City gives residential project brownfield status

February 13, 2012
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Grand Rapids city commissioners approved four brownfield plans last week for GR School Lofts LLC, a Berkley, Mich., group that wants to convert four former elementary schools into apartment complexes.

The four-story buildings that once were Eastern, Lexington, Oakdale and Stocking schools are the firm’s chosen developments. According to city documents, GR School Lofts will invest $18.2 million into the vacant schools it is purchasing from Grand Rapids Public Schools; $4.8 million of that total will be eligible for remediation reimbursement.

The company will invest nearly $5.4 million into the conversion of Eastern, and almost $1.4 million of that will qualify for reimbursement through tax-increment financing. The firm will invest $3.4 million into Lexington and $657,000 will be reimbursed. Oakdale will get an investment of $4.8 million and nearly $1.7 million will qualify under the brownfield act. Another $4.6 million will go into turning Stocking into apartments with $1.1 million to be reimbursed. The firm also qualifies for $2.6 million in adaptive reuse of the buildings.

GR School Lofts is donating land on each property to the city for parks and playgrounds, which are expected to cost $2.2 million to develop.

“The city will be seeking tax-increment financing from the properties for the parks,” said City Economic Development Director Kara Wood.

Commissioners were pleased that GR School Lofts, part of Ojibway Development, was interested in redeveloping the buildings.

“Well, first, I’d like to think that we would all like to have schools back there. That would be the ultimate. But when you’re looking at vacant buildings in a neighborhood, to be able to get people back living there and then to have the opportunity to have some greenspace preserved for the neighborhood, I think that creates a win-win environment in terms of getting something back in there and also allowing those buildings to be a community resource,” said Commissioner Dave Schaffer.

Two of the empty schools, Lexington and Stocking, are in the city’s 1st Ward, which Schaffer represents with Commissioner Walt Gutowski.

“What does make me feel good is the fact that someone sees those (buildings) as viable places to reinvest, which gives me courage and hope that through that investment our business corridors will continue to see reinvestment. So I hope that this might spur some of that,” said Schaffer.

“This is really an incredible opportunity to increase the greenspace in the city,” said Commissioner Ruth Kelly.

“That the developer is willing to give a portion of the properties to the city for parks is incredible,” added Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

Commissioners also set March 13 as the public hearing date for a new Corridor Improvement District, which, if approved, would become the city’s third. The two previous ones, Uptown and Madison Square, are on the southeast side. But this time, three north-side business districts — Cheshire Village, Creston and a portion of Monroe North — have formed The North Quarter business association and are asking the city to grant the new group a corridor district and an accompanying authority.

Gaining CID status would allow the property taxes that are generated from any improvements and new developments that debut to be reinvested into the district. In addition to asking for a CID, Wood said the business owners also plan to form a Business Improvement District.

“The BID would be a special assessment district, the revenues of which may be used for public improvements and/or maintenance within the development area. Once established, the BID will be the primary source of revenues for the (CID) authority in the early years,” said Wood.

Wood said Neighborhood Ventures helped the business associations put together the CID application and its necessary development plan, which is based on two plans that were created in the Creston business district and neighborhood.

Mark Lewis, executive director of Neighborhood Ventures, said 46 individuals came together to push this request forward. “Not only were they sitting at the table, but they were taking money out of their pockets (for it),” he said. “We’ve got a lot of new businesses. There is always something happening there. There is great opportunity in The North Quarter.”

The district would run along Monroe Avenue from Colfax Street to Coldbrook Street, and along Plainfield Avenue from Coldbrook to Beechwood Street. Slightly more than 50 percent of the district’s 1.9 million square feet of ground-floor space is commercial, which means it qualifies for a CID.

“We really want to see this neighborhood become strong and vital. We want it to be a solid area for doing business,” said Duane Culver, principal of the Culver Group, a CPA and business advisory firm.

Judging by the favorable remarks they made last week, commissioners are likely to approve The North Quarter request next month.

“This is an incredible tool. It will be interesting to see what it can do for the district,” said Bliss.

“I really consider this group a member of my civic family. We’ve worked together for years now,” said Kelly.

“The West Side is next,” said Schaffer. “Commissioner Gutowski and I are working on that.”

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