Sustaining The Neighborhood

November 5, 2007
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In just three short years, Bear Manor Properties has rapidly gone from a business idea dreamed up by two brothers and a sister to a growing firm that owns and manages 15 properties in the central city, six of which are prominently situated in the historic Wealthy Street Business District.

Brothers Barry and Jackson Van Dyke and their sister, Heather Van Dyke-Titus, started by renovating a house at 323 Union Ave. SE in 2004 and are now working on their 16th project. But unlike many developers, Bear Manor has chosen to restrict its work to the core city — mostly to a Southeast Side area just a short drive from downtown.

"We all live around here. I live in Eastown and Jackson lives on the Northeast Side. My sister lives by Martin Luther King Park. We just see the city as having great potential," said Bear Manor co-owner Barry Van Dyke.

"There are a lot of great old buildings here — a lot of culture, and there are a lot of people here who have been here for a long time and who have been doing some really great things. We hate to see the city continue to expand outward and then neglect this great stuff going on inside here."

Van Dyke told CQ that he, his brother and his sister share a similar vision, which is of residents being able to work, shop and have entertainment options just a few steps from their front doors. That vision would essentially return their section of the city to the way it was decades before the expressways were built and strip malls with big-box retail forced neighborhood businesses to close.

"There are residents that have been here for 30 years on Wealthy Street, and they say that 30 years ago this was a great neighborhood with lots of stores. They can point to different buildings and tell us what used to be there, and they're really excited to see things coming back after years of neglect," said Van Dyke.

Bear Manor Properties
Barry Van Dyke, Jackson Van Dyke and Heather Van Dyke-Titus
What: A sustainable developer of residential and commercial projects
When: Opened in 2004
Where: 1019 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids
Why: Award-winning firm has grown tremendously in a relatively short time.

"I definitely think it's going in that direction. There is a lot of momentum for that."

Bear Manor Properties bills itself as a sustainable developer that does residential and commercial projects. Van Dyke said the way his firm went after that sustainable label began by listening to what type of developments residents told them they wanted and needed in the neighborhood before the company even lifted a hammer.

"We really tried to work within their parameters and really tried to do what the community wanted us to do," he said.

"And if we have a business that wants to come into our retail space, we make sure it's going to be good for the community, and not a business that is going to be a drain on the community."

For example, Bear Manor has had 3,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space for lease in a two-story building at 1017 Wealthy St. SE for quite some time. A few check-cashing businesses have wanted to lease the space, but Van Dyke said that wasn't the type of renter his firm wanted in the space or in the neighborhood. At CQ press time, the space was still vacant and available for the right tenant.

One Bear Manor retail space that has the right tenant is the building at 1005 Wealthy St. SE, which recently became home to the Meanwhile Bar. Tami and Jeff VandenBerg are the brother-sister team that owns the Meanwhile. Initially, they bought the building and planned to do the renovation themselves.

"To their credit, when they bought the building, it was a complete wreck. They did do some good stuff on the structure, but they ran out steam. We got the building from them. We had confidence in the neighborhood. We had confidence in them as the bar owners — that they would be able to make this project succeed," said Van Dyke.

"We actually bought the building for more than it was worth so they would be able to have a little extra cash to open up their bar, and we fixed the building up."

The VandenBergs and Bear Manor held an open house at the Meanwhile a few months ago, and more than 300 residents came to check out the renovation and get to know each other a little bit better.

"It was great to see that many people just hanging out and having fun on Wealthy Street," said Van Dyke.

When CQ spoke with Van Dyke, he said Bear Manor was finishing up three Wealthy Street projects it was working on simultaneously, and was putting together the final plans for yet another Wealthy Street building it would start on this year. The firm's latest effort will be LEED certified, have 2,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor, and two apartments on the second story when it's done next year.

Even though Bear Manor doesn't have a lengthy track record yet, word has gotten out about the quality of the work the developer does. The Historic Preservation Commission, which can sometimes be a builder's toughest critic, recognized the firm's excellence early on. It rewarded Bear Manor with one of its prestigious preservation awards for reviving the house at 607 Union Ave. SE. That house, by the way, was only the second project Barry and Jackson had done, and the award meant everything to them.

"Oh, that was great. That really gave us a sense of affirmation for what we are doing. We didn't expect that at all. We kind of thought of ourselves at that time as just two guys working. And when we realized we had the eye of the city, it opened up a whole new world for us," he said.

The whole new world that has opened up for Bear Manor Properties will likely turn into a sustainable future for the trio. Van Dyke said they are pleased with the progress their company has made. It's also enjoyable for others to learn of what they have achieved in three years, which have blurred by for them.

"We started with just one house, and sometimes we take a step back and say, 'We can't believe how much we've got going right now,'" he said with a slightly astonished, but clearly happy tone of voice.

"We've got seven employees and what seems like a million projects going on at one time. Yeah. It's great." CQX

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