West Middle Entering Transition

October 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — No more school. No more books. No more teachers' dirty looks.

At least that's been the rhyme recently for the lifeless West Middle School at 615 Turner Ave. NW.

But if city commissioners give Parkland Properties a rezoning nod, the 200,000-square-foot, four-story building will return to life with office and retail space, a restaurant or theater, and at least two floors of condominiums.

The West Middle project is the third urban residential development that Parkland has undertaken in the past few years. The firm, headed by owner Jon Rooks, has successfully filled City View Condominiums on Monroe Center and Monroe Terrace on Monroe Avenue NW with homeowners.

Like those two developments, the school is also located in the city's Renaissance Zone.

Parkland plans to renovate the top two floors of the former Union High School structure into 75 condos and locate space for office and retail use on the two lower levels. The firm also plans to rehabilitate the school's auditorium, which was damaged by a fire a few years ago, into a restaurant or theater, or possibly both.

Parkland will also develop 194 parking spaces as part of the project, with 144 of those placed in a surface lot across from the building on Broadway Avenue NW by using a mix of garages and off-street spaces. The firm's site plan has another 36 on-street parallel spaces on Turner Avenue and Third and Fourth streets.

Rooks said his plan will add 37 trees to the perimeters of the building and parking lot as part of the landscaping effort, which includes removing some of the dying trees on Turner and Third. New outdoor lights will be put up in the lot, and larger, energy-efficient windows will be installed in the building.

Rooks also said he plans to build a common area on the roof for residents and tenants.

"This will allow us to break up, diversify and visually enhance a very large expanse of roof that is visible from the highway," he said.

U.S. 131 is just east of the building, while I-196 is to the south.

Progressive AE and Craig Architects, two Grand Rapids designers, are consulting on the project.

"It is an excellent project for the development of the neighborhood," said Shaula Johnston, planning commission chairwoman, after her panel approved the zoning change.

Cecily Near agrees with Johnston.

Near is the executive director of the West Grand Neighborhood Organization and she told the planning commission that the association "strongly support(s) the rezoning and redevelopment of this historic structure."

Near said the improvements and use proposed by Parkland would assist and promote the plans and goals WGNO has, especially the group's Turner Gateway Beautification Project.

She also said property values along Turner have risen from 12 percent to 18 percent in the past few years, and occupied homeownership there has also risen from 46 percent to 54 percent over the same period.

"We believe the development of West Middle Schoolwill support continued property value increases, and residential condominiums will further our goal of increasing the number of owner-occupied homes," wrote Near in a letter to planning commissioners.

"We see no downside to the plans for a mixed use property at this location," added Near, whose association has its headquarters near the school.

Parkland is in the process of buying the building and lot from Grand Rapids Public Schools. According to GRPS COO Ben Emdin, the sale is contingent on the properties being rezoned. Reportedly, Parkland has made an offer of $1.5 million for both.

City commissioners are expected to take up the rezoning request this month.

"We have not had any opposition to the project," said city planner Suzanne Schulz.

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