Monroe North’s untapped potential to produce leading edge medical and technology startups

Grand Rapids’ Monroe North is positioned to be THE hotbed of leading-edge technology startups –so why isn’t it the nucleus of incubator development?

The SmartZone on the west end of the Medical Mile stretches north of Michigan Street a few blocks. Within it and adjacent to it sit vacant buildings where researchers and technology gurus could be changing the world, creating jobs, drawing employees to the neighborhood to work and live, and investing millions in VC dollars.

The stage is set, the curtain is ready to open, but the show is far from ready.

The Planning Commission recently approved an Area Specific Plan — a three-year-long project launched and guided by the Downtown Development Authority — outlining the vision for pedestrian and transit access to and from the Medical Mile and to and from downtown, and a vision for public access to the river. The ASP also incorporates a vision for pedestrian access to nearby Belknap Lookout — where thousands of furniture craftsmen lived when the furniture factories buzzed with activity. Those workers, including my great-grandfather Henry Hoenicke who was a brass polisher and lived on Shirley St. NE, traversed the hill to and from work every day. The steep dilapidated stairway is still there near Division and Newberry (??), covered with brush.  That daily trek to and from med-bio and technology startups is totally feasible if access was available, making living in Belknap a prime residential option.

Admittedly, I haven’t done the research to find out if there are buildings designated as brownfields in addition to the upcoming Imperial Metals rehabilitation, but if there are it would be a tremendous boon to the district to get them cleaned up and rehabbed. If I had the money myself, this is one area I’d be watching very closely for economic development and I’d be rallying the city to open the area to the rest of the downtown and the hill.

But longtimers in the business district — Jack Buchanan who renovated the Brass Works Building and is tackling the Imperial Metals rehab, and Jim Zawacki, owner of Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping — don’t hold out much hope of attracting technology startups to the SmartZone — it’s been in existence for years and no one’s jumping on it. Zawacki’s take is that building owners don’t want to develop the incubators. Buchanan says a core issue is employee parking — there isn’t any. Perhaps the lack of interest is because of the parking issue — which is a definite problem and one not easily fixed.

Developing parking is nuts-o in the finance department. Suzanne Schulz of the city planning department told me recently that each space in a city ramp costs $20,000; a surface parking space costs $7,000. As I said, nuts-o.

With Boardwalk, Monroe Terrace, Landmark Lofts and Newberry Place, housing has  boomed and people are living in delightful urban neighborhoods close to the , downtown and parks. Icon on Bond sits empty — how sad for the neighborhood and the city. But there are galleries and pubs/eateries making a go of it — so I think the district is primed for technology startups to set up shop.

The way I see it, if developers don’t build some high-tech incubators in Monroe North soon, the window of opportunity will close.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Monroe North’s untapped potential to produce leading edge medical and technology startups

  1. Rizzo

    I agree…. but one thig that worries me is parking. Especially, when some downtowner’s expound that there is no parking problem. Automobile storage is by in large incompatible with Downtown. At some point it may threaten the vitality of it. That is if it hasn’t already.

    Parking is a problem. Whether it is perception to just insufficient supply — there is a situation here. However, I’d not like to experiment with parking as an economic driver. It will fail long term so long as land isn’t cheap and construction costs climb.

    In my research, about 30 percent of downtown employees live within four miles of the Central Business District. This is a distance which rail transit can be most cost effective and efficient to move those people.

    Imagine if upwards of 30% of downtown workers choose not to drive, because they would have access to high quality rail transit? Now imagine a company which yesterday had to build parking for its employees, because no concentration of high quality mass rail transit existed. Now all the sudden there is a link near your employees and suddenly you find yourself only having to build parking for the folks commuting out from the far suburbs.

    This would be a better long term investment then the continued pony up of 7,000-20,000$ per space. To me a better long term investment would be that rail link between Downtown and 3 miles outside of the city. You’d start attracting people away from parking downtown and leaving the auto for other uses such as another household worker or suburban errands.

  2. djw

    Hi Rizzo,

    Thanks for your comments. It’s an interesting concept you propose. Just a few months ago I fit into the demographic you speak of, living within three miles of my downtown office. I’ve transitioned to a home office now, so my commute is only 30 feet.

    Where do you envision the rail system running? Along what streets/corridors? Do you envision it linked to the proposed streetcar system?

    And if the BRT, which was assured millions in funding, failed, do you think a rail system would have community support? I don’t.

    While I’m intrigued with the concept, I’m guessing that by the time a plan, public buy-in, funding and construction all happened it could be a decade or more before anything is in place. Any idea what Monroe North might do in the meantime to fuel economic development? I mean, if there’s no employee parking for our auto-dependent society, and only a small amount of not very pedestrian-friendly pedestrian access from downtown and Belknap, and limited transit, what’s going to assure a business owner enough to invest millions and relocate employees to a space(s) down there?

    It’s so crazy that this SmartZone space is wasted — it’s a rare commodity in Michigan and we need to develop it if GR is to generate and attract a viable knowledge economy base and the young professionals that will keep the city going for the next generation of workers and families.

    A lot of needs, a lot of questions, for sure. No easy answers.

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