A real downtown for Standale — but not right now

October 6, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Plans for development of multi-story mixed-use structures on the Downtown Development Authority's Cummings-Four Corners land that might give the Standale business district the beginnings of a "downtown look” will have to wait. The economy is just too weak.

In June the Walker city council accepted a recommendation by the Standale Downtown Development Authority to engage the services of Cornerstone Architects and Constructors Inc. to work with the city to meet the new Master Plan for Standale — "a first step in moving toward creating a downtown for Standale," said Walker City Manager Cathy Vander Meulen, who is also secretary of the Standale DDA.

By late summer, however, city officials met again with representatives of the development team to draft a legal agreement that would keep alive their working relationship with the city while putting the actual development on hold.

"At this point, the retail and real estate market obviously has some challenges" and "Standale is not immune," said Vander Meulen.

"So I think we are going to sort of take a step-by-step approach to it. Work slowly, make sure that whatever we do there is going to be successful. We just don’t want to slap something up and hope that it works," she said.

Vander Meulen said that, hopefully, when development does start, the city will be working with Tom Nemitz, president of Cornerstone Architects, and Kim Beyer, the head of Constructors Inc., because the two "have a real vision that seems to fall in line with what the community is looking for Standale to become in the long term. This is something that will evolve over time."

"This is a partnership that we want to be successful," added Vander Meulen, who said she recommended the drafting of a legal agreement at this time.

Whatever the legal agreement is, it will have to be approved by the Standale DDA and the Walker city council, said Vander Meulen.

"This letter of understanding will spell out the respective responsibilities of each of the parties," said Vander Meulen. "We haven’t really figured out at this point a lot of the details. This is just more or less going to be a framework for where we go from here and what we're going to be doing in the future … as the market turns around."

Vander Meulen said Cornerstone and Constructors were not backing out of the project: "They are very excited about it." She said it was a mutual agreement that the time was not right to develop commercial/residential property for sale or lease.

"We have to face reality and know that it may be another couple years off before we are able to do anything," she said.

In the meantime, she said, Cornerstone and Constructors are doing conceptual marketing to potential clients they know — "just kind of showing them some of the concepts that they put together for our sub-committee group," said Vander Meulen.

The property in question, referred to locally as Cummings-Four Corners, is several parcels totaling 1.4 acres on the north side of Lake Michigan Drive from Cummings Avenue to Parkside Avenue. It includes the former Standale fire station, which is now leased to a business. Last year Walker officials decided on a "design/sale/build" process for development of the vacant property in Master Plan Sub Area 4/A. A Request For Qualifications was issued by the city, in essence an invitation to professional design-build teams to submit a written statement, detailing qualifications for financing, planning and construction.

The RFQ stated that "future uses of the building(s) could include retail, office and residential. Senior or student housing could be important parts of the site design. Walkability and landscape architecture refinements should be included in the eventual site plans."

"We purchased the property in anticipation of doing this project," said Vander Meulen.

Only two design/build teams ended up in contention for the project, with Cornerstone/Constructors getting the nod. At this point, however, the city of Walker still owns the property through its DDA.

Tom Nemitz, president of Cornerstone Architects, said their plans now are to produce "a marketing package for mixed use development on that site," which would include information for real estate agents and Web site links.

"We're probably 30 to 60 days away from that happening," said Nemitz. "There's still a couple of agreements that we're working on with the city of Walker."

He indicated they had not gotten too far into specific development details, other than an understanding that it would be mixed use in accordance with the Walker planning and zoning guides, in which “mixed use” is defined as a combination of retail, residential, commercial offices and on-site parking.

Vander Meulen said a residential component could conceivably include student housing, because so many GVSU students pass through Standale every day, going to and from Grand Rapids and the main campus in Allendale.

Nemitz said there is a potential third member of the development team — a "tentative developer" whom he would not identify.

"It's really based on the economy. Nothing is speculative any more, so it really depends on acquiring enough of an anchorage of tenants to secure financing. And that developer is remaining pretty low and out of the limelight, until the anchors are determined," said Nemitz.

Cornerstone Architects has two offices, one in Grand Rapids and the other in Traverse City. It is registered to work in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Colorado and Virginia, and has expertise in urban planning, urban revitalization, historic renovation and adaptive reuse. The firm has designed many types of commercial and institutional structures, including financial institutions, schools, colleges and universities, museums, government buildings, community centers, multi-family residential, restaurants, retail and resort.

Although the economy has put the Standale project in low gear, Cornerstone Architects has been "pretty steady through it all — knock on wood," said Nemitz.

He added, however, that "the private development aspect is certainly very cautious, and financing of projects is obviously under a great deal of scrutiny. So those deals are tougher to put together. … Developer-generated work is certainly slow."

On the other hand, he said, “The municipal and educational work seems to be still pretty steady for us."

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