The BOB expansion faces review

March 13, 2009
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The limited partnership known as 20 Monroe Building Co. will take its four-story expansion plan for The BOB — a five-story downtown entertainment center at 20 Monroe Ave. NW — to the Planning Commission next week.

The company, headed by Gilmore Collection CEO Gregory Gilmore, plans to invest millions into a festival marketplace that includes a concert stage, an open-air market with up to 40 food and beverage kiosks, a park-like plaza where people can congregate, some kiosks for retail goods such as art and handmade products, a lower-level recording studio and upper-level private suites — all covered by a retractable roof.

“This project is combining a lot of different things. We’re making it multifaceted like The BOB with a lot of different moving parts,” said Gilmore.

The development is targeted for a parking lot next door to The BOB that 20 Monroe Building Co. is buying from the city for $1.9 million. But the firm needs permission for a special land use permit from city planners to go ahead with the project, which the partners have named “Bobville.”

“A special land use is a use that is generally permitted in a zoned district with Planning Commission approval. It used to be our ‘permitted with approval’ request. What it means is there are standards the Planning Commission has to review before the use can go in, and it’s because of the nature of the use that it’s special,” said Grand Rapids Planning Department Director Suzanne Schulz.

“So there may be additional impacts upon the area that we want to make sure we have the proper protections in place, that there is not going to be any adverse affects by allowing the use to go in a certain area. It’s very location specific,” she added.

One concern planners routinely have in conducting reviews like this one is parking: Are there enough spaces to absorb the new use so it doesn’t create a shortage in the zone? It appears that parking won’t be a problem. Bobville would be in a zone that also contains the Van Andel Arena, and there are a few thousand nearby spaces in ramps and lots.

“We’re not anticipating parking to be an issue. It will be in The BOB’s best interest to try to be aware of when there are Van Andel events and to balance how that happens — the parking conditions and such. But the busier downtown is, the better,” said Schulz.

Another normal concern, though, will raise some questions and may lead to a restriction or two. Planners will ask about the noise levels that will come from Bobville. The project’s design has the concert stage at the west end, along Monroe Avenue. The sound coming from it will be directed east toward the city-owned parking ramp at the corner of Ottawa Avenue and Fulton Street.

But there are residences and hotels on Monroe Avenue. Bobville will be directly across the street from Plaza Towers, which has condos and hotel rooms. If the music is loud and goes on late, then complaints are likely to be made about the noise level and its duration — even more so if the roof is open.

“They’re proposing about 50 or 60 concerts and events in that space a year. And a lot of that, with the retractable roof, would really be outdoor activities. They’re also proposing to keep those activities going until, potentially, 2 in the morning,” said Schulz.

Schulz said the city’s new zoning ordinance is more sensitive about outdoor activities and the noise these events can create for residents and hotel guests, especially if alcohol is served. And the concern isn’t just during a concert, but also after a show.

“We want to balance those impacts that can keep people outside until 2 in the morning with the livability of downtown, and housing is one of our biggest priorities for downtown. If it’s not a great place to live because you’ve got people hollering until 4 in the morning, then no one is going to want to be there,” she said.

“We’re trying to be ahead of the curve and anticipate what could happen and be cautious about it. We’re not saying that we want to stop a special event from happening or bars from going in downtown. But we want to anticipate what the potential impacts could be and be cautious about it.”

Years ago, noise complaints from hotel guests caused the city to push back the end time for concerts at Rosa Parks Circle. Schulz said some cities, like Vancouver, failed to foresee the effect loud noise levels in a downtown would have on housing and they lost residents.

“Now they’re trying to put everything back in the box and that’s very hard to do. Once you’ve given those rights to use that property in a certain way, it’s very hard to kind of scale those uses back,” said Schulz, who added that people thinking of moving downtown should understand that it’s not the quietest neighborhood in the city.

In the firm’s permit application, 20 Monroe Building Co. said the doors and roof “will be closed when certain events dictate it.”

What is really special about a special land use permit is when one is approved, it is issued for the property, not the property owner. So when an owner sells a development, the permit is part of the deal. It’s very unlikely the city is worried that 20 Monroe Building Co. won’t be a responsible owner of the property and the permit, as the city has said it respects the Gilmore Collection for its business dealings and community activities. But the Gilmore family, who opened The BOB in 1996, is all but certain to sell the business someday.

“So we can’t, under land-use law, say, ‘Joe is a nice guy and we know he’ll operate the liquor store really well,’” said Schulz.

“Joe could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Ron could buy the business and be the sleaziest owner on the planet and have huge impacts on the neighborhood. So what we try to do is look at the nature of the use and put appropriate conditions around that use … to make sure that, should the ownership change on that property, there are proper protections in place for the neighbors, too.”

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