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Sunday, 10 November 2013 22:00

More residential units needed for Battle Creek’s continued transformation

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Victoria Flats condos on West Michigan Avenue in Battle Creek. Victoria Flats condos on West Michigan Avenue in Battle Creek. COURTESY PHOTO

Addresses in downtown Battle Creek could be among the most desirable in the city, but for that to happen, more residential properties need to be built in the area.

The question is which comes first: building new residential spaces or bringing in the retail, said  Randy Case, owner of Battle Creek-based Architecture+Design PC.

“Once you have people living downtown, they’re more than likely to support businesses in the area,” said Case, a downtown business owner since 1984.

However, he points out that most developers are looking for spaces that could accommodate 50 or more units, he said.

“In our downtown, we don’t have many buildings large enough to accommodate that number of residential units,” Case said. “It’s harder for economies of scale to work in less units than that.  Then you’ve got to spread the cost of infrastructure such as elevators.”

The four-story building owned by Case has no elevators, which is typical of the majority of older buildings downtown.  He said over the years, he has been rehabbing his building — which could accommodate 11 residential units — but it would be costly and would need to include the installation of an elevator with a price tag of about $380,000 if he were to convert the property for residential development.

Still, Case said he is optimistic that residential opportunities will continue to open up downtown.

One such opportunity came about in August when Grand Rapids-based 616 Development LLC announced it will spend about $23 million on the formerly vacant Heritage Tower in downtown Battle Creek.

616 Development has plans to turn about 150,000 square feet of the tower into 62 market-rate apartments, 43 hotel rooms and 32 underground parking spots. Plans include commercial space and conference facilities on the lower floors. The firm will demolish the former Restaurant Birch building at 17 West Michigan Avenue to make room for 54 surface-parking spots.

Projects like the Heritage Tower facility are part of creating a vibrant, 24/7 downtown – a key priority for Battle Creek Unlimited and city leaders, said Karl Dehn, president and chief executive officer of the economic development organization.

“Residential development will remain a high priority with the Heritage Tower redevelopment, with construction starting near the beginning of 2014,” Dehn said. “The downtown will have a 24-hour presence of residents, spending power and economic activity, which means amenity businesses can be supported.”

Downtown revitalization kicked into gear with the multi-phase Battle Creek Transformation project, Dehn said. A combination of public and philanthropic investments over the last four and a half years totaling well over $80 million has been used for projects involving educational infrastructure improvements, blight reduction and infrastructure improvements to the downtown area.  

The transformation also included an expansion of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation headquarters and a complete rehab of the McCamly Place Hotel.

“We’ve seen about 18 new businesses and 23 existing businesses have made investments or expanded (since the transformation started),” Dehn said.  

Employees of downtown businesses such as Kellogg Co. and Covance, professional singles and couples, and empty-nesters make up a segment nationally that is seeking out urban residential opportunities such as those that will be offered at the Heritage Tower, he said.

Local business owners echo Dehn’s sentiments.

“We hear from a lot of people who say they’d like to live down here,” said Stephanie Fields, co-owner of Fancy Nancy’s, a women’s boutique clothing store in the downtown business district.  “It doesn’t surprise me. I think living and working down here would be great.”

But walkable amenities such as a convenience store or liquor store need to be part of the downtown mix, Fields said. She and her business partner, Allison Cohen, said most of the traffic they see in a normal day is from Kellogg employees. When those people’s work days are done, they don’t typically stay or come back downtown, she said.

Cohen and Fields said they wanted to locate their business, which has been open for almost one year, in downtown Battle Creek because they couldn’t see themselves in a strip mall setting and wanted to operate independently. But they said they also wanted to be a part of the ongoing downtown transformation.

“We would welcome any other retail which brings us more traffic like a movie theater or something like that,” Cohen said. “There is a bar scene down here, but not so much during the week.”

Case of Architecture+Design said the downtown would benefit from specialty retail businesses that are a destination for people. Team Active, which sells bicycles and accessories, is an example of a business that carries merchandise not readily found in other areas of the city, he said.

“One of the keys is to give people reasons to come downtown,” Case said. “Once you have people living downtown they’re more likely to support businesses in the area.”

He said young people in particular are seeking out urban settings where they can live, work and play.

BCU’s Dehn said attracting new businesses and designing more events to increase traffic downtown, especially during the evening hours and on weekends, will continue to be a goal for BCU and its Battle Creek Downtown Partnership group. He said during the last four years, there has been a gradual, consistent increase in sales and foot traffic and activity in general.

“Right now, the biggest increase has been in daytime traffic because we have 1,000 more Kellogg people downtown and new employees at Covance,” Dehn said. “Businesses have felt that.”

Cohen and Fields said their busier hours are between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. when Kellogg employees are out and about for the lunch hour. They also get a decent amount of traffic through their store on Thursday and Friday evenings.  In addition to women’s clothing and apparel, they have added some men’s clothing into the merchandise mix.

“We don’t have crazy busy traffic,” Fields said. “Our doors are still open so we really can’t complain. We do well, but we could be busier.”

In the case of Archiecture+Design, the firm moved downtown before the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was built. Case said that at that time, the area was in rough shape, but the addition of the foundation and the decision by Kellogg Co. leadership to keep its world headquarters downtown were among the biggest improvements to the area.

“The potential is there,” he said. “There’s the perception that downtowns tend not to be as safe.  Our downtown is very safe.”

Read 4586 times Last modified on Saturday, 09 November 2013 17:47

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