Imagine Muskegon Lake is in the works after 40 years of major cleanup efforts around Muskegon Lake. Courtesy Watermark Center
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Leaders in Muskegon are working to harness the full potential of an asset many say has been underutilized: Muskegon Lake.
The lake is being seen as a catalyst for future growth of downtown Muskegon, and multiple public and private entities are throwing full force at developing land off its southern shore.
This is happening after 40 years of major cleanup efforts following decades of environmental damage that started during the logging era in the 1800s.
“It’s really a time for renaissance and transformation,” said Dave Alexander, executive director of Downtown Muskegon Now, an economic development organization focused on downtown Muskegon.
“For those of us who have been around for a long time and watching it for decades, it’s about time.”
Through input from citizens and community leaders, the city has created a detailed 64-page plan of long-term goals for public property along the 4.6 miles of southern lakeshore.
That plan — Imagine Muskegon Lake — is in the works toward being approved as part of the city’s master plan, according to Muskegon City Planner Mike Franzak, who worked on compiling the plan.
Imagine Muskegon Lake
The key piece of Imagine Muskegon Lake involves better connecting downtown Muskegon to the lakeshore, which should only be minutes from each other on foot. Shoreline Drive runs in between the two, and lack of other roadways limits accessibility from one to the other.
Alexander foresees the future of downtown Muskegon being defined as the southern shore of Muskegon Lake, stretching from the current downtown area all the way to Pere Marquette Park.
He said connecting those areas to the waterfront is essential in making that happen.
A small piece of the plan already has been completed — laying a sidewalk between downtown and Shoreline Inn, which sits on Terrace Point Marina.
This already is seeing benefits, said Cindy Larsen, Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce president, because it allows and invites hotel guests to easily walk downtown and interact with businesses.
Another overall piece of the plan is maintaining deep-water ports throughout the lake to allow for continued commercial shipping and tourism.
Imagine Muskegon Lake separates the southern lakefront into six sections from the channel to Veterans Memorial Park, detailing plans for each section and how that will affect tourism in those areas.
From east to west, they include the Channel District, Bluffton District, Lakeside District, Western Waterfront District, Central Waterfront District and Port Innovation District.
Home to Pere Marquette Park, Channel District plans include additional festival grounds, expanded restaurant and retail space, and a possible non-motorized crossing over the channel to Muskegon State Park in North Muskegon.
The site of the former Sappi Paper Mill, Bluffton District plans include multiuse path connections and enhanced crossings between the Lake Michigan beach and Muskegon Lake.
Lakeside District plans include boardwalk lake overlooks and developing the former BP Oil site and adjoining properties near McGraft Park for uses such as a marina, kayak launch and trailhead.
In the Western Waterfront District, plans include new waterfront housing, a marina, a possible boulevard, a beach and a pier with a vista overlook. The vision for the existing Mart Dock includes transforming the area into a “transportation hub and destination center,” complete with waterfront residences, a water taxi stop and other docks, and reuse of former pier buildings as a new market.
The Central Waterfront District contains the majority of downtown. The plan there is to create a highly active area around Terrace Point Marina that includes residences and shopping. Other plans include additional mixed-use buildings and housing, docks and connections between several parks.
Plans for the Port Innovation District, home to the former B.C. Cobb plant, mainly include habitat restoration and improvements to Richards Park, including a boat launch and boardwalks.
Franzak said this plan is the ultimate vision of what residents would like to see, but how much of it happens depends on what investors are willing to contribute.
The plan does include three-year implementation strategies detailing how each district can begin moving toward those goals, as well as specific plans on how each district can improve roadways and ease of transportation.
Developments in the last year
Multiple long-term and smaller developments are in the works — besides $50 million in completed projects in the last year — around the lake, many of them in downtown Muskegon.
These private projects were taken into account in Imagine Muskegon Lake, though the projects themselves were not included because the work is already happening privately, Franzak said.
One large project is Windward Point, a development on the old Sappi Paper Mill site expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sitting on 120 acres of land, the development will include up to 750 residencies, including everything from low-cost apartments to mansions on the lake, said Alexander, who has worked on the plans with Pure Muskegon, a group of private investors planning the project, which he said could take 15 years to complete.
As previously reported, North Carolina-based Forsite Development is working to demolish the former B.C. Cobb power plant and convert the area into a deep-water marine terminal.
While these large projects are expected to generate a significant long-term economic impact, the many smaller projects are “drastically changing the Muskegon area,” according to Jon Rooks of Parkland Properties, who is in the forefront of developers whose work is generating economic growth in the area.
Several of those include residences that have “promoted their view of the water and their close proximity to downtown as the highlight feature,” he said.
Highpoint Flats, his company’s recently finished 47-unit apartment building — with some one-bedroom apartments priced as high as $1,250 — was sold out in a couple months.
And Terrace Point Landing, his company’s 70-lot community development on Terrace Point Marina, already is halfway to that same point.
Other developers are planning a $30-million community of 60 condos on Hartshorn Marina called Hartshorn Village.
Rooks said development downtown kicked off after the city created an easily walkable downtown entertainment district along W. Western Avenue.
“This entertainment district then created interest in downtown living, and this interest of downtown living is encouraging more people to invest in the area,” he said.
A few of the many other projects in the works include a $2.5-million Pigeon Hill Brewing Company production facility, a $15-million convention center, restaurants, and multiple housing and mixed-used buildings.
“There is a pent-up demand for downtown urban living,” Alexander said.
The Michigan State Housing Development Authority did a market analysis in 2015 showing Muskegon had an annual market potential over the following five years of at least 110 downtown apartments and up to 40 waterfront houses.
There weren’t new units constructed downtown in 2015, 2016 or 2017, Alexander said, so now that they’re being constructed, people are flocking in.
For now, Larsen said downtown businesses still are dependent on the tourism season.
“I think the businesses are excited about the amount of residential development because that’s very important for a year-round customer base,” she said.
Spreading the word
While having a lake that’s about 3.5 miles wide and 5 miles long was once perhaps seen as a burden during cleanup, Alexander believes it will be the source of a “staggering” economic impact.
He and other community leaders believe Muskegon is becoming a “waterfront downtown.”
Larsen said as new developments are being planned, buildings closer to the water are kept lower to the ground, while the “high rise” buildings are placed further into downtown.
“Everybody gets waterfront views.”
Larsen calls Muskegon a resort town with some of the “best fishing and sailing and boating in the country.” She said boaters have discovered they can spend a whole day on the lake, especially if they sail into the bays and the connected Bear Lake.
This year, she said there will be 37 fishing tournaments in the area.
“I think people have discovered that this is a great location where you can kind of have that resort lifestyle and still find a year-round job,” Larsen said.
Larsen said the chamber has prioritized living, not just visiting, in marketing materials.
She said Fatty Lumpkins Sandwich Shop, which is close to Hartshorn Marina, hosted a lunch for Hartshorn Village developers so workers could learn more about the area and better engage customers — who may be visitors considering a permanent move to Muskegon — about potential and opportunities.
Larsen said those types of establishments are some of the first places people visit when considering a move, so ensuring they have a good experience could be beneficial in the long run.
She said it will be important for businesses in the area to be aware of what’s coming for this reason, and she plans to generate talking points for them to use.
“Muskegon has the population, the resources and the ability to make Muskegon Lake into one of the biggest attractions on this side of Lake Michigan,” Rooks said.
“This is a huge driving force for our local economy because people want to be by and will pay more to be on the water, and Muskegon is a place with plenty of water.”
Projects recently finished
Terrace Flats (316 Morris Ave.), $1.7 million – 21 market-rate apartments in the upper two floors of Terrace Plaza
Highpoint Flats (285 W. Western Ave.), $7 million – renovations of a nine-story historic bank building to create 47 apartments above three floors of restaurant, retail and office space
Heritage Square Commons and Townhomes (Clay Avenue between First and Second streets), $7 million – includes multistory townhomes, condos, apartments and commercial space
Berkshire Senior Living (275 W Clay Ave.), $16 million – 84 senior subsidized and market-rate apartments and commercial space
Muskegon Community College Carolyn I. and Peter Sturrus Technology Center (388 W. Clay Ave.), $18 million – houses several of the college’s applied technology programs
Downtown Muskegon PetSafe Bark Park (793 W. Western Ave.), $100,000 – first public dog park in Muskegon County is seven-tenths of an acre and includes space for large and small dogs
Rad Dads Taco and Tequila Bar (470 W. Western Ave., Suite A) – restaurant opened inside L.C. Walker Arena
Lakeview Lofts (351 W. Western Ave.), $8 million – new six-story building to be completed this year includes 20 apartments and commercial space, including a restaurant yet to be named
Terrace Point Landing (on Terrace Point Marina), $14 million – 70-lot home community development
Liberty Building (880 First St.) – demolition underway for mixed-use development
Amazon apartments (550 Western Ave.) – conversion from low-income to market-rate apartments
Watermark Center (930 Washington Ave.), $33 million – next phase of the ongoing development includes 170 market-rate apartments
Pigeon Hill Brewing Company production facility (corner of Shoreline Drive and Fourth Street), $2.5 million
Hartshorn Village (at Hartshorn Marina), $30 million – 60 condos and rebuild of the clubhouse and pool
Convention center, $15 million – plans for 2019 construction adjacent to L.C. Walker Arena
Holiday Inn renovations (939 3rd St.) – in conjunction with convention center construction
Nipotes Italian Kitchen (98 W. Clay Ave.) – new Italian restaurant nearing construction
Lindberg Building (Pine Street and Clay Avenue) – former Al Perri Furniture building redeveloped for sale or lease
Lakeview Lofts phase two – second six-story, mixed-use building
Five-story building (292 W. Western Ave.), $10 million – office space on bottom two floors and condos above
Retail/residential building plans for Western and Jefferson
Mixed-used building on L.C. Walker Arena parking lot – possible five-story building for student housing