Wheres The Ramp

November 16, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The newly opened, city-owned parking ramp at

Cherry Street
and
Commerce Avenue
may be the last of its breed. There is a new idea in town, and if it comes to fruition, the city may never build another clearly visible, stand-alone facility again — at least not in a core business district.

"I do think it does have a potential for being a template for future projects," said Jack Hoffman, chairman of the city's Parking Commission.

"It is a new way of building a parking ramp," added Pam Ritsema, director of Parking Services for the city.

Hoffman and Ritsema were referring to a mixed-use development that has been targeted for a key Heartside Business District block at

Weston Street
and
Commerce Avenue
.

Kelwin Properties and 38 Commerce LLC have proposed to put up two buildings that would total a minimum of 68,000 square feet for office, residential and retail uses. The city would construct a seven-story, 360-space ramp that would be tucked behind the structures with only a portion of it visible from the street.

"It would almost be a model for future parking projects," said Andy Winkel, president of Kelwin Properties. "We think this is a great way to tuck away parking in a nice project."

The development is being presented as another public-private partnership, but the city's legal counsel, Dick Wendt, said there isn't any cost-sharing between the two groups. He added that the city has to approve the developer's financing package before Parking Services can become involved in the development.

Wendt also said a few more wrinkles need to be ironed out to protect the city in case the developer is unable to complete the project. Kelwin Properties has to give the city two letters-of-credit in case it can't. One is for $350,000 to cover the city's cost to have the ramp designed. The other is for $770,000 to pay for the ramp's façade, as the structure will go up without one because it will be tucked behind the buildings.

The project also needs to gain support from the Historic Preservation Commission to raze the building at 38 Commerce. The city's Building Authority has to approve the bond package to finance the ramp, and the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has to add the property to its list so the developer can receive a tax break for its remediation work. Then the City Commission has to give its blessing for the development.

"Then we will assess whether the cost is reasonable and whether we will go forward," said Ritsema.

The Parking Commission has already given its green light for the city to proceed.

"I appreciate you approving this and I hope we can push this through," said Richard Craig, president of Craig Architects and an owner of the building at

25 S. Division Ave.
, the "main street" of the business district.

Craig said his biggest problem in finding tenants is that there hasn't been any parking near his building since the city razed its ramp at

Fulton Street
and
Division Avenue
a few years ago. He said the building, which he restored about 10 years ago, looks empty because the ground floor isn't leased and a lack of parking hasn't drawn many potential tenants to his building.

"We are certainly a champion for this project," said Sam Cummings, president of Second Story Properties, which owns and manages buildings in the district and which began talking with Kelwin Properties about its proposed project two years ago.

"This expands the (

Ionia Avenue
) entertainment district one block to the east and connects it to the Avenue of the Arts (on
Division Avenue
)," said Cummings of the project's potential.

The Downtown Development Authority has agreed to contribute $473,000 to the $1.68 million that the 20,600-square-foot parcel will cost the city for the ramp.

"From a staff standpoint, we agree this is a model and like the project," said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director.

Parking Service's price tag for land, engineering, architectural services and construction will run close to $11 million. Ritsema said her department plans to cover a quarter of the total cost with $2.7 million in cash, and bond for the rest. That would give the department a debt service of $532,000 a year for 30 years. She said the ramp would begin to turn a profit in its third year of operation.

"If everything goes as it should, we anticipate a start date of October 2008, and it will take 15 months to complete," Ritsema said of the ramp's proposed timeline, which actually gives her department up to two years to build the ramp.

The basic concept of the proposal — hiding a ramp in a mixed-use development — is similar to one the Parking Commission discussed a few months ago with another developer for another business district. In September, commissioners heard from Blue Bridge Ventures CEO Jack Buchanan and Pioneer Construction Sales and Marketing Manager Jim Czanko about having the city purchase a lot for a ramp at

801-803 Ionia Ave. NW
, the site of the former Imperial Metals factory in the Monroe North Business District.

Like in the Weston-Commerce proposal, the city's ramp would be tucked behind a mixed-use development planned for the site. Ritsema told the Business Journal the proposal hasn't gone away, but it has received a lukewarm reception at City Hall. She also said going ahead with the Heartside project doesn't stop the city from pursuing the Monroe North project.

But she added that her department doesn't have the funds for many more. Still, she likes the idea of a less visible ramp because it lowers the cost of construction by not having to include a nice façade in the blueprint, and because hiding a garage makes for a better looking project.

A Heartside parking study that Parking Services commissioned a few years ago found the business district would need 1,350 more spaces in the coming years, a figure that was based on the sector's future development. With the new Cherry Commerce ramp and the addition of the Weston Commerce ramp, a new DASH lot at the district's south end — should the DDA expand its boundary — and public spaces in The Gallery project proposed for Fulton and Division, Heartside would have roughly 1,300 more spaces than it does today.

But according to Ritsema, even all those spaces may not be enough.

"Within the next 10 years, I think we will end up with another ramp, in addition to this one (at Weston and Commerce), south of Fulton."     

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