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Sunday, 10 July 2016 00:12

Make Calder Plaza Great (Again?): Redesign project could create opportunity for downtown vibrancy, boost real estate values

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Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. has launched an engagement process to gather ideas to transform a sea of concrete in the heart of Grand Rapids into a more welcoming public space. If stakeholders get it right, experts say a reimagined Calder Plaza could add vibrancy to the city’s downtown — and send nearby real estate values soaring Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. has launched an engagement process to gather ideas to transform a sea of concrete in the heart of Grand Rapids into a more welcoming public space. If stakeholders get it right, experts say a reimagined Calder Plaza could add vibrancy to the city’s downtown — and send nearby real estate values soaring Photo by Joe Boomgaard

GRAND RAPIDS — When it comes to the possibility of redesigning one of Grand Rapids’ oldest downtown plazas, there’s a common refrain from people around the city: Something should be done. 

Planners have just started the process of engaging the general public and business interests to evaluate new options and possibilities for Calder Plaza. The civic square is located along Ottawa Avenue in front of the Kent County Administration Building and Grand Rapids City Hall and is home to Alexander Calder’s iconic La Grande Vitesse sculpture. 

While the public engagement will last several months, people involved in the process say the stakeholders should consider all options as they seek to make the plaza a more welcoming place to visit on a year-round basis.

“Right now, it’s just a lot of concrete,” said Monica Sekulich, the senior vice president and general counsel at DP Fox Ventures LLC, which is based at 200 Ottawa Ave. NW, directly across the street from the 160,000-square-foot Calder Plaza.

DP Fox, the holding company for Dan and Pamella DeVos’ business ventures, owns both its headquarters building and the adjacent property at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW. Sekulich said the firm has already participated in one of several focus groups aimed at positioning Calder Plaza for the future. 

“I think everything is on the table and should be explored,” Sekulich told MiBiz.

ENGAGING NEARBY WORKERS

At this time, officials at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) — the quasi-public agency facilitating the public comment process for ideas to enhance Calder Plaza — simply want to hear stakeholders’ thoughts on making the space more welcoming for a broad range of uses. Any decisions on what to do with the site would come later this year at the earliest.

“We’re really interested in just exploring how that space can be better used,” said Tim Kelly, a planning manager at DRGI. “(We want to maintain) the flexibility to host big events, (but drawing) people there on a day-to-day basis is really the goal of this.”

While Calder Plaza already draws a number of people on a yearly basis, DGRI and others think the city has an opportunity to boost the use and viability of the site. 

According to data presented at a public meeting to take comment on a possible redesign, Calder Plaza attracts more than 1.2 million visitors annually. However, the vast majority of that traffic occurs on only about 40 days out of the year, despite more than 3,500 people working in buildings surrounding the site. 

That’s why one of the major goals for DGRI’s initiative is to find ways to attract nearby workers to spend time in Calder Plaza on a regular basis, Kelly said. 

“If there’s a way to draw out all of those office workers in buildings that are on the plaza, that’s an opportunity in and of itself,” he said. “Whether that’s through food trucks or some other temporary form of retail … we have an opportunity to draw some of that out. The numbers are there right now. There are people in those buildings that every day have to eat lunch or go grab a drink after work. How do we tap into that and bring them to what is a civic space in a public park?”

According to Kelly, the public engagement process will continue throughout the summer, and DGRI then expects to schedule meetings with the variety of consulting firms in the coming months. 

Depending on what comes out of that process, the stakeholders could consider requesting funds for a project in the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority’s next fiscal year budget, he said. 

ENHANCING ASSETS

While public engagement remains a hallmark of DGRI’s process, Kelly said the organization also plans to speak with downtown real estate stakeholders to get their insight on what could be done with Calder Plaza. 

Property owners have good reason to be interested in Calder Plaza and other public spaces around the city, as research shows that successfully executed public gathering places tend to boost the value of adjacent commercial real estate.

“We agree 150 percent,” said Sam Cummings, the managing partner of Grand Rapids-based CWD Real Estate Investment Inc., when asked if investment in public spaces can add value to nearby private properties.  

The developer owns or manages several sites in the area around Calder Plaza, including the adjacent 10-story Calder Plaza Building at 250 Monroe Ave. NW, which it is renovating into Class-A office space. The company also manages the buildings at 200 and 300 Ottawa that are owned by Dan DeVos, who is a principal in the firm. 

As MiBiz exclusively reported, CWD also deepened its holdings in the area earlier this year by winning a bid for the Fifth Third Bank campus at 111 Lyon St. NW, immediately south of the Calder Plaza along Ottawa Avenue. The company has yet to discuss the acquisition or indicate any plans for possible redesigns of that site, the deal for which has yet to close. 

When it comes to the interaction of public spaces and private buildings, Cummings said the perception of that relationship can shape how people view a city. 

“One thing we take very seriously is the public realm,” Cummings said. “Every building we ‘own’ is really a community asset.” 

‘EXCITING’ CONVERSATIONS

For stakeholders like Cummings, there’s a strong economic incentive for well-managed public space, said Kelly of DGRI, who referenced Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. Many urban planning studies have attributed a surge in real estate values in the immediate vicinity of Bryant Park to the success of year-round activities at the privately-managed, privately-funded public space. 

In a 2014 presentation to the International Downtown Association that’s posted on YouTube, Dan Biederman, president of New York City-based Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp. and one of the key players behind the revitalization of Bryant Park, cited evidence showing the effect that parks and other public places can have on the value of commercial real estate. 

“This is my hardest job: Convincing my sophisticated real estate owners that they’re better investing in (parks) rather than in their lobbies,” Biederman told the audience. 

In the Bryant Park example, building owners in the immediate vicinity participate in an assessed Business Improvement District (BID) that funds the nonprofit Bryant Park Management Corp., which manages and maintains the park. By investing $1 million or less in the BID, some nearby building owners have seen their properties increase in value by as much as $390 million, said Biederman, who co-founded the nonprofit. 

The owners of buildings on the edges of Bryant Park also receive a 12.5-percent rent premium compared to other nearby buildings, according to a study by Landauer Valuation & Advisory cited in a 2015 Wall Street Journal report.  

Because the process in Grand Rapids is just in the early public engagement phase, planners say decisions over any possible redesign and how to fund it are still months away. 

For their part, Cummings and Sekulich say they’re very open to all ideas, including new assessments such as the BID system in New York, as long as there’s a return on the investment. 

“If value is achieved, I’ve never objected to paying,” Cummings said. “It’s exciting to be having these conversations.” 

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