For downtown Grand Rapids to attract better retail, more collaboration by developers and commercial real estate brokers may be needed.
The message of collaboration was one John Wheeler emphasized during his talk at Tuesday’s ICSC P3 Conference in Grand Rapids. Wheeler, Orion Construction’s director of development, suggested a subcommittee made up of realtors and developers to identify what is needed to bring retailers to town.
“We don’t know what’s going in when we start developing,” Wheeler said. “If you’re a broker, what would you like to see? If we can put together some people who can identify what we need — to pretend we know it all is ridiculous.”
Developers are often in a hurry and don’t look past finishing a product, Wheeler said. Because of this, they end up with retail footprints that don’t necessarily fit with the end-user. If realtors expressed their potential clients’ needs better, retail footprints within developments could be a better fit.
Wheeler used the retailers in Orion’s Arena Place as an example saying the development attracted great companies such as Meritage Hospitality, a yet-to-be-named coffee shop, a physical therapist, fitness center and Option 1 Credit Union, but the floor plans are less than ideal.
“We’re always in a hurry and we’re missing an opportunity as a city,” Wheeler said. “There are 10 Midwestern cities right around us who have figured out how to attract more retail. What do you want to see? What do we need to build?”
The cry for grocery stores downtown has made Third Coast Development committed to incorporating a grocery store component in its Diamond Place development on Michigan Street — even if it has to be called Third Coast Grocery, joked Brad Rosely, principal at Third Coast.
“We don’t know what we’re doing all the time with retail, but we’re getting ready to break ground and we’re putting one in,” Rosely told the crowd of brokers, explaining the challenges of a full-scale urban grocery store including how to accommodate an 18-wheeler making deliveries.
Wheeler said the city’s population, as well as lenders, get excited about retail downtown and it should be a focus. National retailers also should be a focus, he said, because although there’s a local fever in West Michigan, national retailers grew for a reason and will add value to the city.
“We have to be careful what we say about nationals,” Wheeler said. “They have deeper pockets and they need to see some stability. They create energy and experience.”
Rosely said retailers don’t necessarily need to be in the center of downtown, but instead could be in near neighborhoods such as the Michigan Street corridor, where Third Coast is heavily involved. He used New York City as an example of a place that doesn’t have a set downtown, but rather a collection of unique neighborhoods.
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss also spoke to the crowd, expressing the importance of near neighborhoods and entrepreneurs to the entire city. Bliss said one of her goals is to make the city one of the best places in the nation for entrepreneurs.
“I want someone to come and be successful — not just starting but thriving in our city,” Bliss said. “We want people to feel they have the support to be successful. My job is really to be a supporter of the great work being done.”
A lot of the ongoing work in downtown is vertical development, Wheeler said, but without an exciting ground-floor component, it’s hard to see a collective enthusiasm from the city.
“No one looks up at the names on the 15-, 20-story towers,” he said. “If we get a little more unified vision, it’d make the city more competitive and there’d be more enthusiasm to pay the rents we need.”
With nearly 2,000 residential units in various phases of development and an estimated capacity of 10,000 downtown residents by 2020, Wheeler said he’s bullish on the market but doesn’t want to overdo it if excitement is lacking.
Celebration! Cinema president J.D. Loeks also spoke on the panel, discussing the proposed downtown movie theater complex behind Van Andel Arena. He said the project is coming together nicely, and the complexity of the project has increased, including the addition of more parking, more residential and more retail to the megaplex.
“We’re just starting to understand how to integrate multiple types of uses,” Loeks said. “We’d love to find more collaborative big-name, non-food retailers.”
Such projects will help, but to further an exciting retail mix in order to entice more office workers and residents downtown, a more collaborative real estate community is needed, Wheeler further emphasized.
“There’s a tremendous amount of demand, and our brokerage community is strong,” he said. “But we don’t give you enough bullets in your guns in advance of what we build.”