Focus, Construction, and Real Estate

Gateway project is pure west side

Hopes run high to redevelop Bridge Street and honor the district’s past.

February 1, 2013
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Gateway project is pure west side
The Gutowskis, Walt Sr., Walt Jr., and Walt III, are hoping to see revitalization of the business district along Bridge Street. Photo by Michael Buck
For the most part, the ingredients have come together for what may turn out to be the largest commercial development on the city’s near west side since Robert Israels redeveloped a handful of empty structures on Seward Avenue NW several years ago.

Known as the Gateway Project, the plan is to commercially develop up to 39 parcels that roughly run east on Bridge Street from Stocking to Turner avenues and south on Stocking from Second to Douglas streets. Fully redeveloped, the area would serve as a gateway for those who leave downtown from the east on Bridge Street and from the south, via Fulton Street, on Lexington Avenue.

The parties that have quietly gotten control of the properties that bring redevelopment hope to those blocks are Rockford Construction Co. and Walt Gutowski Jr. One is new to the west side, while the other is a native of it.

Rockford is currently building a new home for its construction division along Seward at First Street NW, just a block north of Bridge Street. Gutowski owns Swift Printing and Communications at 404 Bridge St. NW, about four blocks east of Rockford’s new site, and was raised in the neighborhood. He also represents the area, which is in the First Ward, as a Grand Rapids city commissioner.

Gutowski told the Business Journal that he and Rockford Construction weren’t working in tandem when each acquired their various properties, but he hopes they will in the future.

“We do really want to collaborate and come up with a platform which best serves the west side. As you know, I’ve been on Bridget Street my whole life,” he said.

Gutowski’s father, Walt Gutowski, moved his print shop to its current location in 1954. Years later, the Gutowski family bought the building next door from Bob Sullivan, a noted businessman and family friend, to expand their growing business. Today, Swift Printing occupies both buildings.

After Gutowski joined his father in the business, he turned his attention to the neighborhood and began to develop a taste for the real estate industry. He now owns 17 parcels in the area, while Rockford reportedly has acquired 22.

“This is very important to me,” Gutowski said of the project.

He recently bought the properties situated across Bridge Street from Swift Printing, after trying to do so for a decade. He then sold the sites, which measure about an acre, to Rockford for his purchase cost.

“I thought real hard about what would be best for the area. I’ve done old buildings, but I haven’t done anything big. I thought it would be quite risky for me to have a big project, so I thought it would be best to turn that over to Rockford,” he said.

That site is known as the Gateway corner. It’s the first block on the north side of Bridge Street past the U.S. 131 overpass when traveling west on Bridge from downtown. It’s just two blocks west of Bridgewater Place and River House, and it is a key development location for the project.

“There was one point where I thought I was going to do it myself. There was one point where I thought I was going to be a partner with Rockford on that corner. But at the end, I thought it would be best to turn it over to them,” he said.

Gutowski also bought the former Red Lion restaurant building from the Koukios family, who started the local restaurant chain known for its chili dogs. Gutowski also renovated the structure on the same block that houses Frankie’s Knockout Fitness Gym and Fratelli’s Pizza. Both of those buildings are just a block west of the Gateway corner and are also on the north side of Bridge Street.

“They will be doing that corner, and I will be doing the Red Lion properties, which are contiguous to the other properties I own,” he said.

Gutowski said he is hopeful that his firm, Swift Realty LLC, and Rockford Construction can cooperate and develop a plan for those Bridge Street blocks, including the one Rockford acquired that runs on the north side of the street between Seward and Stocking avenues. It has four vacant buildings that were occupied until the recession hit and the properties were foreclosed on.

When Rockford bought the former Miller Products sites for its construction firm, business owners in the Stockbridge district were more than pleased to hear the firm would set up shop nearby. Rockford has a long history of developing and building successful projects, including the Cherry Street Landing project that extended downtown to the south and created about 300,000 new square feet of occupied space.

“We’re ecstatic that they’re going to join us in the neighborhood,” said Gutowski.

Gutowski is hoping others join him and Rockford in the neighborhood’s redevelopment, and he wants to hear from the public. He said he is welcoming comments at facebook.com/purewestside.

Besides having a desire to rebuild his stomping grounds, Gutowski is involved in the project to honor three men who helped to create what once was a very active and highly successful commercial district on Bridge Street. The three are Sullivan, the late Sam Koukios and Gutkowski’s father.

“Those, I believe, are the three individuals who clearly have the spirit of Bridge Street,” he said. “And I hope to do something to memorialize them.”

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