Does G.R. Need A Mystery Development

February 16, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — If there is a lesson to be learned in the frenzied discussion surrounding last year’s “mystery development,” it is that the perception of the best-case scenario for downtown Grand Rapids, and for that matter the region itself, was as varied as the people themselves.

Some people wished for a corporate headquarters or the addition of a blockbuster firm like Google. Others saw a renewable energy research center on the riverfront, or perhaps a strategically placed Toyota factory or a medical school. There was talk of a Meijer store, a shopping mall and even, briefly, casinos.

“We’ve been down flat on our back in Michigan for so long. … We’re all eager to see the next big project come along that will solve all of our problems,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “The truth is there isn’t a silver bullet, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in seeing people invest here.”

With any major development, downtown or otherwise, there is a natural conglomeration effect that draws investment to the area in close proximity to it, said Downtown City Planner Eric Pratt. Examples include the health care investment on the Michigan Street hill, and the Van Andel Arena, which jumpstarted the entertainment and hospitality industry in downtown Grand Rapids with its opening a decade ago.

“To me, the question is, ‘What do we want?’” said Kurt Hassberger, COO of Rockford Companies, which is responsible for much of the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids. “We have almost indisputably captured our fair share of the nightlife weekend entertainment crowd. So what are we trying to accomplish now?”

Downtown residential specialist and resident Donna Dozeman knows exactly what she wants: more retail. “Any retail — clothing stores, places you can just pop in and buy something at 7 p.m., somewhere to buy a new outfit without going out to the ’burbs.”

John Mundell III, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis in Grand Rapids, reported that most of the floor-level space his firm has listed in the downtown market is leased by restaurants and bars, and there is a consistent interest in 5,000- to 7,000-square-foot spaces to accommodate new launches.

He suggests downtown is underserved by family- and visitor-oriented entertainment venues, specifically family fun centers such as Craig’s Cruisers, ESPN Zone or Dave and Buster’s. There is also not a high concentration of general retail.

“There is certainly a need,” Mundell said. “But for a lot of these national retailers, they will come in and look for population studies, and while we certainly have it in the MSA, it’s not there yet for downtown.”

He also presented a somewhat surprising concern: for many national retailers, the current real estate market has little to offer. “That product probably doesn’t exist for those to come in, so it will be up to developers to incorporate the needs of national retailers.”

Kayem Dunn, executive director of the Foundation for Interior Design Education Research and chair of the Downtown Development Authority, suggested that downtown Grand Rapids’ greatest need is more people.

“People living, working, visiting. As there are more and more people, that will drive the addition of other things to serve those people. It’s about density.”

A corporate headquarters or an educational institution could easily add density, she said, but so could public transportation.

David Frey, co-chair of the Grand Action committee, the organization responsible for many of the city’s successful private-public partnership projects, cautioned against any urge to focus on what the downtown market is lacking.

“I think we need to remind ourselves of all the development that we’ve seen in the past few years and are going to see over the next three to five years,” he said. “The cityscape is going to be very exciting in the next few years.”

In that respect, there is already a great deal of momentum toward downtown density critical mass, Frey said, but housing should still be considered a top priority.

“If you want downtown to be alive at 5, you need people to live there,” he said. “Residential housing should still be a concern, and not just luxury housing, you need to meet the demand of people in all price ranges and stages of their lives.”

Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, believes that national chain retail is not the best fit for downtown Grand Rapids.

“Whether attracting it is realistic or not, it’s something you don’t want in a traditional downtown, where the strengths are locally owned businesses, not chains you can get in any city in the country.”    

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