As anyone walking in downtown Grand Rapids can see, the area is going through many changes. Ranked among the top cities nationally in economic development, that growth has brought new business to nearby neighborhoods, as well.
Bridge Street is active nearly every night, as is Wealthy Street, from the Union Street intersection to Eastown.
But moving northward along Monroe Avenue beyond the popular DeVos Place — between the base of Belknap Hill and the Grand River, stretching from Michigan Street to Leonard Street — lies an area that may have been overlooked by many, until recently.
As with many Grand Rapids neighborhoods, especially those along the Grand River, the once-booming lumber industry’s mark still can be seen in the Monroe North neighborhood.
The former Berkey and Gay Furniture Company factory, one of the most prominent buildings in Grand Rapids when it was built in 1874 at 940 Monroe Ave. NW, now contains Boardwalk Condominiums. The former Wolverine Brass Works building still is standing at 648 Monroe Ave. NW after nearly 120 years, now containing offices and retail space.
Some of the conversions to these and other buildings started around the late 1990s.
The neighborhood was relatively quiet for the next couple of decades, remaining the long-time home to some factories, auto shops and bars, lacking much residential space.
That’s now changed.
The area has seen more than $260 million in development over the past three years, at least $213 million of that since late last year.
Much of that development comes from large projects, one of the earliest being the $21.8-million 616 Lofts, which went into the 156,000-square-foot former Sackner Products Co. building at 820 Monroe Ave. NW and now contains multiple businesses, including City Built Brewing Company.
Dave Petroelje, co-owner of the brewery, said the location choice was a risk, considering the wide array of downtown options for customers, but he saw the area as up-and-coming.
The close proximity to downtown and cheaper rent price made the location — right across from the river — attractive compared to the few other options available for a brewery and restaurant, and he said it has worked well so far.
Petroelje said he’s looking forward to additional customers after next year’s completion of nearby apartment and hotel rooms, including 202 apartments in the new $53-million building at 601 Bond Ave. NW and the 250 rooms in the new $59-million Embassy Suites by Hilton at 710 Monroe Ave. NW.
Peter Beukema, Suburban Inns CEO, said his company had been eyeing the land for a few years before purchasing in 2013 for the Embassy Suites hotel. After focusing on a couple other projects, such as the new Hilton Garden Inn, at 2321 East Beltline Ave. NE in Grand Rapids, construction has made quick progress since breaking ground in early 2017.
Beukema saw the potential of that underused land across the street from a “gorgeous” walk along the river.
The most expensive project in the Monroe North neighborhood was the $88.1-million Michigan State University Research Center that opened last September at 155 Michigan St. NW.
Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which houses the DDA, said the university has said it plans to build on the adjacent parcel of land to the east on Michigan Street, as well as on 520 Monroe Ave. NW, though the exact use has yet to be seen.
Guy said the closed gate under the overpass at Bond Avenue NW and Hastings Street NW is on MSU property, and the school understands the desire to open the gate and is considering that possibility in future projects.
Diedre Deering, president of the Monroe North Business Association, said she enjoyed seeing three cranes within four blocks of the neighborhood over the summer while driving down the highway.
With new and future buildings facing the river from across Monroe Avenue, and with plans for public greenspace and a riverside trail extension, Guy describes Monroe North as an area with a lot of potential.
He said the recent developments are probably a bit “early for the party,” but they’re in the heart of what he believes will, one day, be a central downtown gathering center.
Work is slated to begin next year to restore the river’s rapids, which a recent study said could create a $5.7-million impact annually over the next 10 years.
“This neighborhood is going to be the front row seat to a restored, revitalized, active Grand River waterway where people are going to want to hang out,” Guy said. “I still don’t think we fully understand how transformative the river is going to be.”
Beukema sees this as a “game-changer.” With the hotel’s location across the street from the future rapids, he plans to include hotel amenities — yet to be announced — taking advantage of that business opportunity.
“People are going to want to come down here, and it's not just going to be residents from Monroe North; it's going to be residents from different neighborhoods in Grand Rapids,” Deering said. “People from the suburbs are going to come in.”
The city now owns the parcels at 511, 519, 525, 533 and 601 Monroe Ave. NW, which are slated to become green space containing a new event pavilion, plaza and terrace, according to River For All plans, a city of Grand Rapids project to develop six park sites around the river in conjunction with revitalizing the rapids.
The plan, which was created with community input, includes reconfiguring the river wall and constructing stairs to the water’s edge, according to David Marquardt, director of the Grand Rapids parks and recreation department.
He said the plan also includes a skate park underneath the I-96 overpass, meant to better connect the north side with the rest of downtown.
Deering said the overpass can cause an unintentional perceived divide between downtown and Monroe North, so she believes development and better lighting underneath would help.
Marquardt said the future park space will be used to access the river during the restoration project, which should take two to three years.
Because of that, this park’s development likely will be the final piece of the overall project, which he said could take four or five years.
Guy said this is all part of an overall plan to increase pedestrian friendliness and streetscapes in the area and better connect North Monroe to the Belknap area, including a new set of stairs on the hill and connecting trails.
As part of the project, the city currently is testing bike lanes on the small section of Division Avenue in Monroe North.
Guy said there is a push to extend the Monroe North sidewalk through to Ann Street and into White Pine Trail.
He said a lot of the connectivity work comes with increased housing construction at the top of Belknap Hill, some units hitting the $1-million mark.
The people up there do not have immediate access to some goods and services they might normally have in a city, so he said the desire is to connect those with disposable incomes to places on the ground where they can spend some of it.
As far as the USPS building at 225 Michigan St. NW, Guy said there has been talk about eventually wanting to convert that area into public space, and there even are long-term plans laid out for what that may look like. For now, though, the federal government owns it, and there are no plans in the foreseeable future for anything different, he said.
In the meantime, DGRI moved Movies on Monroe to the parcels this summer, in part to help acclimate attendees to another piece of the city. He said the new location gave attendees better access to businesses, which the former location lacked.
Deering said she hopes that exposure left an impression in visitors’ minds about activities in the area and will cause them to return.
Petroelje said City Built certainly had more traffic during the events and received business from many new customers.
Deering said there are several unoccupied buildings between Mason Street and Leonard Street waiting to be filled, which Guy believes will happen with no issue once future buyers realize the potential of the area.
She said the business association will continue promoting mixed-use developments and supporting businesses before and after moving in.
With the draw of the river and the future park, and also the area’s safety and cleanliness, Deering said promotion to businesses hasn’t been needed; they have just found their way and moved in.
“I think people know it's a great neighborhood,” she said.
Deering said she is looking forward to what she envisions as a future downtown destination.
Guy added: “If this economy stays on track and we break ground in that river, I think we’re going to see North Monroe only become increasingly attractive.”
Monroe North projects
Here are Monroe North’s completed and ongoing projects in the past three years, compiled from information from past Business Journal reports, developers and city officials.
Finished in the past three years
The Rowe (201 Michigan St. NW), $24 million — Revamp of the abandoned building formerly home to The Hotel Rowe, now 140,000 square feet containing a rooftop on the new 11th floor, one- and two-bedroom apartments and condos, and ground-floor retail space containing Atwater Brewery
616 Lofts (820 Monroe Ave. NW), $22 million — Renovation of four-story, 156,000-square-foot former Sackner Products Co. building to create 85 one- and two-bedroom apartments and 40,000-square-foot retail space containing City Built Brewing Company, Field and Fire, Fido and Stitch, CKO Kickboxing, Markant Office Furniture, Higher Ground Rock Climbing Centre and Women’s Lifestyle Magazine
Green Giftz (532 Ottawa Ave. NW) — Renovation of 6,000-square-foot office for company headquarters
Gray Skies Distillery (700 Ottawa Ave. NW) — 10,000-square-foot space
Finished in the past year
Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center (155 Michigan St. NW), $88.1 million — New six-story, 162,800-square-foot medical research center in the former Grand Rapids Press lot
The Homes at River’s Edge (1001 Monroe Ave. NW), $10.5-million — New five-story, 44,000-square-foot building containing 32 one- and two-bedroom apartments, 32 indoor parking spots and 3,500-square-foot ground-floor retail space containing Linear Restaurant
Zoko 822 (822 Ottawa Ave. NW) — Renovated building containing Basque-inspired, small-plates restaurant
Phoenix Society (525 Ottawa Ave. NW), $500,000 — Renovation of 5,000-square-foot space for nonprofit headquarters
601 Bond Ave. NW, $53 million — 205,000-square-foot, mixed-use building containing 202 one- and two-bedroom apartments, 4,000-square-foot retail space, rooftop deck, fitness center, lounge and 220 parking spaces, to be finished spring 2019
Embassy Suites by Hilton (710 Monroe Ave. NW) $59 million — 250-room hotel to include banquet and event space for 250 people, 488 parking spaces and first-floor Big E’s Sports Grill, to be finished summer 2019
Integrated Architecture (840 Ottawa Ave. NW), $2 million — Renovation of 13,600-square-foot vacant building, including a 10,000-square-foot parking lot, for the company’s new headquarters