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Monday, 28 May 2012 18:30

First step in ICCF's Wealthy-Jefferson plan takes shape

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GRAND RAPIDS — Tapestry Square, the Wealthy-Jefferson Development Initiative developed by the Inner City Christian Federation, is but the first step in a potential six-phase, more than $60 million revitalization project to transform a key city neighborhood over the next five years. 

The project, which stems back to 1991 when ICCF joined with the South East Community Association and began a preservation plan, covers a wide swath of territory from Cherry Street on the north to Franklin Street on the South, bordered by Lafayette and Division Avenue.

Out of that plan the city did a number of improvements, including the installation of additional street lighting and alley improvements. ICCF went ahead with an early three-phase plan and built 10 single-family homes and another 60 apartment units between 1992 and 1996.

According to Jonathan Bradford, president of ICCF, in 1999 the organization got wind of an outside developer from Chicago who was trying to snatch up a number of lived-in units in the area. Bradford said ICCF was asked to get involved and help block the developer's plans, which it did.

This action spurred the group to once again survey the area and do some careful research. In the fall of 2000, ICCF did a three-day information-gathering session with neighborhood residents. Eventually in 2002, ICCF went through another planning and design charrette. Along with 65 neighborhood residents and seven landscape, architecture and urban planners, ICCF developed the Wealthy Jefferson Development Initiative.

Bradford said the project was a broad concept plan that laid out a number of mixed-use and mixed-income developments as well as a complete rebuilding of Wealthy Street.

"The street was a real liability for any kind of revitalization," Bradford said. "It had only been two lanes and when the expressway opened up in 1959, it became a tributary to U.S. 131."

The street had to be widened and was opened up to five lanes, which required a lot of demolition that dismantled the commercial district there, Bradford said. The area went from 43 commercial businesses to two in 2002.

Shortly after, ICCF went through a number of redesigns to add sidewalks and roundabouts between Lafayette and Division Avenue, Bradford said. It took a number of years, but by 2007 the city was able to put funding together to complete the project and it was finished in 2008. Not long after, the economy collapsed.

"Credit dried up and nothing could happen," Bradford said.

Still over the course of a decade, ICCF continued to assemble land as it could and with the help of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Housing and Economic Recovery Act and other sources, the group was able commence construction on the two buildings currently nearing completion on Wealthy Street.

The two buildings total roughly 44,000 square feet and are a mix of first floor retail and two upper levels of apartments and mezzanine lofts for a total of 32 units — six of which will be income-restricted.

While local design firm Integrated Architecture supplied the construction documentation, Woodbine, Md.-based Seth Harry and Associates was chosen for the actual design work. Bradford said ICCF chose Seth Harry for his experience with urban mixed-use revitalization projects.

"This is a very upscale building," said Joe Kuhn, project manager for Rockford Construction Co. "It's meant to have a very urban and edgy feel to it."

Marcus said the construction cost for the two buildings is approximately $6 million.

Crews are currently wrapping up interior finishes and will soon begin on exterior site improvements and landscaping, Kuhn said.

The build out, which started Oct. 1, is expected to be complete by July 1, he said.

When MiBiz spoke with Bradford, ICCF had letters of intent from three businesses it hoped to lease space to in the buildings. He said two are food-based retailers and the other is a local health-related company.

As for the living spaces, Bradford said ICCF has taken about 50 names and is reviewing initial applications, however signing leases will have to wait until at least June 1.

Bradford said that elsewhere on the block, ICCF expects to build another three-story rental building similar to the ones now in construction, only smaller. On the south end, a group of five, four-unit townhouses are slated for construction.

"We are assembling financing for those now," Bradford said. "We are cautiously optimistic to start Sept. 15, but we won't know until August."

One the corner of Sheldon and Wealthy Street, ICCF is hopeful it will bring a 25,000-square-foot food co-op and grocery with additional housing above it. The grocery will be an independently owned retailer not operated by ICCF, Bradford said.

On the south end of the same block, Bradford expects two more retail/housing units will be built. Opposite those proposed buildings is the new Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy also currently under construction. Originally the property was owned by ICCF and was later sold to Grand Rapids Public Schools.

"Our work is supposed to be very transformative," Bradford said. "We want to have a lasting impact on this challenged area. Part of decision to do this intense revitalization was that most people agreed this was the worst manifestation of urban decay in the area."

Bradford said the goal for ICCF is to recreate a great variety of neighborhoods while delivering lasting social, economic and political benefit to multitudes of people.

"We want to create marketing and financing that will be attractive to diverse economic backgrounds," Bradford said.

By structuring financing accordingly, Bradford said ICCF would keep pricing affordable. He said the community has expressed tremendous interest in the units ICCF has already built and demand for apartments is peaking.

Bradford backed up his statements citing information from the Heritage Hill Association, which has run a housing referral service for more than 25 years.

"For the first time in anybody's memory, the association literally has no apartments available," he said. "Demand has just exploded."

As an added bonus, construction of The Rapid's Silver Line is anticipated to begin as early as this spring. The new route will serve ICCF's developments directly via Jefferson Avenue.

Almost $13 million, which was appropriated by Congress in 2011 through the Transportation Appropriations bill for the 2012 fiscal year, is committed to the project. The funds will be made available if the Federal Transit Authority approves The Rapid's Project Construction Agreement.

"This makes our development ringed on two sides, and (it) is the first transit-oriented development in the state," Bradford said. "It will only underscore the desirability of the area."

For ICCF the availability of low-cost, efficient transportation reinforces the affordability of the new housing developments. Bradford said that high-quality transit could reduce a family's living cost by 19 percent.

While commitments for the more than $60 million project remain to be finalized, Bradford expects progress to continue.

Read 2851 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:50

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