A really long time in the making

August 5, 2011
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Even though the Inner City Christian Federation has a 24-year history of building many of the city’s most notable construction projects, the nonprofit organization has started its most ambitious and significant development to date.

Phase one work of the Wealthy-Jefferson Development Initiative has begun, as Rockford Construction Co. just started putting up two three-story mixed-use buildings designed by Design Plus at 100 Wealthy St. SE. When it’s finished, the project will provide 150 housing units and more than 50,000 square feet of retail space just a mile from downtown Grand Rapids. The project will cost $30 million, and the lengthy to-do list has been checked more than once.

“We have everything done. Our checklist is completely satisfied — a checklist of all the authorities and all the money sources. Everything is done,” said Jonathan Bradford, ICCF president and CEO.

The Wealthy-Jefferson project will have five phases and take four years to build, which for ICCF will probably seem like a few blinks of an eye compared to how long it took for the development to go from idea to launch date.

ICCF started its mission on the city’s southeast side in 1987 when it began rehabilitating single-family homes and then designing and building new rental units in the Franklin Street and Jefferson Avenue area. By the time 1999 rolled around, Bradford said ICCF had completed more than 100 units in that stretch of the city when a new opportunity came up that year.

“There was open land and there was funding, and we had a chance to do another batch of deeply subsidized rental housing,” he said. “It would have been a good thing, a logical thing — I dare not say an easy thing — but a pretty good thing to do another batch of 30 subsidized rental units.”

But ICCF didn’t go ahead with the project a dozen years ago because Bradford said the organization wondered if it really knew what was best for the long-term health of that neighborhood. So ICCF called a timeout, thought about what to do, and then, more than a year later, held its first public neighborhood planning session in October 2000.

“Out of that came no distinct plan, but a conviction that health, vitality and resilience would be quite possible in this neighborhood. However, to do that we would have to be thinking in a much more expansive or a more diverse fashion than subsidized housing. We would have to be open to different kinds of development and not just deeply subsidized rental housing,” said Bradford.

So ICCF conducted a year’s worth of research by talking with neighborhood groups, area hospitals, the Catholic diocese, the city and other stakeholders. That took the organization to the end of 2001. The discussions showed ICCF that it had to go even deeper into the planning stage.

“So in January of 2002, we held a six- and-a-half-day-long planning charette that involved 65 residents and representatives of various stakeholder groups in the neighborhood. There were 14 different groups, and eight very competent, highly regarded design professionals from around the country that we hired,” said Bradford. “There was no stone unturned, no ground untouched, no issue left unopened.”

What emerged from that charette was the concept of a master plan, along with the equivalent of a zoning plan, which covered Cherry to Franklin streets and Division to Lafayette avenues — an area that runs about seven blocks from north to south and five blocks east to west.

The master plan was considered a concept because certain developments, such as a three-story housing unit, weren’t pinpointed for specific properties. But it did lay out a general approach to revitalize those blocks.

“The reason you take that approach is to start getting some believers — people who start seeing the possibilities,” said Bradford, who added that the city later adopted some of the charette’s zoning details into its ordinance.

At the time, the city’s 1961 master plan was still in effect, and it required ICCF to treat the corner of Wealthy and Jefferson the same way a much busier suburban corner, such as 36th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, had to be treated: It meant structures had to be built back from the street too far and too far apart for a dense urban setting. But a zoning feature that surfaced from the charette would change that alignment as it contained build-to lines instead of setback lines.

“To help you understand that difference, I would have you picture the intersection of Lake Drive and Wealthy in Eastown versus the intersection of 44th and Kalamazoo. Older buildings are built to the public right-of-way and they help define the public realm,” said Bradford.

“The fact is we wrote a (Traditional Neighborhood Development) ordinance and an architectural code that said things like what kind of building materials to use, height- and lot-coverage ratios, etc. So we all were, if you will, cocked and loaded to build, to revitalize in a way that would be attractive to multiple uses: institutional, retail, residential, office and so forth. We were, in effect, seeking to recreate the neighborhood that had been there because that whole area was laid out between 1868 and 1880,” he added.

But ICCF still couldn’t go forward with the project in 2002 because of Wealthy Street. Bradford said Wealthy had to be “tamed.” It once was a neighborhood tree-lined street with local businesses, homes, on-street parking and two lanes of traffic. In 1959, however, Wealthy became an arm of the new U.S. 131 highway and grew to five traffic lanes.

“That was a major contributing factor to the demise of the area,” he said. “The design that you see on Wealthy today between Division and Madison came from our planning charette in January of 2002. The roundabouts, the medians, the on-street parking were all from the ICCF planning charette.”

By 2005, Bradford said ICCF had raised money to have Wealthy Street re-engineered. He credited Rick DeVries of the city engineer’s office and City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz for their creative input into reshaping the street following some major water and sewer work the city did there.

“Physically, Wealthy was in fine shape. But it was a drag strip. When you hit the lights, you could easily be doing 50 mph, and that’s not going to make a neighborhood business district,” he said.

The transformation of Wealthy from basically a U.S. 131 exit ramp into a neighborhood street began in early 2007 and finished around Thanksgiving Day 2008. ICCF had hoped to get some of the Wealthy-Jefferson construction going while the street work was being done, but the financial market had just begun its freefall and the work had to be postponed.

“Here we are now in the summer of 2011, and the street has been open for two-and-three-quarter years, and we’re starting construction of the first two buildings, neither of which would have been possible if Wealthy Street hadn’t been rebuilt,” said Bradford.

Once Rockford Construction completes work on the two buildings, which will feature retail and residences, phases two and three will begin. Both will offer residential units, with condominiums going up in the third stage. Phases four and five will return the project’s focus to mixed-use buildings, a plan that currently includes a grocery store to serve the neighborhood. About 35 percent of all the residences will be reserved for low-income families. The funds that will pay for the development are not part of ICCF’s annual budgets for the next four years. Public funds, tax credits and foundation grants make up a portion of the $30 million investment.

The Wealthy-Jefferson development should wrap up in 2015, which really isn’t so far away considering that the idea to construct this massive project came from ICCF’s decision not to build subsidized housing more than a decade ago in 1999.

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