Renaissance In Heartside District

June 18, 2004
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Editor'sNote: This is the final story in a series of articles examining who owns downtown.

GRAND RAPIDS — More so than any other downtown district, the Heartside area has experienced a new lease on life in the past few years.

Not long ago, a drive along that stretch of South Division Avenue or through Heartside's western half resembled a post-apocalyptic vision of Grand Rapids.

Buildings like the former Reptile House on Division stood as landmarks to enterprises that had long since failed, its last tenant's green-scaled façade still easily recognizable, though boarded up and in disrepair.

The majority of use in that area belonged not to commercial and government interests, as in the central business district, nor health care, as on Michigan Street's hill, or industrial holdouts like those on North Monroe. From Division Street westward, Heartside was known for a cluster of ambitious nonprofits like God's Kitchen, Mel Trotter Ministries and Degágé Ministries.

But today, spurred on by a new cornerstone in the Van Andel Arena, cityscape improvements and a number of brave developers, Heartside is fast becoming something else entirely.

"That area since the arena opened up has undergone a dramatic transformation," said Eric Pratt of the city's planning department, "from being an area dominated by a number of vacant buildings and parking lots to being a thriving part of downtown."

"This area has become very exciting," said Mary Ann Alliston, Heartside Business Association development specialist. "There's always a new project, there's always something new that's happening. It has been a time of tremendous growth for the business association and for the area."

Besides the arena, the single largest contribution to the Heartside re-emergence has been the interest of Rockford Development Co.'s John Wheeler, whose Cherry Street Landing has renovated several blocks lining the U.S. 131 northbound ramp into the arena area.

"That's where it all began," Rockford's Kurt Hassberger said. "The huge catalyst in that area was the arena, that's no great mystery. We took a look at it and saw an opportunity to buy a lot of buildings in bulk. We really felt it was the logical place for downtown to expand. It was a risky deal, no question about it, but it's worked out well and we're very pleased with how it's all come together."

With a number of buildings bought from the Cutler Co., the city and others, Rockford — in partnership with Peter Secchia's SIBSCO and now the DeVos family's RDV Corp. — has developed or is developing new homes for institutions like the Western Michigan University's Graduate Center and Cooley Law School, entertainment venues like the Black Rose Irish Pub, retail tenants like EQ3 Furniture and the Bank of Holland, and a new corporate headquarters for Design Plus.

Rockford is currently in the process of demolishing the Milner Hotel in favor of a four-story office building, the aforementioned downtown site of the Bank of Holland, and the conversion of two buildings into housing to be marketed toward Cooley students. Development options for another Rockford property, the Heartside Clinic building at 61 Commerce Ave., also are being explored.

While Cherry Street Landing is still an ongoing initiative, other projects have come to the forefront, too. With portions of some buildings along the northernmost part of South Division already transformed into market grade housing, Dwelling Place Inc. is working to create some less homogenous housing options with a 35-unit project along Division's 100 block.

Winner of one of the state's Cool Cities grants, the development is the catalyst for the Avenue of the Arts project, and will provide affordable living/work spaces marketed toward the arts community. The project will include a café that will serve as an art gallery displaying works produced within the Heartside area.

"The neighborhood has been coming back and revitalized over the last five years in particular," said Jarrett DeWyse, Dwelling Place's director of housing development. "I think there is a great potential for that area, and not just with this project in particular. But obviously we need a critical mass to happen to make the development sustained."

Dwelling Place has partnered with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) within the Cool Cities grant. With the grant, written to include all art-related ventures from Logan Street SE to Rosa Parks Circle, home of the new Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dwelling Place has asked UICA to help coordinate a distribution effort to arts groups and art-related businesses (including restaurants). As a part of that effort, the UICA building will soon receive a new spring dance floor.

With the Avenue of the Arts project underway, and its position established as the home of the VanAndel Arena and the major portion of the "theater district" –- even if the Civic Theater is two blocks north –- Heartside appears to be in a strong position to become the center of the Grand Rapids "entertainment district."

"Currently we're involved in a marketing collaborative with a Toronto firm (Urban Marketing Collaborative, a division of the J.C. Williams Group) on creation of an arts and entertainment strategy for downtown," Pratt said. "It's still in the preliminary stages, but we're looking to implement a strategy that could create a so-called entertainment district. It could mean nightlife, retail, arts and entertainment. We're looking at how to encourage all those things."

Heartside is already home to some of the city's most notable restaurants in Charley's Crab, The Sierra Room and San Chez A Tapas Bistro, nightlife staples such as Taps Sports Bar, Gardello's, and The BOB just across the Fulton borderline, as well as one-time Eastown anchor The Intersection. Purple East's glowing purple structure and Vertigo Music provide unique retail attractions, the Reptile House is set to be renovated by Cambridge House proprietor Larry Zeiser, and Sensations' Mark London is planning an adult attraction on Market Avenue.

With all that activity, and as the doorway to downtown from the standpoint of the highway and of public transportation with The Rapid's new central transit station on Market, Heartside is set to become a hub for Grand Rapids' arts and entertainment whether the city decides to deem it so or not.

But what has become of the area that looked more like downtown Detroit than Furniture City only a few years ago?

"Most of the development we see unfolding is not catering to the lower income part of the neighborhood," said William Holmes, Heartside Neighborhood Association co-president. "The neighborhood association isn't opposed to development, but the fear is that when the pendulum swings to bring in the higher income folks and the businesses that cater to them, slowly the folks that have been here for a long time will not feel comfortable.

"I remember how appalled I was when a developer was quoted in the paper basically leaving the impression that he's going to Heartside because there is nothing there, that it was basically a wasteland, a wide open development field. We responded formally saying, 'Excuse me, there are 1,500 people who've lived here and they've lived here a long time."

Mel Trotter Ministries, Dégagé Ministries and God's Kitchen, among others, all have long served Heartside's vast population of low-income residents and indigents, but it's possible that the long-term view of the area as a bustling urban environment would not include homeless shelters, soup kitchens and missions. For the time being, however, the two interests are getting along.

"Let's have a mixed downtown neighborhood where everyone is accepted and the traditional kind of displacement when this type of gentrification unfolds doesn't take place," Holmes said. "We're hoping that people paying a thousand bucks a month for a loft apartment can live next door to a homeless shelter."

"I think it's important to emphasize that in all the projects we've done, we haven't displaced anybody," Hassberger said. "Every building was either vacant or the original owner was vacating at the time we purchased it. We haven't displaced anybody; that was a concern when we first got involved in the project, but we just haven't experienced that."  

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