Ramp Site Use Will Determine Price

August 27, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A special task force could begin meeting this week to determine the best use for the site of the former City Centre parking ramp, property owned by the city.

Parking Services put the task force together and Director Pam Ritsema told the Business Journal the group will take an extensive look at what should be done with the 36,000-square-foot parcel at

Division Avenue
and
Fulton Street

“I think uses will run along a continuum. One end being publicly owned parking, which is what it is right now, and at the other end, a privately owned commercial development,” said Ritsema.

“And in between, a public-private partnership with some combination of parking and private use — be that retail, office, or residential,” she added.

Ritsema said the task force, which has its first meeting tentatively set for Sept. 1, would include a recent report on the potential for downtown housing, the latest study on creating a downtown entertainment district, and a nearby parking study in its deliberations.

Bids won’t be accepted on the site until the task force completes its work, which is likely  to take a few months. However, the city has had the property appraised. But the figure is being kept under lock and key for now.

“It’s done and has been submitted to legal counsel,” said Ritsema. “So we’re still keeping it confidential at this point.”

The site has been called the “gateway to downtown,” a corner where the eastern edge of downtown meets the rapidly changing Heartside Business District that stretches south down Division to Wealthy. The property is also just east of the district’s entertainment hub, anchored by the Van Andel Arena and a number of nightspots a few blocks away.

More businesses, restaurants, and the Heritage Hill residential neighborhood are east of the property. Educational institutions and the Civic Theatre, which is getting a facelift, are to the north.

As sites go, the parcel is in a fairly dense location. But is it a prime piece of downtown real estate?

“I think it certainly could be. Right now, there have been a lot of people speculating on those South Division buildings and a lot of people, in the last five years, have bought those things. Some have even done renovations,” said Eric Wynsma, principal of Terra Firma, a development company currently restoring downtown’s oldest office building at Monroe and Pearl

“It’s certainly a prominent address. It’s easily identified and recognized as a location. But I would say that there is not much happening there today,” he added.

Ned Quinn, a principal with Gable Ventures, said he considers any parcel so close to downtown as being prime. But he is also concerned that losing parking from that site might not be in downtown’s best interest.

If a building does go there, he wondered what workers in the area would do for parking and how downtown would draw more people to it with fewer parking spots.

“Affordable parking is hard to find,” said Quinn, whose firm owns a downtown building. “If we continue to focus on highest and best use, but forget about parking requirements, I think in the long run we could be cutting off our nose to spite our face kind of thing.”

Wynsma said the best use for the site would depend on who is interested in it. He felt that employers might be hesitant to locate there with the missions and other organizations that serve downtown’s poor so close to it, possibly making an office building there a tough go. But he also said the image that the area might be too risky to work in could change with the city police department just across

Fulton Street

Without knowing the parking-volume numbers, Quinn said it was difficult to determine what type of development should go there. He also said that parking should be thought of as a prime use for the site.

When he put the parking issue aside, however, Quinn thought the site would be a good location for a new development, especially with all the projects that have been done nearby.

“I do believe that having residential closer to downtown helps to spur downtown with businesses, restaurants and things like that. And I think that Grand Rapids has done a good job to make sure that downtown is thriving,” he said.

“But I also think that one of the major components in the whole thing is parking.”

As for how much a developer would pay for the property, Wynsma and Quinn said a price would depend on whom is interested in it and what use would go there.

“It’s very subjective on use and value,” said Quinn. “When I take a look at a development I’m taking a look at what I’m going to get at the end and then I have to back out my costs in order to make the project financially viable.

“It’s going to be project driven, the value — whether it’s commercial, retail, office, or parking.”

Wynsma did say that the property likely had a minimum value of over $400,000. He based his estimate on what nearby sites have sold for, like the former Junior Achievement building. That building sits across Division from the ramp site and is on a smaller footprint, but it sold for about $400,000 and is on the market at a higher price.

“It’s hard to determine a value for something until you know what the use is for it. I guess if someone told me it’s going to be a 20-story residential building, then it’s obviously a higher number,” said Wynsma.

Neither Wynsma nor Quinn intend to bid on the property.

The 42-year-old ramp, which had a parking capacity of over 700 cars, had to come down. A structural report issued last year said the ramp was crumbling in key spots and was a safety hazard. The city closed it at the start of the year and interior demolition work began in July.

Ritsema said the razing was moving along quickly and added that the site could be cleared by the middle of next month. She also said the city was moving forward to make a decision on the property as fast as it possibly could.

“I’d like to see something happening with the property next spring,” said Ritsema. “Or in the winter, if we can build then.”    

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