Focus, Construction, and Real Estate

West side of Grand Rapids keeps growing

Developers have to be careful to fit in with established neighborhoods.

August 1, 2014
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The 18 market-rate apartments at 600 Douglas St. NW, developed by Rockford Construction, will open this summer and add a contemporary flair to the area. Courtesy Rockford Construction

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Is the west side truly the best side?

It’s a question many in the city of Grand Rapids may be pondering. As the city continues to grow and develop, the area west of the Grand River has a number of developers eyeing it as a land of opportunity.

It’s certainly an area where there’s room for development, said Dave Levitt, partner at Third Coast Development, a Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate development firm headquartered at 168 Louis Campau Promenade NW.

“What is so great about the west side is the feel of the area. As a downtown neighborhood, there’s a strong connection to the urban core, but there’s also a comfortable scale to it,” he said. “The sidewalks, trees, yards and front porches all create a welcoming neighborhood. I think more people are opening their eyes to the potential here.”

In recent years, the west side has become home to a number of established development companies. About a year ago, Rockford Construction moved its offices to 601 First St. NW, and has gained a powerful momentum ever since, said CEO Mike VanGessel.

“Rockford has been in our new office for a year, and First Street Partners has opened next door. First Street Partners is a group of companies focused on innovation in the built environment — energy, sustainable products and services, and adaptable building systems,” VanGessel said.

“We currently have five companies collaborating with us and sharing space and resources in our office. We look to create an innovation zone of construction-related businesses that benefit from proximity to each other. Our move here has been nothing but positive and I’m optimistic about what the future holds.”

Rockford isn’t the only major company to make the jump across the river. Earlier this summer, Colliers International West Michigan, a Grand Rapids-focused real estate firm, announced that, after 19 years, it would be moving out of its 18,542-square-foot space at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW and into a new 17,598-square-foot home on the 12th floor of Bridgewater Place, 333 Bridge St. NW.

The new view from Colliers’ 12th floor office not only offers the spectacular sight of the city’s skyline from across the Grand River, but also gives everyone in the office a better sense of community, said Chantell LaForest, Colliers spokesperson.

The west-side area has a healthy mix of students, young professionals and community members, she said, adding that this might be because parking and transportation seem to be more manageable than in the core downtown.

“It’s really just a shoot over the bridge. It’s so walkable. I think it’s really a great place to build up a business,” she said. “What they’re doing (developers) is they’re taking a lot of vacant industrial spaces and they’re turning them into residential. So even though there’s not a lot of land to build on, there’s great redevelopment opportunity.”

The west side has become home to a number of growing small businesses in recent years, especially as an entertainment district.

The former Kopper Top Bar at the corner of Stocking Avenue and Fourth Street currently is being transformed into a new neighborhood watering hole called Blue Dog Tavern. That could be good business news for the west side’s reputation as a bar destination. The neighborhood already offers the Monarch Club across the street from the new Blue Dog Tavern, Salvatore’s Italian Restaurant, which is just up the road on Stocking Avenue, and the Holiday Bar, located one street away at 801 Fifth St. NW.

The west side also has a solid bar district on Bridge Street NW, which The Anchor Bar, O’Tooles Public House, Monte’s Lounge and Kale’s Korner Bar all call home. Harmony Brewing Co. has set its sights on expansion at the former Little Mexico restaurant.

“I think we’re definitely going to see so much more growth in the next five to 10 years,” LaForest said. “You’re going to see what’s happening in Eastown happening on the west side. There’s going to be business and entertainment.”

New residential developments also are being added on the west side. VanGessel said Rockford Construction has 18 market rate apartments opening at 600 Douglas St. NW this summer, which hopefully will bring contemporary living environments to the area. Rockford has some other west side projects on the drawing board that it is not ready to divulge but hopes to make an announcement later this fall, he said.

“We’re also excited to be a part of 616 Development’s plans for the Hyatt Building. I think Alabama Avenue is shaping up to be really exciting. Bridge Street seems to be doing well,” he said. “The bars and restaurants are thriving and there are some great new retail shops opening up. The city is looking to address speed of traffic and overall beautification. It’s a needed and an important part of how people will begin to feel about the Bridge Street experience.”

Healthy cities and neighborhoods continue to evolve over time, VanGessel said. To preserve an authentic feel — which the west side already has — new architecture needs to respect the scale and the density of the neighborhood while creating buildings with their own unique identity, he said.

“Traditional cities develop over time. You can see the way that windows and floors create patterns and rhythms from building to building, but the aesthetics change as styles, materials and uses change over time,” he said.

“That’s the unique thing about the west side. If you look at its history, manufacturing and services co-existed with housing, restaurants and shops. This was a mixed-use kind of neighborhood that really supports the way people want to live and work today. I think with good design, the west side is looking back to the future.”

Although the west side appears ripe for growth, challenges still lay ahead. There’s a particular challenge in how developers relate to the neighborhoods in which they’re working, Third Coast’s Levitt said.

“Developers, historically — we all think we’ve got great ideas and we want to plop our ideas someplace. And the building developers, we’re generally people that want to do good for the community and make a profit,” he said. “What’s happened historically on the west side is that developers come in and the neighborhoods give input, and the developers don’t like the input.”

Although Third Coast has had good interactions with the community, there have been projects that collapsed, Levitt said. There’s an added concern about rental versus ownership when it comes to living in the west side, he said. In his opinion, the die was cast when Grand Valley State University built there, although he does understand that local residents don’t want to deal with noisy college students throwing parties and other possible hassles of having a major development adjacent to their houses.

The best way to develop the west side is by listening to the community’s response, Levitt said.

“It’s easy for us as developers to lose sight of that when we’re throwing money at projects. We’ve got to be really careful — especially in closed-in neighborhoods — to develop for that neighborhood,” he said.

“They don’t care about your economics; they care about looking out their bedroom window every day at a 60-story building.”

VanGessel said he feels the biggest challenge facing the west side is “the way we view our city’s boundaries,” particularly regarding the river and the highway.

“As Grand Rapids continues to grow, I think the edges will continue to blur,” he said. “If we’re careful about respecting the tradition and sense of place in great neighborhoods like the west side, I think the result will be a stronger, more vibrant city.” 

Regardless of its challenges, the west side is growing and is filled with people who seem to want it to grow, said Walt Gutowski Jr., 1st Ward city commissioner. It’s a place where people work together and pull together, he said.

“I’ve been blessed to be a part of it all my life. … It’s been my vision since high school to bring it back to the mecca that it was — particularly Bridge Street,” he said.

“Truly, the west side is the best side.”

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