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Why We (HEART) Heartside

Let’s call Heartside the “Slumdog Millionaire” of Grand Rapids neighborhoods. Not unlike the rags to riches hero of the Academy Award frontrunner, the inner city business district has improbably transformed itself from a decaying, skid-row neighborhood to one of the Midwest’s emerging premier urban districts.

Heartside, bounded roughly by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues, has seen millions of dollars flood into its streets in recent years. Once dilapidated warehouses, old hotels and vacant storefronts now hold office space, restaurants, apartments and retail shops.

The 1996 introduction of the Van Andel Arena, 130 W. Fulton, laid the groundwork for increasing business, bank and city support to improve the southern boundaries of Grand Rapids. But Heartiside was not reborn on the arena alone — real estate speculation was stirring well before then.

Sam Cummings, now managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investment, was one of the first pre-arena developers in the area during the early 1990s. At that time, prime locations could be had for $5 to $7 per square foot, albeit it in buildings with broken glass, flooded basements and dirt lots surrounding them.

“People thought I was absolutely crazy, but we looked at it from the simple investment value,” Cummings says. “We’re on our 24th renovation or new construction project, and a lot of that is in Heartside. It’s where we cut our teeth.”

That includes a $21 million investment in buildings along Ionia Avenue, including Tannery Row condominiums and another $12 million for the Fitzgerald condo project, formerly the YMCA on Library Street.

The Gallery on Fulton is the latest project, at a cost of $34 million. Located at the corner of Fulton and South Division Avenue and expected to open in the fall of 2010, it will be one of the first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings of its kind in the state. The structure will hold 56 apartments, retail space and serve as the new home for the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Cummings and others credit Dennis Sturtevant, CEO of Dwelling Place, a nonprofit community development organization, as a pioneer with an early vision of the Heartside area where affordable housing and support services for low income citizens could coexist with a revitalized commercial district. The progress has been evident.

Since 1980, Dwelling Place has been providing affordable housing and central support systems, while also serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization by promoting business, holding special events, improving the infrastructure and changing perceptions of the district.

In just the last six years, Dwelling Place has committed $65 million for projects, which have provided a variety of affordable housing and commercial space. Some of the work includes Verne Barry Place on South Division. The renovated buildings hold commercial store fronts and live/work spaces, geared toward artists. Heartside Ministry invested $1 million to renovate two adjacent buildings.

The renovation of Weston Apartments provides 190 affordable apartments, while Avenue of the Arts, part of the Dwelling Place’s Martineau apartments project on South Division provides low-rent retail space for small, independent shops and galleries. Some call it the city’s artistic epicenter.

“Dwelling Place creates a viable neighborhood, and the components are not just affordable housing,” says Heather Ibrahim, director of neighborhood revitalization. “We want people of all incomes and an infrastructure made up of places to live, shop, eat and walk around. It doesn’t happen overnight, but little by little, and one person at a time, it is happening.”

Ibrahim says over the next 10 years the organization will focus on retracing their steps to original development projects, which now need upgrading.

“Progress definitely has been made,” she adds. “Ten years ago, you never would have seen restaurants like Rockwell’s or the Republic moving onto South Division, but a lot of the work Dwelling Place has done, spurred that on.”

Cummings would agree.

“Folks coming in today and seeing Heartside, see it very differently then we did back in the early 90s,” Cummings says. “They don’t have a lot of the older generation’s negative sentiments once associated with South Division, and we’ve got enough traction at this point (where) the area is seen entirely different.”

All we need is transit
Dennis Moosbrugger, co-owner of Bar Divani at 15 Ionia and vice president of the Heartside Business Association, says the strategic vision of city leaders resulted in the arena and the DeVos Place convention center, which prompted more risk taking by small retailers and restaurants.

“We’ve got 15 to 25 independent restaurants worthy of any place in the country,” he adds. “It’s tougher on retail and what we still don’t have is a true living urban setting downtown. The pricey condos will not draw the 20-to 30-year-old professional looking for an affordable place to live.”

The association and the Arena District organization work with the city and the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau to create activities and promote the area with maps and guides, as well as special events held at restaurants and bars.

The association also supports an upgraded transit system, which would include a line from 60th Street through Heartside on Division, and potentially a $69 million streetcar loop through the city’s southern boundaries and back to the North Monroe area.

“But we’d rather see a subsidized shuttle system to downtown from (outlying areas) and the airport,” Moosbrugger says. “It would give visitors a taste of downtown and the chance to see the fruit of all our labors.”

A tell-tale heart, but a good one
The Heartside renaissance has city officials, business owners and developers convinced the area will be a strong and vibrant destination to work and live. City and state tax credits and grants, private funds, federal subsidies and incentives have formed the mix to help make it happen, despite the tough economy.

New projects still are underway. A proposal has been presented to the city for renovations at 111 S. Division, with the idea for a mixed use of offices, meeting space and possibly a fitness center. The Taquitos Mexican Grill plans a grand opening in March in part of the old Herkimer Hotel building at 327 S. Division. A new restaurant called “My Bar” is preparing to open at 1 Ionia Ave. SW.

Construction started for a new Senior Neighbors facility at 101 S. Division. A proposed pocket park at S. Division and Cherry Street has received a grant for $105,000 from the Michigan Department of Transportation, which the Downtown Development Authority plans to match, according to association board minutes.

There’s been so much restoration of century-old buildings, little is left to develop, says Kurt Hassberger, chief operating officer for Rockford Construction Co. The growing scarcity fuels unreasonable property prices, he adds.

Rockford has spent more than 10 years in the planning and development of Cherry Street Landing, which consists of seven blocks within the boundaries of Cherry and Oakes streets and Ionia and Commerce avenues. Partnerships with SIBSCO LLC, a Peter Secchia firm and RDV, owned by the DeVos family, have created projects and renovations for 12 properties, some of which hold Western Michigan University, Cooley Law School, ProCare, Black Rose restaurant and the Bank of Holland.

Work is expected to begin soon at the former Heartside Manor, 35 Oakes, where a $4.5 million investment will produce 42 apartments on upper floors of the vacant building, as well as retail space at street level.

“The only thing we have left is across the street at 68 Commerce where the old Miracles Bar stood,” Hassberger says. “We will ask the Historic Preservation Commission for permission to demolish an unusable building to use as a temporary staging area for our subcontractors.”

Hassberger says the company founded by CEO John Wheeler is proud that they were persistent, despite early critics and setbacks along the way.

Rockford also is the contractor for the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids’ Cathedral Square development along S. Division and Wealthy. The $22 million project is consolidating much of the Diocese’s services and ministries and also includes a Saint Mary’s Health Care pharmacy

Saint Mary’s Heartside Health Center has served the disadvantage in that area since 1993 and now sees more than 600 Heartside residents a month.

The hospital’s new $60 million Hauenstein Center, at 220 Cherry celebrates a grand opening for the community from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15. The center will open for patients Feb. 22.

“We are very involved in the community, with a lot of expansion and growth for Saint Mary’s,” says hospital spokesperson Micki Benz. “We’ve moved the Heartside Clinic three times because we needed to make it larger as the primary care facility for the poor and homeless. We’re not going anywhere.”

The Heartside lifestyle
This evening, a fund raiser for the Heartside Business Association will begin at 5 p.m. in the former EQ3 furniture store at 130 Ionia. Free and open to the public, tonight’s event will feature an original, four minute film called “Celebrate Heartside” by local photographer, Brian Kelly, as well as refreshments and music.

Designed as an alternative groundbreaking ceremony for a new, $26 million structure being developed by Locus Development at 38 Commerce Ave. SW, the event is aimed at promoting the Heartside neighborhood as a lifestyle choice. Called Thirty Eight, the new project calls for a mix of retail, residential and office use within two “liner buildings” aesthetically designed to keep an attached parking ramp hidden from view.

Jenn Schaub, who works in the Revitalization Department at Dwelling Place, believes Locus principals John Green and Andy Winkel have tapped into a growing interest among young professionals and young marrieds to locate in an urban setting.

"Living downtown is a lifestyle. It's not just a decision (regarding) location,” she says. “It has a big-city feel. There are a lot of people out on the streets (in that part of the city), and we want people around. We want them active. If you don't see people around, I don't think that's a good sign."

With an active night life, a variety of retail outlets, office space, and a growing list of residential options, Heartside has almost everything residents need to live, work, and play downtown without ever having to venture beyond the district's borders near the downtown area's southeast edge, she said.

"The Heartside neighborhood is at a tipping point right now. There are a lot of great projects that are under construction or on the drawing board," says Green. "It's important that we support each other in the work we do to enhance the livability and workability within this neighborhood."

A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary Radigan is now a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about a food recylcing program taking root in West Michigan restaurants.


A vintage Vespa cruises past Hopcat and Van Andel Arena

Sam Cummings

Denny Sturtevant

Rockwell's and Republic

Catholic Diocese Building

Jenn Schaub

The film set of "Celebrate Heartside"

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer, filmmaker and Rapid Growth's managing photographer. He can often be found kissing the historic red brick streets found in Heartside.

You can find his blog here.
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