Inside Track: Urban recreation unites his love for city life and the outdoors
Chris Muller was reluctant to move back to Grand Rapids but is discovering a wealth of opportunities here.
Grand Rapids has a lot to offer; sometimes it just takes a little bit of uncovering.
It took Chris Muller time to figure that out, but now he’s dedicated to the city. The commercial realtor has his hands in many of the projects in Grand Rapids that are contributing to the city’s progress, and more importantly, he’s finding life outside of work to be equally exciting.
Muller grew up in New Mexico and Colorado where much of his free time was spent doing outdoor activities.
“There was just so much amazing outdoor land, it was hard to sit inside and watch TV,” he said. “I was never one to do that.”
He came to Grand Rapids and earned a degree in economics from Calvin College. After graduating, he rather unintentionally embarked on a career in commercial real estate. “It was a fluke — never my intended choice,” he said.
Before long, however, he found he was longing for something more than what Grand Rapids offered.
In 2000, Muller and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. He was fueled by being able to engage in the many outdoor activities he lives for, from kayaking to hiking and biking. His career also thrived in the big city, working for Asadoorian Retail Solutions and playing a big role in the ongoing development of the Reston Town Center in the northern suburb of Reston, Va., one of several large projects he was involved with while living in D.C.
The Reston Town Center is a mixed-use development six miles east of Washington Dulles International Airport and functions as a popular “downtown” space. Following 30 years of development, the center boasts office buildings, 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants, a 13-screen movie theater and a Hyatt Regency hotel. It has virtually everything one could ask for in a downtown setting, from green space to high-rise apartments.
In 2005, Muller and his family moved back to Grand Rapids — having decided it was a better “family town” in which to raise their children, he said. Still, the move was made begrudgingly by Muller, who had a rather jaded view of the limited opportunities Grand Rapids presented.
But slowly, Grand Rapids’ and West Michigan’s opportunities began to reveal themselves to him. He discovered there actually were many outdoor activities in which he could take part year around: Muller said he discovered plenty of trails for hiking and mountain biking, world-class beaches on Lake Michigan, decent ski hills nearby and some fantastic fishing.
His love of the outdoors led to the co-founding of the Grand Rapids Whitewater project to restore the Grand River’s rapids in downtown. It’s a pet project, according to Muller, who said being involved with it — and the promise of improving the city’s outdoor activities — helped him adjust to the idea of living here.
The city’s potential for a thriving, vibrant downtown began to intrigue him, as well. As his comfort level of living in Grand Rapids skyrocketed, so too did his dedication to make the city a better place to live.
In 2009, Muller and Catalyst Partners President Keith Winn collaborated to turn a small, century-old building at 502 2nd St. NW on Grand Rapids’ west side into the world’s highest-rated LEED-certified building. Now, Muller’s M Retail Solutions — which specializes in retail real estate — and Catalyst Partners share the office building that scored a 66 out of 69 LEED points and earned a Platinum rating.
With a nicely fitted headquarters and sustainable and community interests at heart, Muller has played vital roles in helping businesses find key locations across the city. He helped find Brewery Vivant’s prime location in East Hills in a former funeral home chapel; he’s the leasing agent for the new Downtown Market; and, most recently, he found a new location for HopCat in Detroit.
Muller’s work outside the city inspires new ideas and is a main reason he continues to travel. Heading to various cities across the country gives him a perspective on what Grand Rapids is missing, from cultural centers to restaurants to urban green space.
“For me, it’s helpful because it keeps me connected to other markets, but it also shows a lot of cool things … that we’ve never thought of,” he said.
For instance, the Downtown Market project is huge for the city, he said.
“The market is a really cool project, unlike anything else in the region,” he said. “It’s still untapped — a lot of people don’t understand the potential of it yet.”
Muller said many people point to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and other major retailers that Grand Rapids needs to “take it to the next level.” But he looks at it from a direct direction, saying several parties are doing a great job at working toward what the city needs to draw those types of stores: urban density.
Urban density will create the thriving live/work/play type of downtown that all cities need to be seen as a major metropolitan city, he said. That mentality helps attract and maintain a large and self-sustaining population.
“How do you create a thoughtful downtown?” Muller asked as he cited 616 Development as a company that is doing great things residentially in the urban core.
After achieving density, the ease of urban transportation needs to improve, he said. The recent reemergence of discussions about a light rail line and the beginning of the Silver Line bus rapid transit will help, he said.
“It’s all about reintroducing the connectivity between downtown,” he said. “You have to connect all areas of density. Monroe Center should be a lot more active.”
There’s an intrinsic level of joy for Muller that comes with commercial real estate. He said he couldn’t function in the residential real estate world. “I couldn’t deal with the emotions,” he said.
The strategic planning role he has taken in the commercial world is something he enjoys. He likes looking at a city and its neighborhoods and figuring out what could help make them really pop. That’s where his work travels come into play and the relationships he has built along the way.
Muller isn’t a one-and-done realtor. He dislikes the transactional aspect of real estate. He stays involved in projects as much as possible after the deals have been made. He likes the business planning and strategic factors, so he keeps his fingers in different projects around town.
“I like to connect with people, I like to share ideas for a better Grand Rapids as much as possible,” he said. “Still, you have to be selective with who you work with. Life is too short not to have fun.”
It might seem at odds that Muller works to create a more thriving and dense urban environment when his other passion is outdoor activities —and he concedes he’s thought about how strange that is. But he does his best to make the two work together.
“I love urban cores, but I love the outdoors, so I’ve figured out how to utilize urban recreation. The outdoor urban recreation drives the ‘stay or move away’ feelings.”