WALKER — City planners hope to encourage downtown-style urbanism in the years ahead along a key suburban commercial corridor northwest of Grand Rapids.
With the emergence of a new enhanced transit route and a newly proposed high-density residential project, Walker city officials want to seize the opportunity to transform the Standale area along Lake Michigan Drive into more of a mixed-use community.
Much of the initial planning for Standale — roughly defined as the half-mile stretch of Lake Michigan Drive between Cummings and Wilson Avenues — dates back to before the Great Recession, during which many of the plans were shelved. But now that the real estate market has turned and developers have expressed renewed interest, officials hope to begin an overhaul of Standale, one they acknowledge might take decades to complete.
To help propel that vision, the city has implemented a form-based code for new development aimed at bringing about uniform characteristics such as facades and building heights in Standale.
While the city’s plans for Standale focus on making it dense and walkable, planners also are tempering their expectations with a dose of “reality” because of Lake Michigan Drive’s importance as a state-maintained thoroughfare.
“It’s probably still going to be a pretty auto-dominated segment of roadway, but we want to apply good planning and design standards when things come in,” said Daniel Power, Walker’s staff planner and zoning administrator.
Walker City Engineer Scott Conners acknowledges that much of the work to create a more mixed-use district in Standale could take perhaps “a whole generation” to materialize, given the existing cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations along the corridor.
Even so, the proposed overhaul of Standale has attracted the attention of at least one local development group.
A joint venture of Grand Haven-based Cherette Group LLC, a multifamily development and management firm, and Wyoming-based JAG Development Inc. has proposed and received preliminary local approvals to build Westown, a 199-unit upscale apartment project with commercial space at the southeastern corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Wilson Avenue.
Denny Cherette, principal with Cherette Group, told MiBiz he hopes to break ground on the project this fall and have the first of 10 proposed buildings constructed by the end of next summer.
The market-rate, highly-amenitized apartment development would cater to a diverse group of tenants, including young professionals and empty-nesters, Cherette said. He declined to provide an estimated development cost.
“Nothing of this type has been built in that quadrant,” Cherette said, adding that he believes the proposed project aligns with the broader goals for future development in Standale. “We believe there is pent-up demand.”
Other significant changes that could affect development along the corridor are expected to begin taking shape over the coming months.
The Interurban Transit Partnership, which operates the bus service known as The Rapid, expects to have its second bus rapid transit (BRT) route operational by the summer of 2020.
The Laker Line would offer enhanced bus service — similar to light rail, but without fixed tracks — and connect Grand Valley State University’s campuses in downtown Grand Rapids and Allendale.
Transit advocates believe more efficient bus service along the corridor could encourage more business investment, particularly in the Standale area, which will have a stop on the Laker Line.
“There’s students, faculty and staff that ride (the bus), they live along that corridor, they work in that corridor,” said Nick Monoyios, long range planner for The Rapid and project manager for the Laker Line. “They go out to eat, they go to the bar and the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Anticipating that and making it a convenient, faster service, you’re only encouraging that level of dense development that is enticing for folks.”
But just how much a heavily car-dependent stretch of road like Lake Michigan Drive will change with more bus service remains unclear.
Conners, the city engineer for Walker, notes the road is a state-owned trunkline, which limits what the city can do with the street.
“We’re a little bit handcuffed in that M-45 can’t change,” Conners said, referring to the official state designation for Lake Michigan Drive. “It’s there to carry people and products from point A to point B, and we’ve got to find a way to live and work together around that.”