Rising atop the 160-foot-high cliff overlooking downtown’s northern tip and the Grand River are the massive, Victorian-era homes that were the first residences in the quiet Belknap Lookout neighborhood.
In the late 1800s, the shaded, rolling landscape to the east of the cliff experienced a housing boom. Bungalows and cottages were built to house furniture craftsman and their families during Grand Rapids’ inception as The Furniture City. Narrow alleys crisscross the neighborhood leading to backyards where garages have replaced the original horse and buggy sheds. Historic cobblestones mark the steep grades on Trowbridge and North Streets.
Charles Dexter purchased the land in 1831, however, the name Belknap came from Charles E. Belknap, a Grand Rapids Civil War Veteran who later served as mayor, then U.S. Congressman. Lookout came from the incredible views of the city and river.
The boundaries are College Street on the east, Leonard on the north, the Grand River on the west, and Crescent Street on the south. In the 1950s, the I-196 expressway created an east-west split through the neighborhood, just two blocks north of the Crescent Street border. As a result, residents have come to associate the extreme southern end of the neighborhood more with downtown, although the area south of the highway is part of Belknap Lookout.
Coit Park is a thriving hub of community activity a full city block in size. Steve Faber, neighborhood resident and history buff, said the park came about by accident.
“Coit School is the oldest operating school in Michigan,” Faber said. “In the early ‘60s the school system needed to build a bigger school. They bought the homes in the block north of the school, and tore them down. At the same time, the I-196 freeway came through. After they tore down the houses for the freeway and the houses for the new school, they had removed so many people from the neighborhood it no longer warranted a new school. So, instead, [the school system] made a long-term agreement with the city to develop a park.”
A Choice Place to Live
Three additional parks occupy the hill. Lookout Park has two sections: one features a stairway of more than 100 steps leading down to the Grand River; the other features a clear view of the western horizon, and is known as a romantic spot to catch the sunsets. The other two parks are Mary Waters Park, and an unnamed green space at Clancy and Fairbanks, which is owned by the city and maintained by residents.
Another drawing card is that the neighborhood is walkable. The L&L Party Store serves neighbors who walk there to get pop, beer, milk, or a lottery ticket. Churchgoers walk to nearby Non-denominational, Baptist, Reformed Church of America, and Roman Catholic churches. Children walk to school.
The curriculum at Coit Creative Arts Academy emphasizes visual and performing arts. East Leonard Elementary offers The LOOP, an after school youth enrichment program. Middle- and high school-aged public school students attend Central High and Creston High. Just outside the neighborhood are Stepping Stones Montessori and St. Alphonsus Elementary.
Belknap Commons Clinic offers medical, dental, and mental health services, a network of social service agencies, resources for developing job skills, and a child development center.
West Michigan’s only cohousing project, Newberry Place, is under construction at the corner of Livingston and Newberry. Twenty townhouses wiil surround a “Common House” where residents share meals and other activities. Steve Faber is one of the founders of the project.
“One of the values of cohousing,” Faber said, “is fostering social interaction. The best descriptor I’ve heard of cohousing is ‘I knew I lived in a community when it took me two hours and two beers to get from my car door to my front door’. That’s cohousing in a nutshell.”
“We looked at several neighborhoods,” Faber said. “We had a list of things we wanted: green space, walking convenience to businesses, a neighborhood with character, proximity to schools, accessibility to major transportation routes and bussing, ability to do the live-work thing, being near culture and arts. Belknap Lookout was our unanimous choice."
A Diverse Range of People, Prices, and Commitment
Some sections of the neighborhood fall within Renaissance Zones where homeowners can live nearly tax-free until 2012, at least one section is classified as a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone, which provides a tax break for home improvement projects. There is also low-income housing at Creston Plaza, some small apartment houses, and single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes available for sale or rent.
Neighborhood redevelopment and change is happening so quickly that it is hard to gauges housing values in the area. But prices generally range from approximately $99,000 for a single family home up to about $200,000 for homes with multiple units. Renters can expect to pay $600 and up for two-bedroom apartments in the area.
“This neighborhood has affordable living. It’s a place you can live, work, and play,” said Kristi DeKraker.
While the neighborhood is primarily white and African American, there are other cultures as well. “We have Somalian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and others,” DeKraker said. “We have every income level, from doctors and lawyers to single moms making minimum wage.”
Along with being NOBLs Executive Director, DeKraker is the Crime Prevention Organizer. “Coit Park used to be full of drug dealers, but that’s been cleaned up,” DeKraker said. “The neighbors did it themselves by turning in the drug dealers and by going right out there and telling them that it won’t be tolerated in this neighborhood.”
MOBL NOBL is a neighborhood initiative desinged to restore the neighborhood’s live-work tradition, enhance walkability of the neighborhood, and improve transportation connections to adjacent job, entertainment, and commercial centers. Grant money from the Dyer-Ives Foundation funded the project's launch.
Michigan Street Hill, just south of the primary residences, is the center of Grand Rapids' growing biotech industry. Spectrum Health, the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, and the Van Andel Research Institute are some of the current research and development facilities, with more on the horizon. Total investment in the so-called Life Sciences Corridor is approaching $1 billion in the past ten years. These health and medical services, and the jobs they provide, are just minutes away from any home in the Belknap neighborhood.
The Neighborhood: From Top to Bottom
Belknap Lookout occupies the highest ground in Grand Rapids, and the lowest ground—along the Grand River, where the North Monroe business district is situated. This attractively landscaped boulevard, with brick crosswalks to the Sixth Street and Canal Street linear parks, is a showplace of rejuvenated warehouses and properties that have become some of Grand Rapids’ most desirable urban spaces.
Boardwalk Condominiums, Icon on Bond, Landmark Lofts, and the Monroe Terrace Condominiums have reshaped city living. Each property overlooks the river, and is just steps from the linear parks and the boardwalk. Condos in the Boardwalk, currently under renovation, are expected to cost between $69,000 and $250,000. Suites at Icon on Bond, currently under construction, start at approximately $150,000.
The boardwalk provides a picturesque venue for fishing, and a peaceful walkway for foot traffic and cycling. From North Monroe, the boardwalk goes south to downtown, or north to Riverside Park and beyond. Cyclists can head north to connect with the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail, and can stop off at Fifth Third Ball Park for a West Michigan White Caps game or continue on to Cadillac.
Katharine Czarnecki, a twenty-something urban planner with LSL Planning, Inc., recently moved to Boardwalk Condominiums from East Lansing. “I love Grand Rapids,” Czarnecki said. “I hate driving and wanted to live close to work. Now I have less than a five-minute drive. I’m a runner and a cyclist, and it’s easy to use the boardwalk because I don’t have to worry about finding an athletic track. It’s attractive and I feel safe.”
Local businesses along North Monroe include Cambridge House Inc., Mulick Floral, Grand Valley Artists, Inc, and LaFontsee Galleries. Around the corner on Ottawa is Teazers Bar and Grill, a genuine “biker bar.” A short jaunt north by car is the Old North Boundary shopping center, featuring an Italian deli, a Chinese restaurant, a barbershop, and a med center.
Nestled at the foot of Belknap Hill is The Belknap Ice Arena, or “Griff’s Ice House,” the practice ice of the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team. The lunchtime open skate draws professionals who enjoy some out-of-the-ordinary exercise before heading back to the office. Skate rentals, and skating and hockey classes are offered.
And, just outside the front door, you’ll find a statute of the neighborhood’s namesake, Charles E. Belknap.
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Image descriptions top to bottom:
1800's era home on Lookout Hill
Statue of Charles E. Belknap
View from Lookout Hill down to Belknap Park baseball fields
Coit Creative Arts Academy
Victorian era mansion on Lookout Hill
1800's era home
Newly constructed riverwalk in Monroe North
Canal Park and playground along the Grand River
For more information about Belknap-Monroe North visit the:
- Visiting Guide
- Investing Guide
Directions to Belknap – Monroe North
From the North:
Take US-131 South toward Grand Rapids and exit at Leonard Street. Turn east (left) on Leonard and proceed across the Grand River to Monroe Avenue. Turn right onto Monroe Avenue and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North neighborhood.
From the East:
Take I-96 West toward Grand Rapids and keep left to take I-196 West toward Downtown Grand Rapids/Holland. Take the Ottawa Ave exit, Exit 77C, toward Downtown. Stay in the right lane at the bottom of the ramp. Turn right onto Michigan St NW and then turn right onto Monroe Ave NW. Arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
From the South:
Take US-131 North toward Grand Rapids and merge onto I-196 East via Exit 86A toward Lansing. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
From the West:
Take I-196 East toward Grand Rapids. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
Take I-96 East toward Grand Rapids and merge onto US-131 via Exit 31A toward Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo. Merge onto I-196 East via Exit 86A on the left toward Lansing. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.