Zoning Process Begins For Walker Project

April 2, 2006
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WALKER — Residents of Walker and surrounding communities packed Walker’s city commission chambers Wednesday to get a firsthand look at a rezoning and preliminary site plan proposal for 238 acres on the city’s northwest side.

The public hearing was the first step in a three-pronged process that will help city commissioners determine whether a large mixed-use development on property bordering I-96 and Bristol Avenue is a good fit for Walker. A Cabela’s sporting goods store has been mentioned as a possible tenant.

Planning Director Frank Wash said a consultant will now undertake a community impact analysis that will look at the project’s potential impact on traffic, public water, sewer and drainage systems, on the environment, and on city revenues and city services, such as police and fire.

The next step is a second reading of the rezoning ordinance by city commissioners, and the last step will be a public hearing on the final site plan, he said.

The 238-acre parcel is owned by Walker Orchard Land Partners, which is managed by Northgate Holdings LLC. The group has an additional 65 acres of land in the northwest vicinity under option.

The developers are proposing a “traditional neighborhood development” — a new urban style development with a mixture of commercial, office and residential sites and a “village center,” or downtown. A “New Urbanist” neighborhood has features reminiscent of the pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhoods of 50 to 100 years ago, where land uses are intimately blended, streets are small and densely connected, and everything is within walking distance. That’s exactly the kind of development called for in that area under the land use guidelines in the city’s updated master plan.

According to the conceptual plan, a 62-acre portion of the Walker Orchard group property is pegged for a village center that would be “a tourist-oriented commercial area anchored by a regional, and potentially interstate, commercial draw.” That’s the area being eyed by developers as a location for a Cabela’s sporting goods store.

“Though Cabela’s may be the most ‘media driven’ part of this, it’s a very small part of a very large project,” Mayor Rob VerHeulen reminded those gathered for the presentation last week.

Northgate’s developers, Trademark Property Co., of Fort Worth, in conjunction with Chicago’s Urban Retail Properties Co., would develop everything associated with the village center.

Jim Houk, managing partner of Bird Houk Collaborative, a planning and architectural firm, said the developer’s goal is to create “a high quality, mixed use development where people could live, work and shop.”

“This is the trend going on throughout the country,” he noted. “We believe in sustainable architecture — architecture based on quality developments and quality materials that will be viable in the long term. We think this will be unique in the Grand Rapids market; it’s the alternative to strip malls.”

Houk described at length the plan to create five distinct “districts” within the development, including an 18-acre residential townhouse district with housing similar to old brownstones; a 62-acre town center district with an eclectic mix of projects, including entertainment venues, restaurants, shops, residential units, a large format retail store, hotels, public gathering space and, likely, a theater; a 12-acre commercial, office and residential district; and another 24-acre commercial, office and residential district.

Cabela’s remains a candidate for the large retail chunk of the town center project. Cabela’s is the nation’s largest specialty retailer, direct mail and Internet marketer of hunting, fishing, camping and related outdoor merchandise. It had revenues of $1.8 billion in fiscal 2005. The chain has 14 stores across the country, with others scheduled to open this year.

Michigan’s only Cabela’s is in Dundee, just southwest of Detroit. It is purported to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in Michigan, with more than 5 million visitors a year. The store has a 250,000-square-foot showroom that serves as an educational and entertainment attraction, featuring a décor of museum-quality animal displays, huge aquariums, and trophy animals in re-creations of their natural habitats.   

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