway.

Both are interested in their properties becoming a temporary home for MSU, and the competition for that, as well as other medical tenants, could become fierce in the coming year.

Jade Pig Ventures’ headquarters is only a few blocks away, and it also has some strong interest in the area just outside of the map.

That spells good news for anyone with a piece of Michigan Hill.

“I think everybody will get a little more aggressive in their pricing,” Rosely said. “Just like our project: If somebody is going to hold out because they want tons of money, then it’s not going to happen. They can end it themselves. But if somebody wants to sell, and even if they want to sell above market price but not at a ridiculous price, then residents will allow it to happen more than developers will.”

As the map shows, Michigan Hill is separated from the lower half of this section of downtown by a number of public and nonprofit institutions, such as Grand Rapids Community College, Civic Theatre and the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Churches have moved to buy up as much of the commercial property as possible. No less than a dozen parcels of commercial property are in the hands of churches and nonprofits, and their names are on the tax roll along with everyone else.

The scarcity of land, along with a threat of increased traffic and parking, has other hill owners watching closely. The Heritage Hill neighborhood has been protected by a historical designation since 1971 and its desire for primarily residential use has been master planned since 1988, but it’s likely that the city’s most famous neighborhood will soon draw the eye of commercial interests.

There already are a number of properties zoned for commercial use along Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street, both visible on the map.

“Consistently, neighborhoods have been opposed to plunking a commercial use right in the middle of a residential block,” said Jan Earl, executive director of the Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association. “We really haven’t had many requests for that on an average basis. I think people will be looking more at using their rental housing in the neighborhood as the stronger institutions settle on Michigan Street.”

“Overall, it is a positive thing,” Earl said. “The negative that all the neighbors seem to focus on is the increased traffic and parking in the neighborhood from the various institutions. But the Michigan Hill Corridor Parking Study has really brought all of the institutions to the table, and I think everyone recognizes the need to really work on parking and traffic for the good of all of us.”     

Eric Pratt provided the map that accompanies this article. Anne Bond Emrich contributed to this report.

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