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.