GRAND RAPIDS — Three years ago when Central District Cyclery owner Nate Phelps moved his business from downtown Grand Rapids into the Creston business district, he was banking on an influx of new residents and activity that would support his bicycle shop.
Central District Cyclery, located at 1309 Plainfield Ave. NE, was among a handful of businesses that moved into the Creston neighborhood partly because developers generated excitement with proposals for mixed-use residential developments starting in 2014.
“There was going to be several hundred units of residents that would be potential customers,” Phelps said. “Along with that comes retail and restaurant choices that make it seem like much more of a neighborhood.”
While none of the planned projects or large-scale investments ever came to fruition, Creston business owners and neighborhood advocates still see major opportunities for the right investor to take on redeveloping key parcels in the district.
One property, on the northwest corner of Plainfield Avenue and Grove Street, has been for sale since mid 2018. Another property at 220 Quimby St. NE remains vacant after being demolished early last year.
616 Development LLC, whose parent company 616 Lofts LLC filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2018, had proposed mixed-use projects at both locations. Since the company’s plans fell apart, local advocates have been waiting for interested developers to see the potential in the sites and in the overall Creston neighborhood.
“From the time (616 Development) had purchased their property and had gotten the support of the business community, literally millions of dollars of investment was poured into our business district, on the hope that an infusion of new residents would be coming,” said Megan Kruis, executive director of the Creston Neighborhood Association.
Those new businesses included Creston Brewery, a renovated and expanded Creston Market, an art gallery and multiple new restaurants.
An investor group working as Soba LLC, registered to First Companies Inc. CEO Jeff Baker, has tried to sell the parcels at Plainfield Avenue and Grove Street since mid 2018. The 1.76-acre site, which includes the long-vacant Break Room Pool Hall and a vacant office building, had been listed for sale for $1.75 million, as MiBiz previously reported. Quimby Corner LLC, a separate but similar investor group, owns the 220 Quimby St. NE property.
“The ownership groups continue to receive a great deal of interest in these two possible project sites,” Matt Sink, chief operating officer for First Companies, said in a statement via an intermediary. Sink has no ownership stake in the properties. “As with all real estate transactions, market conditions and buyer interest will dictate how quickly the properties sell.”
Bradley Hartwell, principal with North Town Real Estate LLC, a Grand Rapids-based commercial brokerage that is marketing the site on behalf of Soba LLC, said there are no updates on the Plainfield and Grove property or potential buyers. The property remains for sale and the structures were recently painted and re-secured to maintain code compliance.
When 616 Lofts proposed the mixed-use developments in 2014, Creston businesses were eager to have the company working in the neighborhood, said Vince Lambert, co-owner of Creston Brewery.
The brewery opened in 2016, when the projects still seemed to be on track. Lambert cited the development as one of the driving factors for his company to open in the former DeKorne furniture showroom, along with the historic buildings and lower prices in the neighborhood.
“There was just optimism all around the business district and it definitely helped us sell our idea to friends and family to invest in the Creston business district,” Lambert said.
When the mixed-use projects never materialized, it came as a “huge disappointment,” Lambert said, noting the 616 Lofts team had spent significant time engaging the neighborhood in its plans.
“I think everyone was kind of looking to them as the saviors,” Lambert said. “I don’t really know how fair that is, just because we should be engaging all the big developers that have capital in Grand Rapids. Developers are investing into Bridge Street, they are investing into Wealthy, and other business districts. Why aren’t they investing in Creston?”
As well, many property owners in the Creston neighborhood have been unwilling to sell or invest in their buildings, Lambert said.
“We’ve met with some of these landlords, and I guess they always go back to their balance sheet and say, ‘Well, it just doesn’t economically make sense for me right now,’” he said. “But it’s never going to make sense if someone doesn’t take a risk.”
Some smaller-scale developments are planned for the area, including the renovation of the vacant building at 1553 Plainfield Ave. NE, where backers plan to revive Gaia Cafe and the Division Avenue Arts Collective LLC.
The owners of those businesses said they hope to help the business district become a more walkable area. Ground-floor retail or restaurant use is not required in the Creston business district, although both Lambert and Phelps said the neighborhood does not need more ground-floor office uses.
As well, Boop de Boom Coffee Lounge LLC at 1511 Plainfield Ave. NE is slated to open this year, as is MadGrub, a new restaurant at 1431 Plainfield Ave. NE, the former site of the Gilmore Collection’s Red Ball Jet Cafe. According to property records, 1431 Plainfield LLC purchased the building earlier this year for $540,000.
Growing the pie
Through its work, the Creston Neighborhood Association knows residents would like to see more affordable housing and development and investment in general with respect to the current population that lives in the area.
“While neighbors want mixed-income housing, they also do not want their neighbors to be displaced,” Kruis said, adding that mixed-use developments would be appropriate for the former 616 Lofts sites.
Working in their favor: Real estate remains relatively affordable in Creston, according to business owners contacted by MiBiz.
“I think it’s one of the last affordable corridors that hasn’t been developed in the city of Grand Rapids,” Phelps said.
Young families are moving to the neighborhood because of the schools and the proximity to the Grand River, as well as the ease of access to downtown. The neighborhood prides itself on being unique and artistic, with large murals painted on buildings, and events like Creston After Dark, a street festival that took place earlier this month, Lambert added. The features separate Creston from other areas, and could prove attractive for the right investors, he said.
Kruis noted the struggles with the 616 Lofts properties have shown her it takes more than one large plan or investment to move a neighborhood forward.
“A healthy economy doesn’t depend all on one entity,” she said. “When you look at what is successful in Creston, we have several second- or third-generation businesses and several new businesses. I think those are the things that are emblematic of the spirit of Creston.”