EAST GRAND RAPIDS — It’s likely Derby Station’s former restaurant space in Gaslight Village will fill quickly with another business.
Located at 2337 Wealthy Street, the restaurant told patrons via a sign posted on the front door that it was “time to move on” after about 10 years in East Grand Rapids’ central business district. It was one of several businesses to close in the district in recent years.
Although remaining Gaslight Village business owners hated to see Derby Station close, they expect a new user will come along soon to take its place.
“I think that’s a big advantage we have in Gaslight Village,” said East Grand Rapids City Commissioner Chad Zagel. “You’ve already got people looking at the (Derby Station) space. That space gets filled really quite quickly.”
Along with conversations at the city about ground-floor uses in the district, it could become easier to open a non-retail or restaurant business in Gaslight Village. The discussions sprung from a 2018 master planning effort and the move of a State Farm office to another location within Gaslight Village that required a special land use request.
In its most recent master plan completed in 2018, one of the city’s goals was to look at the current state of retail, how it’s changing and how that might affect the business district. For the last couple of months, the Planning Commission has been assessing whether alternative ground-floor users should be allowed by right, versus forcing business owners to go through a special land use process.
It also would permit storefront usage for bed & breakfasts, hotels and product showrooms, but would still require a special land use variance for those uses.
“We want to make sure we’re keeping up as much as possible with the market and making sure we’re not creating problems for our business community and retail environment, but trying to be flexible and mindful of the market force changes,” said Interim City Manager Doug LaFave.
The EGR City Commission has yet to take action on the ordinance amendments, but will likely do so in September, LaFave said.
A similar conversation is playing out in nearby Grand Rapids, where some developers are citing persistent vacancies in questioning a city ordinance that mandates ground-floor retail in some areas of downtown.
About 30 percent of the ground-floor storefronts in Gaslight Village feature a retail use, followed by restaurants at 25 percent. Another 22 percent of spaces house service-oriented businesses. Just 7 percent of ground-floor spaces were vacant in Gaslight Village this month, according to LaFave. Occupancy in the district typically hovers at more than 90 percent, he added.
LaFave said the ordinance amendments would make some uses easier to execute. He believes the changes will encourage business activity in Gaslight Village.
“It’ll shrink the amount of time (business owners) have to wait,” he said. “To go through the process that includes the Planning Commission and City Commission, it can take months. When someone is looking into making a decision, that may be time they don’t have.”
Changes in retail
In recent years, Gaslight Village has faced some turnover in establishments. Some business owners who spoke with MiBiz said the churn was expected given the changing nature of retail.
Along with Derby Station, other storefronts to close in the business district in recent years include Olga’s Kitchen, Sweetie-licious Bakery, and a couple of other storefronts that moved to nearby Breton Village.
Zagel, who is also a financial adviser at the Edward Jones office in Gaslight Village, values the location because he is able to shop at stores or conveniently walk to lunch. He also believes new uses could complement the existing retail while maintaining the walkability of Gaslight Village, although it will require officials to strike a balance.
“It’s important for each community to be self aware and attract businesses that complement each other,” Zagel said.
Debbi McGonigal echoed Zagel’s thoughts on walkability. It’s one of the main reasons she opened her Blackbird East clothing boutique in March 2018 at 2166 Wealthy Street at the site of a former gym.
McGonigal and her husband looked at several small downtown communities, and were eager to find space in Gaslight Village because of the walkable neighborhood and family-friendly feel. In the 17 months her store has been open, business has grown, she said.
McGonigal also serves as a board member on the Gaslight Village Business Association. She and the other business owners do not believe the changes in ground-floor uses will have a large effect on the retail environment, given the need to be innovative as shopping habits change.
“Times are changing all around us,” she said. “Like any town, things are going to have to be revisited to stay current and relevant, and I think that’s great.”
While the turnover means businesses are closing, it also means new ones can move into Gaslight Village, McGonigal said. In the last two years, several new businesses have opened, including About Face, a cosmetic boutique; women’s fitness clothing chain Athleta; children’s clothing boutique Pink Lemonade; and restaurant Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen. Gaslight Kitchen, an Asian restaurant, recently opened at 2128 Wealthy Street in a building that had been vacant for years.
McGonigal sees the turnover as mostly positive.
“We know that Derby has caused a conversation,” she said. “I think that’s just life. I think we’re excited locally about what could go in there.”
Further development of Gaslight Village and other measures could attract more people to businesses in the area. The city has outlined some of those changes in its master plan, including incremental increases in housing density, expanded designations for multifamily housing and more.
East Grand Rapids also visualized design concepts for future development sites in Gaslight Village. Most of the developable sites are private property.
For example, a private development site on the north side of Gaslight Village has remained vacant for years. Jade Pig Ventures LLC owns the site, which is managed by CWD Real Estate Investment LLC. The developer has zoning approval for mid-rise residential condominiums, but has yet to move ahead with the development.
Many business owners are watching the project given Jade Pig’s track record of spurring ancillary development. In the early 2000s, the company built several two-story retail buildings at the site of the former Jacobson’s department store, which encouraged other activity in the area.
Another part of the master plan included painting pavement markings for parking spaces, a project that is already underway. The effort will increase the number of cars that can be parked on the street.
The city also recently invested $20,000 in wayfinding signs to more easily direct people to Gaslight Village.
The master plan vision combined with the conversation about ground-floor uses has McGonigal and other business owners feeling positive about the future.
“Turnover is going to be natural,” McGonigal said. “Derby is a gorgeous building. We’re sad to see them go, but we’re excited of what might come.”