Mixed Use Main Streets

August 26, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Whether in large metropolitan areas or rural main streets, urban buildings were historically a mixed use. On the first floor were businesses — barbershops, restaurants, tailors and so forth — with residential, manufacturing or office space on the upper floors.

Beginning in the 1950s, mixed-use projects largely disappeared as developers fled the inner cities in favor of malls and housing developments. In short time, living above a pizza parlor, bowling alley, muffler shop or just about anything became a sign of hardship.

Today, with the advent of new urbanism and a renewed interest in urban living, mixed-use development is seeing a resurgence. It has become widely popular in downtown Grand Rapids, with dozens of such projects in development or only a few years old. Notables include the PeckBuilding, Front Row Condominiums and The Boardwalk.

Not as noticeable is a burgeoning trend of mixed-use apart from the big buildings downtown, as a variety of local main streets have made mixed use a part of their own infill developments.

In Rockford, Sam’s Joint owner Sam Bravata Jr. plans to convert two vacant floors above his downtown eatery at

19 N. Main St.
into condos.

In some of Grand Rapids’ original suburbs such the Cheshire and Wealthy Street neighborhoods, similar developments are underway, the work of Development Advisors Equity Corp.

Cheshire Market Square
at
2221 Plainfield Ave. NE
has 8,600 square feet of retail on the ground floor and 11 apartments on the second floor. It is built close to the road, with parking in the back, mimicking some of
Plainfield Avenue
’s oldest buildings.

The apartments range from 560 square feet to 1,000 square feet and are priced from $700 to $1,250 a month. The first business tenants include a Hungry Howie’s Pizza franchise and Jude’s Barbershop.

At 920 Wealthy St. SE, DAEC recently purchased the Kramer building, a former auto repair shop, for $180,000 from a private owner and an adjacent vacant lot owned by the city for $21,400.

The restored Kramer building will include either one or two storefronts, depending on tenant interest, with an attached two-story building that will include two apartments and two additional retail storefronts.

“They’re unique in what we, as a culture, have been building for a number of years, in that they are set up close to the street and they are multistory and mixed use,” said DAEC President James Reminga. “It makes them a bit more like the way we used to do it; in that regard, they’re old urbanism.”

Reminga said DAEC became interested in the concept after the city redid its master plan two years ago.

“We noticed that there were a number of traditional business nodes — these red dots all over the city that were the crossroad type of developments,” he said. “Most of them are older, and they’ve kind of evolved with the evolution of the city.

“We wondered if there might be opportunities in those nodes for smaller scale neighborhood retail developments to come in and invest new dollars into these old areas.”

This type of project is a departure for DAEC. Co-owned by Mark Muller of Ben Muller Realty Co., DAEC is responsible for the city’s largest recent development, the CelebrationVillage on East Beltline at

Knapp Street
, perhaps the largest “sprawl-type” project in the city boundaries in decades.

“We do big things, mostly,” Reminga said. “But we set out with a business model of investing in these old neighborhoods. These are the smallest things that we’re looking at, but there aren’t many 40-acre pieces of land left in the city, so in the future, projects will be smaller.”

According to Shopping Centers Today magazine, demographic changes hint that more urban mixed-use projects will continue to spring up, and their residential components will continue to play a big role.

The average U.S. household has declined in size from 3.1 people 30 years ago to about 2.6 currently, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The data indicates that there are more singles and empty nesters to seek urban housing.

Mixed-use projects built on transit lines that have strong residential components address both environmental and traffic concerns and strengthen the tax base, the magazine said. For developers, it is a chance to diversify their investment.

Reminga doesn’t believe a traditional strip mall project would have received approval on either site. The Cheshire site had been vacant for years, with the neighborhood shooing away a McDonald’s franchise and other developers.

“The city is encouraging these types of developments,” he said.

But, according to Shopping Centers Today, the complexity and demands of mixed-use projects are overwhelming.

“To really make a mixed-use project work, it’s almost akin to calling a meeting of the United Nations,” said Thomas J. D’Alesandro, Eastern region manager of Texas-based Woodlands Development Co.

Designer Mark Miller of Nederveld Associates is involved with several new urbanism type projects, including the Cottages at Lites’ Woods in Pentwater and the sign-language community in Laurent, S.D.

The difficulty with mixed-use developments, Miller said, is that municipalities have zoned out the same developments they are encouraging.

“Most current zoning uses do not allow for mixed uses; you have to get variances,” he said. “That’s true of most everywhere in the country. Whenever one gets built, it goes through an amendment process or deals with zoning in a creative way.”

“Regulations don’t allow it anymore; it’s patterned after suburban, mass development,” said Grand Valley Metro Council Planning Director Andy Bowman. “They’ve been doing that for 40 years now. It became acceptable to meter out housing, commercial and industrial. Then they started to realize that the communities we’ve created have downsides.”

Had the city not been on board with his projects, Reminga likely would not have pursued either one.

“The city is trying to make it easier,” he said. “Code people are being sensitive to the fact that little developments have trouble carrying all these inspection fees and that kind of stuff. But big projects are still a lot more cost-effective. Small projects are just as much work to get through all the inspections and code reviews as a big project.”

Cheshire neighborhood resident and broker Craig Sattler, who is marketing the Cheshire apartments for DAEC, recalled the community atmosphere as the project went before the zoning board of appeals last year.

“The neighborhood association, the neighborhood business association, the neighbors — everyone was in favor of this project,” he said. “Why did we need a variance?”    

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