GRAND RAPIDS — A recent Grand Rapids Planning Commission decision underscores its long-term development goals for the high-traffic area near the intersection of Knapp Street and East Beltline Avenue.
The area boasts a Meijer Inc. big box store, Celebration! Cinema movie theater and several chain retailers and restaurants, and it continues to attract new, out-of-market brands. Recently, that included popular Atlanta, Ga.-based fast-food chain Chick-fil-A Inc., which planned a 4,800-square-foot franchise location just north of the intersection at the site of the former Fajita Republic restaurant.
However, the planning commission rejected the proposal on the grounds that the chain planned to build a standalone location with a drive-thru where more than 20 cars could queue. That amount of traffic proved troubling for both city planners and nearby residents.
“The idea of going to a high-volume drive-thru (use), the nature is different,” said Suzanne Schulz, planning manager for the city of Grand Rapids, referring to other businesses in the area, which largely includes newer, multi-use strip shopping centers and casual, sit-down restaurants.
“The nuances are important,” Schulz told MiBiz. “We can get a lot of what people want, but it’s about how they’re done. If Chick-fil-A was part of a series of buildings, that would be something completely different. I think the challenge is that middle ground.”
Schulz and other sources familiar with the area say the proposed presence of a standalone, drive-thru restaurant was contradictory not only to the wishes of nearby residents but also to a 15-year-old master plan that called for the area to have more of a “town center” feel.
“The Knapp Corner area was planned to be a hub,” said Betsy Hernandez, the volunteer president of North East Citizen Action Association (NECAA).
The master plan calls for an area where people can park once and walk to various stores and restaurants.
“There’s no plan for any drive-thru that promotes vehicle use,” Hernandez said.
A handful of other drive-thru chains operate in the area, but Schulz said that’s because they were either approved before the master plan took effect or they’re part of mixed-use buildings that create less traffic.
Hernandez added that the NECAA organization engaged in conversations with Chick-fil-A representatives about building a store without a drive-thru, but the chain declined.
With Chick-Fil-A’s plans for the growing Knapp and East Beltline area on hold, the chain still reportedly has locations in the works for Gaines Township and Holland.
“Our goal is to be a good neighbor in every community that we enter,” a Chick-fil-A spokesperson said in an email to MiBiz. “We will continue to pursue locations so that we can serve our fans in MI.”
While the East Beltline may be a high-traffic corridor, Schulz and Hernandez noted that the city’s long-term goal is to encourage denser development with walkable areas and a variety of uses, along the lines of the intended “town center” idea laid out in a mid-2000s master plan for the neighborhood.
But commercial real estate sources say that’s unlikely to happen in the near future, particularly due to the types of tenants that are currently drawn to the Knapp and East Beltline area.
“There’s no walkability through this (area),” said Mike Murray, a senior vice president with the Grand Rapids office of Colliers International Group Inc., referring specifically to the area around the Celebration! Cinema movie theater complex, which includes a number of restaurants and retailers, both freestanding and within the theater building.
“It’s a two-stop use,” he said. “It’s food and it’s the theater.”
Murray did not represent Chick-fil-A, but he frequently works on behalf of retail chains looking to enter or expand in the West Michigan market. He said given the chosen site’s history of multiple failed restaurants — Fajita Republic and Johnny Carino’s Italian Restaurant before that — creates a “stigma” for other would-be tenants. As such, he expects the site could sit empty for quite some time.
Hernandez, a nearby resident and the president of the neighborhood association, thinks the site could be ideal for craft brewery.
“We don’t oppose development,” she said. “It’s about finding the right fit and complementing what’s there.”
Whether the Knapp and East Beltline intersection is best suited for suburban strip mall uses or denser, walkable development makes for an open question, sources said. But what is clear is that the area has turned into one of the region’s most in-demand retail corridors.
The submarket’s vacancy rate stands at just over 3.5 percent, according to a recent report from Colliers International, particularly as retail developers continue to double down on the area.
Chris Brochert, a partner with Lormax Stern LLC, a Bloomfield Hills-based development firm that previously redeveloped the Centerpointe Mall site, said his company is moving forward with plans for a high-end, boutique-type shopping mall directly across the street from the denied Chick-fil-A location.
At one time, retailers such as REI and Crate & Barrel were rumored as potential tenants for the development. At this time, Brochert said his firm is in talks with a number of potential, undisclosed tenants. Lormax Stern hopes to break ground next spring.
For his part, Brochert said he’s agnostic as to whether fast-food restaurants like Chick-fil-A are right for the area, but they don’t make for the types of tenants he hopes to attract at his proposed development.
“For our purposes, we’re not looking for fast-food restaurants,” Brochert said. “The city seemed pretty concerned about having fast-food restaurants and my speculation is that the city feels this is a higher-end area.”