Uptown upgrades in the works

May 2, 2009
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The next step for Uptown is to have the city appoint members to the district’s Corridor Improvement Authority, and the Grand Rapids City Commission is expected to do that this month.

Mayor George Heartwell will designate one member — and he can name himself — while the mayor and city commissioners will appoint eight others together. Those interested in serving on the board have already let the city know of their desire to do that. The city’s appointment committee will review the applications and then send them to the commission.

Commissioners recently created a CIA for Uptown, which means the area’s four business associations can now have a Corridor Improvement District that can capture a portion of the property-tax base that originates from any improvements property owners make.

Uptown has the first CIA in the city, and one of only a handful in the state.

The support the Eastown, East Fulton, East Hills and Wealthy Street business groups provided for the designation was simply overwhelming, as was the backing that came from the neighborhood associations in Eastown, Midtown and East Hills.

That support was very visible at a public hearing the city held on the designation request in February. But even that event represented the tip of a seemingly unstoppable iceberg.

“Hundreds of stakeholders in the Uptown area had e-mailed, called and wrote letters to the city commission. There was even more support than what was physically in the room that evening,” said Kimberly Van Dyk, executive director of Neighborhood Ventures, the nonprofit community and economic development organization that coordinated the CIA push for the district.

“I think there were actually more calls and e-mails involved that, perhaps, were more casual in nature,” she added.

The district contains a bit more than one million square feet of space. Commercial space accounts for 738,500 of that total square footage. Wealthy, Lake, Cherry and Fulton are the main boulevards that comprise the CID.

Van Dyk said once the board is appointed, members will write the district’s development plan and its tax-increment finance plan. Until those are completed, little can be officially done. But a good portion of the development document already exists, as part of Uptown’s request for the CIA designation. And commissioners have capped the total tax-increment revenue the CID can capture to 60 percent, once revenues top 75 percent of the assessment value, a move that provides guidance to the tax plan.

“When we put this proposal in front of the city commission, we actually did a three-quarter, year-long process where we combined any plan that existed for business-district improvements that was already out there and on the table. For areas that didn’t have those, we asked for community input on what they would like to see, and we put that together in the proposal,” said Van Dyk.

“Frankly, in the proposal we put forth to the city commission is much of the background work they’ll need. It shouldn’t be too difficult because the community has really come out and participated in the process and expressed the types of improvements they would like to see in the area.”

Van Dyk is fairly certain that once improvements are made in the business districts, the nearby residential areas will also improve. The goal of the CID, she said, is to improve the entire district and not just the main commercial corridors.

State law lets a CIA operate in a neighborhood district like a downtown development authority does in a Central Business District, meaning it can capture property-tax revenue that comes from higher property values that are created by improvements.

The state established the CIA as a way to stop the deterioration of property values, revitalize commercial districts and encourage historic renovation.

“We’ve been tracking this legislation since it passed at the end of 2005. We’ve been trying to get one up and running basically since then. So it’s taken three years of work,” said Van Dyk.

Besides Uptown, there are only two other commercial districts in the city that can capture taxes. One is Heartside, where taxes are captured by the DDA. The other is Monroe North, which has a tax-increment authority. Van Dyk said the city’s other 17 districts have been following the Uptown application fairly closely, and at least one, Madison Square, will apply soon for a CIA of its own.

“They’re only tracking a couple of months behind Uptown,” she said.

Van Dyk is known in the city as a strong advocate for small business and the districts these shops and restaurants have forged and for the older residential neighborhoods that provide much of their customers. So she is familiar with how hard it is for these business owners to compete against corporate chains, especially when there is little in the way of outside assistance for them. And that’s why she feels the CIA is so important for Uptown, as it gives the district’s business owners a chance to help themselves to compete better.

Van Dyk noted that downtown didn’t make its comeback solely because of action the market took. She said the revival was fostered by the city and the DDA, and she hopes the city and the CIA can do the same for Uptown.

“Business districts in the city that surround the downtown are really vital to the success of the neighborhoods that they’re in. They don’t have very many resources or tools at their disposal to really be competitive in today’s economy. So efforts like this really are important to the health of the inner city, the whole city and the region,” she said.

“Intuitively, we know as humans we want to be in a place that’s healthy, where commerce can thrive, and we also intuitively know when we’re in a place that is the opposite of that. We need more of the former and less of the latter in our city. So whatever we can do to get that is what will really make us competitive in a global market.”

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