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Tuesday, 14 February 2012 09:20

GRPS sells school buildings to Ojibway Development

Written by  Rod Kackley
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids stands to get more than 100 “workforce housing” apartments in city neighborhoods on the edge of the downtown district, along with four acres of new park space, thanks to a developer’s proposed $18 million project.

Suzanne Schulz“This is really a unique arrangement,” Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz told MiBiz. “The city is taking over school playgrounds, converting them into parks. We are getting new housing and we are stabilizing the neighborhoods.”

Ojibway Development LLC has Grand Rapids City Commission approval — the city had to waive its right of first refusal — to purchase the Lexington, Oakdale, Eastern and Stocking GRPS elementary school buildings.

Ojibway, with offices in suburban Detroit and Chicago, will create more than 100 apartments in the former school buildings, converting classrooms into living units. As if that was not unusual enough, the city will get four acres of new park space because the development company has agreed to gift back to the city the open space and playgrounds on the school building properties.

“This issue was brought up last summer, and we did say that we would be willing to give the land back to Grand Rapids,” said Bruce Michael, Ojibway Development spokesman.

Michael told MiBiz that GRPS brought the Stocking facility into the discussion after the company expressed interest in purchasing the other buildings.

Although the classroom space will be converted to apartments — with lowered ceilings removed and the existing wood floors saved and sanded — Michael said they don’t plan to touch the exterior of the historic buildings.

The apartments will be priced from $550 to $850 and will be marketed to lower-middle class tenants, with average family incomes of $27,000 to $36,000. “We are calling this ‘workforce housing,’” Michael said. “These apartments are for services workers, janitors, hospital clerical staff and people fresh out of school working their first jobs.”

Ojibway sees that demographic as underserved, especially by loft-style apartment housing on the edge of Grand Rapids.

“There are not many units at these prices in the central downtown area,” Michael said. “Most of the downtown apartments are priced substantially higher.”

The recently opened Gallery Apartments at Commerce and Fulton in downtown Grand Rapids range from $900 to $2,500 on

www.rent.com. The Lofts apartment complex on Sheldon Boulevard is more in line with the prices that Michael anticipates, in the $550 to $850 range.

The Ojibway proposal did not sail through Grand Rapids City Hall. There was a lot of discussion and a strong debate in the affected neighborhoods, where residents expressed concerns about “low-income” housing and increased traffic and parking problems.

Schulz said city officials understood why people who live near the schools that are going to become apartment buildings might be worried. “But the challenge is what to do with these huge, old vacant buildings,” she said.

While Michael describes the project as “workforce housing,” Schulz used the phrase “life cycle” to describe the one-, two- and three-bedroom units because they are designed and priced as starter and empty-nester homes.

She believes these apartments could be homes for people who are just starting out with their first jobs and who could move into a house in the neighborhood when their families get bigger and then move back into the apartment building when their children become adults and start their own families.

Ojibway signed the purchase agreement last year. Now that the city of Grand Rapids has signed off on its right of first refusal, Michael said the project should begin in August and will probably take about a year to complete.

Ken Klomparens, executive director of facilities and operations at GRPS, said that assuming the deal with Ojibway moves through City Hall as expected, it should go to the Board of Education’s finance committee and then be voted on by the full school board Feb. 6.

“We think this is a good deal for the school system because we are getting full market value for these buildings,” he said. “The gifting of the playground space is good for the city because it increases their green space inventory, and for the developer it means the space will be made attractive without Ojibway having to do any maintenance.”

He also said that two more school buildings are listed for sale, the Roosevelt Preschool building and Pine Elementary School. A third building might be added to that list when the commercial real estate market improves.

Schulz said, it’s better that the buildings are sold than meet the wrecking ball.

“A lot of these huge, old buildings in Grand Rapids, even some churches, are now being repurposed, mostly for residential because the cost of maintaining them is just too high,” Schulz said. “I think it is a great thing to have the opportunity to redevelop these buildings rather than have them demolished.”

Read 2877 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 18:08

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