Locus Development Redefines the Urban Experience

For more than half a century, the city of Grand Rapids was experiencing the disintegration of its urban core. Spurred by a changing economy, families moved to the suburbs and businesses followed. As the urban sprawl grew, the once vibrant city center slowly became an anachronism. In the last decade, however, the model began to change, thanks in large part to developers like John Green and Andy Winkel of Locus Development, a firm based in downtown Grand Rapids that specializes in real estate development and asset management. As the city continues to develop its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, many people in West Michigan are rediscovering the value of living, working and shopping in an urban community.

A few years ago, Green -- then the owner of Elevation Group -- collaborated on several downtown developments with Winkel and his company, Kelwin Properties. Their first project together was the Hopson Flats building, a mixed-use development on Grandville Avenue that features forty-two loft-style student apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Later that year, they took on the task of developing a new microbrewery and taproom for Founders Brewing Company, just across the street from Hopson Flats. The 11,000 square-foot facility built from an abandoned truck terminal gave Founders the space to grow into a world-class brewery, and helped establish Green and Winkel as innovators in urban development. After completing one more project together -- a mixed-use building on Bridge Street NW -- they decided to form a company together. Green and Winkel launched their new firm, Locus Development, in April of 2008 and quickly acted to realize their shared vision of creating a more livable downtown area in Grand Rapids.

Locus Development has grown to seven employees, and has developed some of the most recognizable projects in the downtown Grand Rapids area, including the conversion of an old Cherry Street church into the new Brewery Vivant. Their strategy of managing only a few projects at a time has allowed them to remain focused on their driving philosophy to use their developments as a means of fostering economic growth and creating a cohesive sense of community in the city. Green says that what motivates and excites the Locus team is the idea of a diverse group of people coming together to build a vibrant urban core.

"It's the kind of experience where you can walk to new businesses down the street," Green says. "You can get to know the people at your hair salon, meet the guy serving drinks at your favorite bar and feel comfortable being a part of the neighborhood. That's the experience. It's what people are starving for not only in West Michigan, but across the country right now. For decades, they've been so isolated in suburbia, and now, they want to be a part of a community."

Green and Winkel are careful to point out, however, that development alone can't create a neighborhood's identity. According to Green, "It's important to look at the existing neighborhoods individually, playing upon their natural strengths and branding them as the unique places they are."

 Before founding Locus, Winkel spent a good portion of his career researching successful neighborhoods and learning to think about his projects in terms of their impact on the community around them. Like Green, he believes mixed-use development creates a synergistic relationship between retail space, office space and residential units. In order for retail shops to thrive in downtown Grand Rapids, Winkel insists we need to make it possible for more people to live there, and mixed-use buildings are the best way to achieve this goal. "We're moving in the right direction," he says. "The more reasons we can give people to come downtown and want to live here, the more retailers are going to want to open new stores in the area."

In April 2010, after two years of renovating older buildings, Locus Development completed 38, their first new construction project. Located at 38 Commerce Ave., 38 is a large-scale, mixed-use development that features over 90,000 square feet of office, retail and residential space in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. The first floor is dedicated to retail and restaurant space, while the next five floors serve as the offices of several major companies including Deloitte LLP, Adtegrity, and Locus Development. The top floors of the building contain 35 apartments, eight two-story penthouse suites and a rooftop fitness center that overlooks the city. The project is LEED-certified and was designed with a focus on sustainability.

One of the most novel aspects of the project, however, is the innovative design of 38's integrated parking structure. In order to build it, Locus entered into a public-private partnership with the city of Grand Rapids. The city built the 379-space parking garage independently, and retains ownership of it, while Locus built the two buildings that comprise 38 around the structure, making it easily accessible from all floors but obscuring it from view. Because Locus enclosed the parking garage with its own outer walls, the city was able to save an estimated $1,000,000 on its construction. Besides being cost-effective, the enclosed garage also makes the area around the building more accessible to pedestrians.

Currently, Locus Development is in the midst of a full renovation on three historic Grand Rapids landmarks; the Flat Iron, Groskopfs, and Herkner buildings on Monroe Center. Long overdue for rehabilitation, some of the floors have been vacant since the 1940s. In order to make the project more efficient, Locus is combining the three buildings into one. By combining the structures, Locus is able install an elevator and stairwells that service all three at once. It also allows them to free up space that previously had been unusable. When completed, the project will be LEED-certified. There will be restaurants and retail space on the first floor and in November, the law firm of Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge will occupy 30,000 square feet of office space in the building.

One of the most interesting projects Locus is planning is the renovation of the former Junior Achievement building at 2 East Fulton, scheduled to begin in 2012. For years, development plans were made for the site, but in each case, the plans were ultimately abandoned. Last December, Locus was given the opportunity to acquire the building and despite the many challenges with the project, they jumped at the chance. According to Green and Winkel, 2 East Fulton is a key piece of property in the Grand Rapids and has been neglected for too long. Their strategy for developing the project is simple. Rather than executing a dramatic change, Locus plans to clean up and preserve the building's exterior while designing an interior that will highlight the strengths of the existing structure. In keeping with their focus on preserving neighborhood identities, Green and Winkel hope to find tenants that are not only well suited to the interior space, but share the vision of the surrounding Avenue for the Arts community.

Jake Sebastian is a freelance writer, adventurer and radio producer at WPRR Public Radio. He's also the host The Feed, a weekly radio program that features the latest political news, independent arts, media trends and hyperlocal issues.
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