Newsmaker Mystery Development

January 8, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Never before has a project captivated West Michigan as did Duane Faust’s 40-acre River Grand mixed-use development on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids, known to most of the region as the “mystery development.”

Grand Rapids Business Journal first reported in February of an unknown developer quietly working with property owners and high-ranking city officials on an ambitious project to redevelop a massive tract of land along Market Avenue between U.S. 131 and Wealthy Street. The planned development was to include the 16-acre parcel of riverfront land the city began marketing that month as part of a 30-acre block representing one of the largest investments ever in downtown Grand Rapids.

More so than the proposal itself, the speculation that followed was a watershed moment in Grand Rapids development.

“I’ve lived here all my life and never seen so much enthusiasm,” said Tom Dowling, principal of Grand Rapids-based Design Pinnacle Group and River Grand’s lead architect. “Everyone wants something really big to happen in Grand Rapids. They’re encouraged that something of this magnitude is happening here.”

Rumors were rampant in the first weeks following the disclosure, including everything from shopping malls to NFL stadiums, casinos, movie studios, Toyota factories and a Google office. In a strange twist, virtually every land owner, politician and broker involved had signed confidentiality agreements with the developer, including Mayor George Heartwell.

After it was falsely reported that Atlanta attorney David Minkin was the mystery man, Deborah Shurlow, the broker with Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce (as it is known today) spearheading the land acquisition, submitted to her first of two television interviews, in which she confirmed rumors of a “multibillion-dollar project worth thousands of jobs.”

For nearly two years, Shurlow and Minkin worked to arrange options on the property adjacent the city-owned parcel at 201 Market Ave. SW, known as the Public Works Island. The most notorious was an ill-fated agreement with strip-club operator Mark London, whose Showgirls Galleria site sits in the middle of the original River Grand footprint.

The collapse of the London deal marked a sea change for the mystery development, as spectators for the first time began to question its feasibility. More doubts arose as an earlier plan for a hip-hop music center came to light.

When Faust — an Atlanta businessman introduced to the area by Grand Rapids native DeLain Roberts, today a Los Angeles record executive — was revealed as the project lead in a leaked proposal from ESNA Corp., his mortgage and real estate firm, some insiders disavowed the proposal. Eric Wynsma of Terra Firma Development had been one of the most vocal supporters among landowners; he sold his Grandville Avenue property to startup Elevation Group in November for development into student housing.

With many properties now out of reach to Faust’s local operating group, Grand Rapids Development Corp., River Grand has changed in scope and scale. According to Faust, this was the plan all along — a land assemblage with the potential to generate billions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs, but with no guarantees.

“The thought in my mind is to create an opportunity, or stage if you will, where others can come and perform,” Faust said. “Once the opportunity has been constructed, which is really just the land itself … it becomes an attractive opportunity that developers would love to be involved with.”

These may be national developers that specialize in entertainment, residential and housing infrastructure, retail or hotels. Likely tenants would include Fortune 500 companies, national chains and entertainment conglomerates. Faust said technology companies have expressed a particular interest.

Today, River Grand is preparing an RFP for purchase of the Public Works Island in competition with two other firms, Grand Rapids-based Moch International and Buffalo, N.Y.,-based Barnes-Stevens Redevelopment. In June, Grand Rapids Development announced a group of 10 well-known local contractors and consultants enlisted for the project, when and if it goes forward.

Whether River Grand becomes a reality or not, its impact will be first measured by the intense excitement it generated. As Heartwell put it before the story became a phenomenon, “The very fact that there is a single developer in that area already, and he has been looking for a year or more, I think bodes well for the future of that district. …This will be the next hot real estate market.”    

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