Improvement Clinic Aids Business Owners

February 6, 2008
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Architects and design professionals from nine area firms volunteered their time to Neighborhood Ventures’ inaugural Design First Clinic in December, offering advice on how businesses in historic, urban areas could renovate their storefronts.

Eight business owners from the Boston Square, Division South, Franklin/Eastern, Madison Square, Oakdale/Eastern and Burton Heights business districts attended the four-hour clinic. Each participant worked one-on-one with architects and designers to come up with ideas for potential improvements to their building façades, learned how much the improvements would cost and completed grant applications for Neighborhood Ventures’ Face Forward Façade funding.

The business owners left the clinic with renderings they could use as part of their grant application, and they also left with the intention of following through on their plans, said Kimberly Van Dyk, executive director and founder of Neighborhood Ventures.

“The clinic was a great success because business owners left empowered to renovate their storefronts and improve their urban commercial business districts,” Van Dyk said. “Each applicant worked with two architects, so they got different ideas from different perspectives.”

Neighborhood Venture funds the Face Forward Façade grant program through its own fundraising efforts and supporters such as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Huntington Bank and Macatawa Bank. Van Dyk said grants can range from $500 to $4,000 and represent one of several methods of assistance Neighborhood Ventures provides for neighborhood revitalization efforts in Grand Rapids neighborhood business districts.

Representatives from the American Institutes for Architects, West Michigan Minority Contractors Association, Macatawa Bank and Neighborhood Ventures were on hand to provide advice on good building design, contractor selection, additional project financing and the façade grant process.

As part of the clinic, Nate Gillette, an architect with Bazzani Associates, addressed the importance of good storefront design and how it can increase the bottom line, public safety and building value. A lot of older urban storefronts have been boarded up and the original windows done away with, Gillette said, so they’re not the most pleasant places to visit.

“By opening up the front of the building you not only allow people to see inside and see what the store actually is, which is good for sales, but you also allow people on the inside to see outside, which is good for public safety,” Gillette said. “Increasing that transparency to the street level was one of the main things we talked about.”

The presentation covered the basic design and elements of a storefront, such as windows, door arrangement and clearly visible signage. Gillette also talked about the importance of using durable materials that will last and about what’s appropriate and not appropriate on a façade.

“The more you can improve the looks of the building, the higher it will appraise in a sale,” he remarked. “I think the bigger point is that if everybody in the business district takes care to make their storefronts look attractive and if they use good materials, that increases property values throughout the district.”

Clinic participant Gwen Walls is owner of G.W. Greetings LLC at 1471 Kalamazoo SE, a shop that specializes in African American cards and gifts. She said she would recommend the clinic to any urban business owner whose storefront needs a facelift. She liked the “vision” for her storefront that the two designers she worked with came up with, which included larger windows and an altered entryway, as well as a door canopy and flower pots.

“I have a lot of people that come by and they looked for my building but passed it by,” Walls said. “Even though I have a big sign outside that is lit, there is nothing that really draws you to look this way other than the light. With a different façade, it would be much more noticeable.” 

Other architects, designers and advisors who volunteered at the clinic hailed from Fleis & Vandenbrink Engineering Inc., Paradigm Architects, a.j. Veneklasen, Juan Davis Arquitecto, Cornerstone Architects, Isaac V. Norris & Associates, Nederveld Associates Inc. and Winter-Troutwine & Associates Inc.

“We just put out a call to the architects we kind of knew in the community and who have done urban design work in the past, and we got a ‘yes’ from every single one we asked to participate,” Van Dyk said. “We were just overjoyed with the response, and they were all happy to participate.”

The next Design First Clinic will be held in spring 2008, and Neighborhood Ventures will continue to focus efforts on the four business districts in Uptown, the five business districts in Southtown, as well as the Burton Heights and Grandville Avenue business districts in the southwest part of town.

Van Dyk said Neighborhood Venture would like to reach a point where it can hold clinics on a quarterly basis. Meanwhile, she plans to work on raising additional monies to build up the façade improvement grant fund. CQX

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