North Downtown Has Own Identity

June 4, 2004
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(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles examining who owns downtown.)

GRAND RAPIDS — More than any other portion of downtown, the northern section has seen a nearly total transformation through private sector development. Only a few years ago, the area was dominated by the industrial sector, and as some manufacturers failed or sought greener pastures elsewhere, there was little thought of developing the discarded buildings for commercial use, much less residential.

With Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping on one side and Autodie International on the other, the Monroe North Business District is still a manufacturing stronghold, but to many the district is defined by names like Brass Works, The Boardwalk, and Landmark Lofts.

Bestowed with public incentives including a Tax Increment Finance Authority (TIFA) designation and position partly within both the Grand Rapids Smart Zone and the Furniture Center Renaissance Zone, vacant eyesores have become attractive renovation opportunities for a host of developers.

“We were kind of the first ones up here,” Blue Bridge Ventures’ Jack Buchanan said. “It wasn’t really on anyone’s radar screen to either move into the area as an office tenant or develop for anything other than an industrial tenant, but frankly, it is the perfect place to rehabilitate. There are really cool buildings and cool features, and in spite of a lot of political folks and others pushing development to go south, the market has dictated that this is where it wanted to be.”

Buchanan’s company led the development of Canal Street Properties, which produced, among other things, the Brass Works Building, arguably the cornerstone of the downtown’s movement north.

“That was the first development by a number of urban pioneers that took on the task of rehabilitating area,” Grand Rapids Director of Economic Development Susan Shannon said. “That really started a chain reaction in the North Monroe area.”

Formerly home to Wolverine Brass Works, the Monroe Avenue property with a Grand River view had become a slightly contaminated home to transients before the Ren Zone was stretched across the river from the dilapidated West Side.

“If you see the exterior, it’s not the prettiest building,” Buchanan acknowledged. “But on the interior it is a cool building, and that’s the nature of the development here. People are intrigued by the atmosphere.”

Some might argue that people are intrigued by the near absence of state and local taxes, but Buchanan disagrees.

“This was market driven,” he said. “Sure, Brass Works is in the Ren Zone. But we found when we were leasing that most people who came here didn’t even know what it was or what that meant. There are only a few tenants that the Ren Zone had a big influence for; the majority just came because of what’s happening up here. There are just some features and things in the North Monroe area that made it easy to be competitive.”

Soon enough the neighboring Berkey and Gay Furniture factory was developed into The Boardwalk, and the landslide of renovation began.

The city joined in, rebuilding two parks and turning North Monroe into a green-lined boulevard that rivals any street in the region.

Now, Union Foundry’s proposed twin residential towers are set to change the face of the district. The development of a pair of holes in the ground into a two-tower, 390-apartment complex at Trowbridge and Bond could become the stroke that changes Monroe North from factory center to the mixed residential and commercial zone that downtown’s central business district has long craved.

“The neighborhood is eclectic,” Grand Rapids City Planner Eric Pratt said. “There is a lot of mixed use there and it is attractive to everyone. But the Moch Towers could really change the perspective of downtown.”

The Planning Department is in the process of amending the city’s new master plan to include a plan specific to the Monroe North neighborhood. Although that plan will almost assuredly encourage a continued mix use, the future of the industrial sector is uncertain.

“Industrial is going to move out,” Buchanan said. “It’s not going to be the best place for companies like that to operate in compared to where they could have facilities in other parts of region. You are already seeing converting over; Brass Works is a perfect example. They won’t feel like they’re being pushed out, but they will find it more efficient, more cost effective to be somewhere else, and the value of properties will help indicate that.”

Ed De Vries, whose De Vries Development Co. has been in the district for 17 years and has restored a number of buildings within the district, disagrees.

“One thing that’s really nice is that all the different uses have coexisted and do so quite profitably,” he said. “Some are real active in the North Monroe (Business) Association. Industrial, office, retail, residential — as the neighborhood develops its own character, all of the different property owners have contributed and had a positive experience.”

Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping shares a president with the North Monroe Business Association, and although the district’s leaders have traditionally been of the manufacturing sector, the commercial development has been encouraged and aided.

“What happened in our area has been a big plus,” said Jim Zawacki, president of both. “Mixed use people get along, they take care of everything and it’s working out well. Now I can’t answer for Autodie, but I know my customer base is all over the country and we are looking for other things to do. I don’t know if we’ll continue to be in this area in this size, but I know we’ve outgrown our facility.”

GR Spring & Stamping has added 150 jobs in the last two years.

“We’ve supported most of the development,” he said. “I remember when the Wolverine building was home to transient people. We don’t have that anymore. We don’t have vandalism or anything else. It’s really looking nice.”

One issue that very nearly represents the district’s transition and is sure to become a hot topic in the coming year is the split of The Grand Rapids Press’ operations. The industrial side of the Press — the printing operation — is moving to a new facility in Walker later this year, while the offices will remain downtown.

The Press owns a significant portion of land in the Monroe North area, with its headquarters on Monroe and Michigan and several scattered parking lots.

“That is the $50 million question,” Pratt said, “what The Press is going to do with its land and the railroad.”

Not only does the Press’ split open up speculation for development of the many parking lots, from mixed used towers to Michigan State University’s College of Human Science, the closing of the printing operation marks the end of the final user of rail transport within the area. The Press currently receives its paper stock by a railroad that runs beneath the Ford Freeway.

Publisher Dan Gaydou was unavailable for comment.

Development also is occurring on the west side of the Grand River and the highway, most notably American Seating Park, a large Mercantile Bank building, and the proposed re-development of West Middle School into a residential complex.

The North Monroe Business Association will have its third annual art festival in conjunction with this year’s Celebration on the Grand.

“There is a different character here,” Buchanan added. “I think if anything, it has the potential to feel more like SoHo or Greenwich Village as time goes on. That’s what people like about it, it’s different than downtown. To me, downtown has lost its vibrancy. I love downtown but the only life down there is what you see the public sector doing.”     

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